Chuck wearing a skiing hat

Skiing to School

Audrey Thompson




Earlier this summer, Ellen and Judith came to dinner bearing gifts for Gaston. People try to give gifts to Harley, but she is too shy to take them and anyway Gaston claims them all for himself. Gaston is not shy. He was extremely pleased to see Judith and Ellen and delighted with his gifts. He loves visitors and takes them all personally.

Gaston with one of his gifts
Gaston with one of his gifts
Judith and Ellen outside the Red Iguana
Judith and Ellen outside the Red Iguana

Gaston is like my father that way. When Ivan and I visit Mom and Dad, Dad says to Ivan, “Thank you for visiting me,” leaving Mom to acknowledge her own visitors, should she have any. Like Dad, Gaston is very social and rather kingly, in a boisterous way. When the little girls next door come over to pay Gaston homage, he basks graciously in his well-deserved attention. The back yard will be a veritable circus, with four or five of the girls trying to amuse and pet Gaston, and Maisie, who is two, lying on top of him. Through it all, Gaston will be regally calm. This always comes as something of a surprise to Ivan and me because normally Gaston is not calm at all. There was a hurricane called Gaston and it was not misnamed.

Gaston accepting stone offerings from Rayn and Kanyon
Gaston accepting stone offerings from Rayn and Kanyon

With Ellen and Judith here, Gaston got his usual disproportionate amount of attention, but Judith also had business to discuss. Over dinner, she asked Ivan what it was like to live in Champaign-Urbana. Judith is thinking of getting her doctorate there, although secretly Dolores and I expect Judith and Ellen to come to the University of Utah for their doctorates. I even have dessert planned for the next time they come over for dinner. Right now Ellen and Judith live in Monterey; if they don’t move to Salt Lake City, dessert may be a while.

Champaign-Urbana
Champaign-Urbana
Monterey
Monterey
Salt Lake City
Snow Downtown Salt Lake
The Alfred McCune Mansion Salt Lake Public Library
The Pollyanna Apartments

Having already asked me what I thought about Champaign-Urbana, Judith approached Ivan for a more objective opinion. Ivan said it was cold as all get-out in the winter although not, naturally, colder than North Dakota or Buffalo. “How far is it from St. Louis?” Judith asked. Ivan described exactly how far it was not only from St. Louis, but Springfield, Peoria, and Effingham. “You didn’t mention how far it is from Shumway,” I pointed out. “That’s because I don’t know how far it is from Shumway,” Ivan said agreeably. “I have never heard of Shumway.” This is a filthy lie. I told him all about Shumway years ago.

Anyone can find Shumway on the web. I don’t have a photo of Shumway, but if you yourself happen to have one and will submit it to the website, they promise you that thousands of people will see it. You might want to be a little dubious about that. I don’t know where those thousands of people are going to come from. Shumway is a small farming community about 10 miles from Effingham, with a population of 215; other than those 215 people, where are they going to find people interested and knowledgeable enough to look up Shumway on the web? Then again, I looked it up and I am not even from Effingham.

The reason I know about Shumway is that I have been there. Mrs. Clancy’s family is from Shumway. Her parents used to have a farm down there, and most of her brothers and sisters and their kids lived there. When the Clancys lived in Peoria, they would go visit their cousins in Shumway. One afternoon, Kevin, Tim, and Terry Clancy were walking along a Shumway road when a car pulled up and a man leaned out to ask directions. “Sorry, sir, we can’t help you,” Kevin told him, explaining confidingly, “we are just tourists here like yourself.”

When I was about fourteen, I posed as a Shumway tourist. The Clancys and I pretended that I was a visitor from France who spoke no English. In spite of the France-Shumway language difference, we all managed to have a great time, and the Clancy cousins were very nice to me. They believed deeply in my Frenchness and when, eventually, I ended the hoax by suddenly speaking English, they at first assumed that I had simply caught on to English. Although this is not the most embarrassing thing I have ever done, I pretend that it is.

Recently, I ran across some old letters Chuck had written me, in one of which he told about his own visit to Shumway. “Everyone was really nice and I really fit in,” the letter began. Kevin Clancy was one of the few people we knew who was as eccentric as Chuck, so this fitting-in business may well have been true. Still, it is worth noting that Chuck does not always have a keen grasp of reality. When we were visiting Mom and Dad last month, Chuck told me that one of his most useful traits is that he is nondescript. “No one knows who I am or even whether I am there or not,” said Chuck. Being in effect invisible, he claimed, “I can do whatever I want.”

