My home is nestled into the convergence of several ecosystems. To the north, the landscape wrinkles into rather barren looking foothills; their beauty has grown on me in the way they capture the long angles of early morning and late evening sunlight; they hoard the last of the sun’s bruised rays in crevices that resemble junctions of the body—groin, knee, armpit—casting a sensuous glow over the gently sloping hills. The further you penetrate those hills, the greater their abs, which push them upward toward the sky, inviting a hairy growth of trees and shrubs that inevitably ends at their bald, snow-draped and toothy, granite pates. It is usually those shaggy mountains, filled with mystery and danger that lure me from the comfort of my home.
But during April and May, the high country is mostly buried in snow or snow sliding into mud. So I point my searching nose in the opposite direction where the verdant oasis of river bottom land reaches south toward the vast open range and high desert country of Nevada and a corner of southern Oregon.
Idyllic and hardscrabble farms blanket the fertile floodplain south and west of town. There are mom and pop farms, relics of a bygone day; there are obsequious gentleman farms, subsidized by corporate paychecks and hired help; and there are whole sections at a time of agri-business, capitalizing on seed crops, alfalfa,beans,corn, potatoes, mint, hops, dairy cows, and even grapes for the newest agricultural upstart, the Snake River Appellation.
Horses abound, near town, they are sleek show horses and family pets. The deeper into the sage and the emptiness of BLM land you go, the more likely the prospect of stumbling into a herd of wild horses.
Now, in the heart of Owyhee country, the land begins to lift once again into low slung protrusions of rock, remnants of long ago volcanic activity that left quickly cooled lava, which hardened into basalt. Fingers of the Owyhee River meander through the rock, carving deep canyons and gorges in some places, and carrying rich sediment into lush valleys in other places. Parts of the Owyhee River lure serious boaters during an ephemeral season of Class IV and V whitewater. By the end of July, the water fades to a mossy trickle. Scattered hither and yon are spring blooms that would inspire van Gogh. These will be gone in a few short weeks. The history of this God-forsaken region is rich with myth and folk-lore. The name, Owyhee, is said to have come from a trio of hapless Hawaiian trappers who went into the region in search of furs and were never seen again.
The roads, by now all eroded dirt, lead upward, to a bench from which taller, mineral-rich mountains beckon in the distance on one side and on the other side drops off to miles and miles of flat sage scrub. It’s all earth and sky. It’s enough to make a person plumb dizzy.
Lore was my mother’s cousin. She lived in Germany, survived WWII and all the misery that preceded and followed that stain on humanity. In the aftermath, the family lost their home and many of their possessions, Lore cared for her devastated parents and severely injured brother, and witnessed the severing of her country into two angry parts: East and West. She was a force of life far greater than the events that conspired to bring the entire world to its knees.
Until I was about 25, Lore and the entire German side of the family were nothing more to me than strange names, onion-skin letters, and delectable holiday treats arriving in exotic tins and wrapped in endless cardboard and brown paper.
In 1978 my mother asked me to accompany her on her first visit to Germany since her family left in 1924. Lore was in her sixties when mother and I arrived like bedazzled orphans. Lore’s own mother was in her eighties. While Lore escorted mother and me on sightseeing excursions, her mother stayed home and joyfully prepared—in a kitchen not much larger than my bathroom—extravagant meals for gatherings of ten to twelve people. We talked until late into the night, catching up on 50 years worth of history, both the tragic and the triumphant. Well, I say we, but my grasp of the German language was so rudimentary that I understood only every tenth word. But I was enthralled to watch as my mother slid back into a language she had abandoned so many years earlier.
As each evening drew to a close, Lore would announce that it was time for “Punktion!” Lore’s Punktion was the exclamation point at the end of a sentence: chocolate—not a lot, but very good, dark, rich chocolate, perhaps only one square for each person—accompanied by a glass of red wine. This combination initially shocked me. But in short order, I came to appreciate how the creamy chocolate dissolves more eloquently when mixed with a sip of Cabernet.
After a round of Punktion, the rest of the family members bundled up and headed home. Lore offered her bed to my mother. Lore and I slept on the dining room floor. I remember collapsing onto my mat on the floor, exhausted by the strain of trying parse meaning from every tenth word, combined with a belly bloated from too much delicious food and endless glasses of wine, topped off by Punktion. I glanced at Lore, lying flat on her back, arms crossed over her chest like carefully staged corpse arms. We chatted amiably for a few minutes. Then she announced “Gute Nacht, meine Leibling (Good night, my dear.)” Her next breath was a soft kitten snore. It was about 1:30 in the morning. At 6 AM sharp, Lore rose from the floor like a Jack-in-the box released from its cage. “Guten Morgen, hast du gut geschlafen (Good morning, did you sleep well?)” And off she bounded to prepare coffee and breakfast, while I struggled to rub the sleep from my bleary eyes. We repeated this routine each night that we were guests in Lore’s home. Punktion, indeed!