When we first moved to Hermiston, Oregon, the neighborhood didn’t have any mature trees or shrubs, pheasants and quails nested in the field behind the house. There were several empty lots waiting for owners to pick out house plans. The stop sign in front of our house wasn’t even a four-way because there was no road running along the eastside of the house.
We moved here because I was working as the bureau reporter for a Washington State paper. Our youngest daughter spent her last two years of high school at Hermiston High because she was so involved in their Campus Life program and most all her friends went to school here and not in Pendleton like her brother and sisters had done.
Since moving into this house, I have written two social political commentary books, one true crime and three novels, and thousands of essays. Every time I drive by a Little Library in town, I think of the work I did with Angela Purcell and Pam Bateman Cooper and Jacelyn Keys and many others who served on Altrusa’s Literacy Committee. We worked hard to encourage the citizens of Hermiston to become avid readers. We hosted some of the nation’s leading authors – Charles Martin, Michael Morris, Michele Smoak Stone, Jane Kirkpatrick, etc. – and pulled together top-notch presentations to discuss issues like child neglect, foster care, immigration, DACA, and the power of the compassionate.
When my friend David Moses, a lost boy of the Sudan, visited me here after a tour of duty in Iraq, the entire church congregation stood and thanked him for his service with their applause. They did the same for my dear friend Sarah Thebarge when she shared her story of the Somalia family she met on a Portland train. People stopped me in the stores and in the restaurants to tell me how much they loved Sarah’s book The Invisible Girls.
It was not uncommon for folks to share with me some quote they remembered from some column I wrote for the local paper, a column that they stuck in their Bibles, or on their refrigerator because it spoke to them at a time they needed it.
The people at Starbucks know me by name and they know which drinks I prefer in the summer and which ones I prefer in the winter.
My husband Tim can’t go to the grocery store without having a 30 minute discussion with some former student about something. “Are you Mr. Z’s wife?” is the question I get asked most often around these parts. Everyone who ever worked alongside him, tell me my husband is the hardest working teacher in the school. There isn’t anything Tim wouldn’t do to help others in need.
For several years of writing life, I worked to include the names, if not the stories, of Ethan and Sara McDonald, our neighbors, in my books. I did it for fun and to honor them. We watched as Sara went through her pregnancy and then gave birth to Ryker, who is now student body president at Armand Larvie Middle School. Such a fine, fine boy he is. Mostly because he has the best of parents. Ethan performed the wedding ceremony when our own daughter Konnie got married. I wrote out the ceremony for Ethan. He did a fabulous job and had us all laughing through our happy tears.
There have been a lot of stories swapped in the house. A lot of songs sung. It was here in this house, several Christmases ago, that Tim and I learned we would become grandparents for the first time. And it was here in this house, five years ago, that we got the call on Christmas Day, that we had best hurry to Seattle because Mama was dying.
It was here in this house where the kids gave their father a Beagle puppy for Father’s Day. That dog lived up to the full potential of his registered name – Poe Edgar Raving Mad – when he leaned in one late summer day and bit my nose nearly completely off. It’s a horrifying funny story now but it wasn’t then. Then it was simply horrifying. It was Sara who opened her front door to find my face covered in blood as she hollered at Ethan: “I’m taking Karen to the hospital.” This week, I took Poe to the doggy hospital, where they administered a shot that relieved him of the tumors growing in his neck, his belly. Poe wasn’t his old self any longer but he still liked to eat and he still liked to ride in the car with the window cracked open, his long snout sniffing out his surroundings. That, I think, should be reason enough to go on living. As conflicted a relationship as I had with Poe, I didn’t make it back to the car before I broke out into the ugly cry, the heaving kind. I’ve had to fight it back every day since.
Good dogs and good neighbors are so hard to come by.
Good friends even more difficult.
I’ve had a goodly share of both.
When I was working in North Carolina and Tim fell sick with what was wrongly diagnosed as a brain tumor, my friend Terry St. Hilarie rushed over to care for him. She brought him comfort foods and words of encouragement until family could arrive. She did this numerous times, answered my calls of panic over one thing or another. A sick husband. A washing machine flooding. A mother dying. A sister with cancer. Just the stress of daily living. Terry always responded with words of encouragement, thoughtful prayers and just somebody to sit in the dark with me.
Oh, and when Mama died. The people around this community, they came. They called. They sent cards. They brought me hugs. They brought me flowers. They shared their own stories of their mamas with me. We held hands. We cried together. We prayed for one another.
This house has been filled up with laughter and prayer. The walls have been washed with tears of joy and frustration. Speaking of those walls, they have held the creations of some of my most cherished artists – Brandy Dayton, Stacey Howell, my own mother and my own daughter. These walls have been painted navy and tan, yam gold and sky blue. I changed the paint colors almost as often as I did the bed sheets. “Your home looks like a museum,” was a common refrain of people admiring the artwork.
Beauty inspires me.
After Mama died, I planted roses. Some were from her very own garden.
The three lilac trees in the backyard were a Mothers Day gift from my three daughters. Tim dug up Mama’s roses but we can’t take the lilacs with us.
Tonight is the last night Tim and I will spend in our Hermiston home.
I am living in the juxtaposition between the memory of the life lived and the anticipation of the life yet to come.
We are moving Saturday to a new town – Redmond, Oregon.
Redmond is just north of Bend. Central Oregon is home to soaring mountains and rushing rivers and music and art and Indie bookstores and several places of higher learning. There are lovely city parks and all the outdoor life anyone could ever want. There are friends there, too, friends we made in other places we lived. In the summer, the air is scented with the pine sap of my youth. There is kayaking in the river right smack dab through the middle of town.
And there is family there.
And another daughter not too far away, though the one daughter in Washington and her boys will be even further yet, and that makes me hurt in deep ways.
There comes a time when you realize that for all the good that has been in one place, no place is worth living in without cherished family nearby.
We are at that place. We’ve been at that place for awhile now.
God impressed upon me last year that the winter of 2016 – a terrible winter in a multitude of ways – would be our last in Hermiston. I wasn’t sure then where the next part of our story would unfold. And there is still much uncertainty about our lives, daily. But this one thing I trust – God’s goodness. It has followed us everyday of our married lives and I am confident His presence will continue to be our one true abode.
Thank you to all who have befriended us along the way, here in Hermiston and elsewhere around the county and country, too. You matter to us. Please come visit in Redmond. We have a guest room set up just for you. There will be good wine to drink. Beauty to surround you. Hugs to welcome you. And, as always, new stories to swap.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of CHRISTIAN BEND (Mercer University Press).