Chuck teaching Annika to be nondescript in 2004
Chuck teaching Annika to be nondescript in 2004
Kevin in 1973
Kevin in 1973

I can’t help thinking that the explanation for why Chuck hasn’t gotten in trouble for skipping office meetings is something other than “We never even knew he existed.” Anyone who has met Chuck will tell you that he is pretty hard to miss, except, of course, when he is not there. So distinctive is Chuck that I was frankly surprised to discover that he is not unique. Last January, Chuck sent me a doctored photo of myself with a small quail perched on my shoulder and a giant quail in front of me.  Then, in August, at an antique store in Peoria, I found a postcard featuring Mount Rushmore topped by a giant pheasant.  Evidently, the oversized bird motif has seemed like a good idea to more than one person this century.

Audrey and the giant quail Mt. Rushmore and the giant pheasant

When I told Mom about Chuck’s self-assessment as nondescript, I assumed that she would see the absurdity of it. Chuck is more or less a space alien, albeit a very sweet, loving space alien. “I know what he means,” she said serenely. “He probably got it from me. I am nondescript myself and so I always fit in. No one knows or cares if I am there. It is a great advantage. No one makes you do anything.”

Mom incognito in wig, pretending to be an old lady (with Audrey and Barbara, 1974)
Mom incognito in wig, pretending to be an old lady
(with Audrey and Barbara, 1974)

Although it is true that no one makes her do anything, it is not because Mom is nondescript. It is because it is too risky. Mom volunteers at her church by answering the phone; the other day when someone called to get information, they said, “I may need to call back later; will you be there all day?” “Till the bitter end,” she said.

Mom teaching Annika to sing and dance to raunchy Brazilian carnival lyrics
Mom teaching Annika to sing and dance to raunchy Brazilian carnival lyrics

The post-Shumway letter from Chuck explains that he and Kevin explored the whole farm and then went back to the house where “everybody and I mean everybody played hide and seek.” This is interesting even if it only refers to humans; in our family, the parents and grandparents did not play hide and seek. However, it appears that by “everybody,” Chuck also may have meant the animals. The primary beings mentioned in the letter, other than Kevin, are a kitten, a bull, sheep, and cows. Chuck took pictures of all of them, he reports in the letter. His idea for taking pictures of the sheep was to get them to chase him and then jump over the fence.

This particular letter of Chuck’s was strong on events. Most of his other letters in the teenage years were heavy on bowling scores.

Perhaps that is not all that surprising. In Peoria, there is not that much to do. Not that we were actually in Peoria most of the time. Most of the time, we were in Chillicothe. In Chillicothe, bowling counted as a sport. Every Friday, for P.E., we went to the bowling alley. For Chillicotheans, Peoria was “the city,” and people would talk about going there the way people somewhere else might talk about going to Chicago.

This August, I played tourist and took a few pictures of Peoria. Other than the river, there is not a lot to take pictures of, although I did discover a railroad turntable pit I hadn’t known about, on Morton Street. It’s not as impressive as the Erie Railroad Turntable, but it was still exciting to see.

Murray Baker Bridge Murray Baker Bridge
railroad turntable
American Bank, formerly the 1st National Bank Trees and the river

The best things about Peoria are the river, the sailboats, the trees, and the trains.

Mom Mom at the Ivy Club in Peoria, waiting for a sailboat
Mom Mom at the Ivy Club in Peoria, waiting for a sailboat

Still, there are nice rivers and sailboats and trees and trains other places, too. Many Peorians do not believe this. When Barb, Chuck, and I were young, our family lived in Germany and Switzerland, near the Rhine and Lac Léman. Every other summer, we would visit Peoria on home leave; Peorians were impressed that we could bear up so stoically between visits. “Isn’t it nice to be back in civilization?” people would say. “What do you mean?” we would ask. “You know,” they would explain, “with cars and refrigerators and not having to ski to school and speak Swedish?”

Lac Léman
Lac Léman

Skiing to school
Skiing to school

Audrey (center) in kindergarten in Germany
Audrey (center) in kindergarten in Germany

When I was visiting Cris and Stephanie this past spring, Cris happened to mention my having grown up in Switzerland. “Wait a minute,” said Stephanie. “You lived in Switzerland? I thought that was just a charmingly amusing conceit, your ’Switzerland’ writing persona — you know, ’Switzerland’ in quotation marks. I didn’t think you really lived there.”

