For much of my life February 14 meant Valentine’s Day. During childhood we would cover shoeboxes with construction paper and red hearts, cut a slit on top and arrive at school armed with the box and valentines for each kid in the class, our bellies primed for chocolate and sugar. (Except the day I had mumps when I stayed at home– so, so sad.) It was only as I began to write My Music Man when Valentine’s Day began to be overshadowed by Oregon’s birthday. And while even at this moment our state legislature weighs replacing the state song, Oregon my Oregon with its racist lyrics, February 14, 1859 remains the day our state officially became the 33rd state recognized within the United States of America. As we near February 14 of 2021, our lives and health still disrupted by the pandemic, it is impossible for me not to reminisce back to recent memories of this day. I am equally grateful and saddened by my memories of this day in 2020 and 2019.
It was on February 14, 2019 when I participated in the most noteworthy event connected with the release of My Music Man: an invitation to share my memoir stories at our Salem Capitol on Oregon’s birthday. No thoughts of viruses, physical distancing or closures then or on the horizon for most of us. It was a day I was introduced into the House Chamber where I stayed long enough to listen to Oregon Poet Laureate and friend Kim Stafford deliver a poem special to the day, soon followed by my own book talk in a hearing room. (When I was briefly recognized, I stood in the House Chamber opposite the mural that includes my great-great-great grandfather William Willson clad in gray coat, holding his secretary notes.)
Yet, it wasn’t simply any hearing room – this one happened to be adjacent to State Street, the official dividing line all those years before between my great-great-great-grandparents’ land claim. William Willson had promised 60% of this land claim to Willamette University. His wife, my great-great-great grandmother Chloe Clark Willson pushed back, arguing she legally owned half or 320 acres of it. Further, she insisted, she had never agreed to such an agreement, this married couple like others having doubled their acreage by securing another claim in their wives’ name. State Street separates today’s Capitol and downtown Salem from Willamette University (originally The Oregon Institute). It’s all a bit ironic to me as even at the time Chloe was the first teacher at the Institute, soon to be Willamette University, while William served as one of the trustees. I am thankful today I was able to have this never-to-forget opportunity a mere two years ago, a day in which I still remember imagining the spirits of my ancestors sending me a hurrah from somewhere beyond.
Yet it is my memory from last year, February 14, 2020, that fills me with more complex emotions, emanating sadness. For the two dear friends our community lost in 2020 were part of that day for me, one in person and the other clasped to my heart. I chose to release my e-book, Then, Now and In-Between: Place, memories and loss in Oregon virtually on this Oregon’s Birthday. At the time –no pandemics quite yet keeping us at home – it seemed odd to me to plan an in-person release for a virtual book. (I selected to offer the e-book format exclusively because of its many high resolution photos, creating what I believed to be a prohibitive print cost.) Besides, I felt exhausted having released three books in just over two years, sandwiched between a full-time job and other demands. I had decided to dedicate the book to Karen, a poet, nature lover and kind friend to everyone she encountered. (See This one’s for Karen.) We lost Karen only ten days before, not long after she had replied to the image I sent her of the book cover with the text “Perfect! Vanilla Leaf!” Karen, always an enthusiastic supporter of my writing. Because I planned to host my release as a short FaceBook Live event and had no idea if anyone might join me, I invited my dear friend and neighbor Kris to come over for coffee and to listen in. Only a few weeks after this both Kris and I would join family and friends in a memorial for Karen at Portland’s Old Church minutes before our lives were hit with stay home orders. While Kris makes a cameo appearance in the video, you can hear her in the background consoling my spouse on yet another mayor controversy. Then, we lost Kris in July. (See My dear friend.)