Over a recent four-day weekend, a group of cousins ranging in age from three to 55, along with family members in their 60s and 70s and one intrepid 90 year-old, assembled in Portland, Oregon to witness one of their own graduate from college.
If you’re a fan of the show Portlandia, you probably know that Portland has its quirks and its institutions.
making it a fun place to hang out with a group. Among our group were our Boston-based esteemed travel companions Deb, Tommy and Nell, last seen in Chicago, where we contemplated the roads not taken.
True to his nature, our first morning in Portland, Tommy went out on an early morning doughnut and coffee run. The bacon-topped maple bars were a hit. Deb’s famous iPad was commandeered by Nell and Daughter #1 who, immediately upon seeing each other, compared notes on the courses they will be taking when they start high school next fall. More self-assured since last year, they quickly caught each other up on the trends at their respective schools on opposite coasts, dismissing the banal and celebrating the edgy. They spent much of the rest of the weekend watching episodes of Dr. Who, their latest obsession.
When you stay in a hotel with a big group of people, the gathering can take on a frat house-like atmosphere.
The girls unpacked,
we did some touristy stuff
and ended up on the floor of one of our hotel rooms late that first night, devouring chicken wings from Pok Pok,
while the girls and their twin male cousins, about to graduate from fifth grade and thrilled to be hanging out with their older, more sophisticated kin, watched Dr. Who. The three-year-old was the only one with enough sense to eat lightly and get some sleep. He took advantage of his freshness the next morning and held several bleary-eyed grownups hostage in the hotel lobby in a jail made from couch cushions.
Awake too early, bloated from late-night eating and not yet in receipt of Deb’s “Come up, we have coffee” text, I lay in my hotel bed and started reading Meg Wolitzer‘s new book, The Interestings. It’s about a group of friends who meet at an arts camp in the summer of 1974, when they are 15, and follows the twists and turns of their lives, until the present day, when they are in their fifties.
Was this a case of life imitating art or art imitating life?
The first chapter was perfection: the awkward, uncertain girl, invited to join a group of cooler, more sophisticated, talented peers. The urgency of the late night talks in the teepee. A first kiss that was all wrong. I was blown away by Meg Wolitzer’s ability, not only to summon reservoirs of feeling and memory within me from when I was 15, but also to demonstrate that some experiences transcend time. The feelings you have when life is on the verge of becoming interesting are the same, whether you are in a teepee in 1974 or on an iPad in a hotel room in 2013.
I couldn’t wait for Daughter #1 to wake up, so she could read the first chapter and recognize herself and her burgeoning awareness of the larger world she is about to join. “Just read the first chapter,” I urged. But of course, she kept going.
“Listen to what the book says about needy girls and attention,” I called out to D#1 and D#2. “Girl drama is nothing new.”
I couldn’t wait to tell Deb about The Interestings over our morning coffee, though I wasn’t surprised that she had already read it. She liked it, she told me, but she didn’t love it, because she felt the interpersonal relationships were not fully developed. That said, Deb admitted she couldn’t put it down.
It occurred to me that then, as now, Deb probably listened to cooler music than I did and was naturally one of the “interestings,” whereas I, then and only occasionally now, was on the outside peeking in. I can’t deny that I felt a kinship with Meg Wolitzer. After all, both of us wrote books that include the apocryphal story of Mama Cass choking to death on a ham sandwich.
That day, our college graduate and his roommates hosted a barbecue for family and friends. Their house which,the last time I saw it, could have been immortalized in the Smithsonian for its depiction of slovenly college living (I was amused then to find a copy of Martha Stewart Living amidst the squalor, the last remnant of a roommate who had moved on to cleaner pastures) had been cleaned up surprisingly well.
The guests included an array of 50 and 60-something parents, who had made various accommodations to the aging process. Some of the men had pierced ears, some wore the classic sports jackets of tuition-payers, one was in biking gear. The lovely women, mothers, step-mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and cousins, seemed more at ease with their wardrobe choices . One of them proudly directed us to the Special K treats she had whipped up in her hotel room, a favorite childhood snack of the now 21-year-old college graduate she had helped raise.
The couch was enveloped in a haze of smoke. Draped on its cushions and arms was an array of beautiful youth who could have been in a Colors of Benetton ad.
Daughter #1 and Nell remarked derisively, “Look at all these hipsters! Do you see what they’re wearing?”
“I’m not going to live like this when I’m in college,” D #1 declared with the certainty of a 14 and 1/2-year old. “My house will be clean!”
“No need to wait till you move out,” I retorted, with the not-so-veiled sarcasm of a 51-year-old.
Jeff and I moved through the cloud of smoke to enjoy conversations with the current and recent college graduates, many of them painters or performance artists. The musicians were about to embark on a national tour with their band, which had just been signed to a record label (Minivan mom that I am, I was disappointed that they would be traveling in a Honda Odyssey, instead of a tricked-out bus).
Later, we sampled the famed Portland food truck fare, once again late at night on someone’s hotel room floor. I felt my age the next morning at the All-You-Can-Eat hotel breakfast buffet, as I made a beeline for the oatmeal. I felt it again, as I dressed for the graduation ceremony and made the ill-considered decision to borrow Daughter #2′s Katy Purry perfume.
It’s nice that parents of my era try to bridge the generation gap. I’m sure the sweet smelling women from my past would have appreciated the scentiment but would have made a different choice.
As the weekend unfolded, Deb and I dutifully took photos and managed to upload a few onto Facebook in almost realtime, saving the bulk of our “sharing” for when we got home and had had a chance to recover. We were no match for our three daughters, who posted each experience on Instagram within seconds.
All the while, Meg Wolitzer was providing a slideshow of my life: Watergate, AIDS, Moonies, student loans, Chicken Marbella, crime-ridden New York, crime-free New York, lack of money, more money and many heartfelt conversations. Her characters were coming to terms with leading small lives or big ones.
As if that weren’t enough nostalgia, I had recently reconnected on Facebook with two old friends from high school. “Your turn,” one of them messaged me. “The past thirty years: Go!” Another summoned up a long forgotten memory of a powerful exchange that had occurred between us. “Thank you,” she told me. “It felt good to know that someone noticed I was suffering and cared enough to say something.”
When Daughters #1and #2 grapple with self-esteem or despair about the future, I tell them they are like an interesting book, with one chapter building on the next. I was reminded of this as I surveyed the family and friends assembled to celebrate our graduate, who had come of age in nearly every decade of the past 75 years.
You can’t always know, the graduation keynote speaker reminded us, which jobs will lead you toward your future career, which relationships will stick or which conversations will end up being a turning point in someone’s lives.
You just have to keep your compass pointed towards your own version of true north.
Luckily, Jeff gets to regularly relive his halycon college days, due to the state of our refrigerator, which is often bursting with rotting produce. Living with me reminds him of living with his roommate Jordy and the “name that spugeom” game they used to play to identify the refrigerator specimens they unearthed.
This weekend I undertook my semi-annual fridge cleaning and had fun cooking with the salvageable produce I found, as well as the new bounty I purchased at our neighborhood Farmer’s Market.
With the green garlic, asparagus and morels I purchased, along with the remnants of blue and other cheeses I found in the fridge, I made Asparagus and Wild Mushroom Bread Pudding from Deborah Madison’s wonderful book Local Flavors, cooking and eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets. Here’s the recipe, which also appears on Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle website.
- ‘The Interestings,’ by Meg Wolitzer (nytimes.com)