Meli, Alicia and Don’s daughter, does the best air quotes.

Air quotes
Switzerland

We lived there for nine years. Dad was one of Caterpillar’s first overseas service reps; we were sent to Worms am Rhein for four years and Geneva for nine. In addition to international banks, upscale shops, fancy restaurants, parks, monuments, Calvin’s church, the U.N., and a few other attractions, Geneva had cars and refrigerators. At the time we lived there, there was a good exchange on the U.S. dollar and we were able to buy not only a refrigerator of our own but, eventually, a used turquoise Dodge Dart station wagon.

Growing up in Switzerland with modern appliances
Growing up in Switzerland with modern appliances
The Dodge Dart
The Dodge Dart

When we first moved to Switzerland, we didn’t know how to ski, so we sledded to school. Before long, though, we were skiing to school, church, and the grocery store. Actually, we didn’t go to church. We started out going to church but Mom says that I was embarrassed to be missing so much Sunday school because of all our weekend skiing and that I gave her and Dad an ultimatum. “Either we go to church every Sunday or we go skiing every Sunday; I don’t want to alternate,” Mom claims that I said. I wield an enormous amount of power in my family. The very next weekend, we went skiing and never went to church again.

Chuck, Barb, and Audrey learning to sled
Chuck, Barb, and Audrey learning to sled
Barb learning to ski
Barb learning to ski

When Dad was transferred to Peoria in the early seventies, few of the people we knew there drank wine, so Mom carried a goat-skin flask over her shoulder filled with Gallo Hearty Burgundy. Originally she had bought the flask to take on the ski slopes, in the hypothetical event of an avalanche or delayed lunch, but in Peoria she wore the goatskin flask to the swimming pool. People would ask her what was in the flask and she would say, “Kool-Aid”; people believed her, or pretended to. My mother’s idea of fitting in is to do what she wants and then lie about it so that everyone is happy.

Three years or so after we moved to Peoria, we met Evie. Evie was about seventy years old when we first knew her and an Old Peorian of impeccable lineage. At home in any company, she was a happy woman and supremely sanguine. Whatever your idea was as to what should be done about something, Evie would take it in stride. “We do what we do,” she would confirm happily. She dressed in the finest clothes Chicago had to offer and she walked like a cowgirl in high heels. One of her favorite people among our circle of friends was David Schaer, who had gone to high school with Chuck in Chillicothe. “David,” she would say confidentially, “are we thinking about ice cream?” Usually, David was, and usually Evie was, so then we would all drop whatever we were doing and go get ice cream.

David (on left) with Chuck and Jim, at Chuck and Phyl’s wedding (Chuck looking nondescript in the middle)
David (on left) with Chuck and Jim, at Chuck and Phyl’s
wedding (Chuck looking nondescript in the middle)

Once, when Barb, David, and Ivan and I were visiting Evie, she decided to take us to lunch at the country club. “You’ll have to wear jackets,” she said to Ivan and David. Not only did Ivan and David not have jackets with them but they didn’t own any. “The club will fix us up,” she said happily. The country club provided Ivan and David with comically ill-fitting jackets. David admired his loaner all afternoon. “This is the best jacket I have ever worn,” he said. Ivan did not say anything about his. He does not care for jackets.

In Louisville, my father had a pea-green sports coat. It was the ugliest jacket he had ever owned. We told him so. “But it’s comfortable! It feels just like a sweater!” he said. As if this could alter the facts.

Evie adored Mom and Dad and thought that everything they did was perfect. Dad could wear pea-green jackets every day of the year, as far as Evie was concerned. “Don’t we have fun!” she said.

Evie with Dad, Mom, Audrey and Ivan
Evie with Dad, Mom, Audrey and Ivan

This picture of Evie was taken when Ivan’s and my wedding photographer told my grandmother, “I need you outside for a picture with the wedding party.” “No,” said Grandma. She didn’t like being told what to do. “I’ll go!” said Evie. Evie loved being in the thick of things.

Grandma and Audrey
Grandma and Audrey

Evie was very appreciative of my parents’ Continentalism, what with the Italian and French dinners, red wine served with every meal, and the invariable dessert of orange sherbet soaked in cognac, which my mother served in little orange-shaped plastic containers with orange plastic lids that you could lift with the piece of green plastic vine attached to them. Mom was an excellent cook but unless I baked something, there was never any dessert other than orange sherbet. Not caring for dessert herself, Mom gave it only the most cursory attention. Evie was delighted with whatever Mom made, including the sherbet. It was not the kind of thing that Old Peorians ever served, or New Peorians either, for that matter.

For Christmas one year, Evie decided to buy Mom and Dad a silver wine coaster. She was disappointed that all the bottle coasters they showed her at Potter and Anderson’s Jewelers looked so small. In the end, the clerk found her a wine coaster sized for a magnum, so she bought that, but she was dubious. “Will it fit?” she asked Mom and Dad doubtfully. “I don’t think they really know about wine at Potter and Anderson’s. They didn’t know you could get wine in bigger bottles.” “That’s probably because no one makes sterling silver wine coasters for five-gallon jugs of Hearty Burgundy,” Dad agreed.

I didn’t learn anything about wine till I moved to Salt Lake City and attended the then-annual wine tasting events that some of the students and faculty in the department put on. You paid fifteen dollars and got to taste a variety of wines disguised in paper bags. Some of the bottles of wine cost five dollars and some cost fifty. You were supposed to rate them without being able to see the bottles. What I learned about wine was that I have cheap taste. As we moved up the scale to the more expensive wines, Suzanne and I would wrinkle our noses and say, “Yuck. French, do you think?” “That’s the fifty-dollar bottle,” Harvey would say. Suzanne and I felt very lucky to like the $7 bottles best. It showed some taste, but not too much.

Last spring, Wanda had us go to a wine-tasting fund raiser in Champaign-Urbana. Donna, Cris, and I went through the line together. I thought that the Argentinian Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine I don’t usually like much, tasted unusual and interesting. “What would you say that this tastes like?” I asked Cris. “Fish,” she said. “Oh,” I said. I don’t like fish. Waiting till we got back up to the tasting counter to try the next wine on the list, I asked the woman behind the counter how she would describe the Cabernet Sauvignon. She tried it. She reflected. “Blackberry,” she said. We waited. “With a brine overlay,” she added. “Brine,” said Cris with satisfaction. “It sounds much better than ’fish,’ but it means fish.”

Cris (with Frank and Stephanie) sticking with sparkling water
Cris (with Frank and Stephanie) sticking with sparkling water

My sister doesn’t like fish either; I assume that it has something to do with our having grown up in Europe, where one is served whole fish with dead eyes. It is pretty eerie, especially since you may have looked that same fish in the eye when you walked past the aquarium at the front of the restaurant. My parents pooh pooh this theory. “You and Barbara always loved fish. Always. It is only now that you don’t, we don’t know why,” they say. “You always used to.” When we lived on the quai de Cologny, one of the locales where we supposedly loved fish, I distinctly remember that Barb and I sat at the dinner table for over two hours while we slowly choked down our crab dinner, or most of it. Barb raced off to the bathroom at regular intervals. I remind Mom and Dad of this. They don’t remember it at all, they assure me. When I was a child, they say, I loved fish. Something must have happened. Ivan’s dad had this same parental refrain. When Ivan had to have oral surgery many years ago, his Dad insisted on coming to the hospital. When the surgeon came out to talk to us, George told him angrily — all the while glaring at me — “His teeth were FINE when I raised him!” Either the surgeon was doing this expensive work on false pretenses or I had ruined Ivan’s teeth.

Kelly, Ivan, and Naomi in the good old days
Kelly, Ivan, and Naomi in the good old days

When talking about Gaston, Ivan and I sometimes say accusingly, “He was fine when I raised him,” but we are just kidding. Gaston has always been Gaston, regardless of anything we could do. There was really no question of raising him; it was merely a question of adapting, even when he was a baby. Later, when we got Pearl, we found out that you are supposed to keep new cats in a separate room at first so that they can slowly acclimate. There would have been no sense in doing that with Gaston, even if we’d known about it. He was fully at home from the start. “Thank you for visiting me,” he would tell Trillin and Harley. This did not go over well with the resident sovereign.

When Gaston first arrived, Harley was alarmed and Trillin treated him with regal aloofness. Being constitutionally oblivious, Gaston kept greeting them both with the kitten equivalent of “Hey ya!” and Trillin more or less ignored him until he made himself welcome on the Morris chair that she and Harley shared. Even then, Trillin remained dignified, but you could tell that she was not amused. There was queenly displeasure, but also that “What the?!” expression that cats’ ears do so well: “We would be outraged if we even believed that this is happening.” As usual, Gaston was at the center of things, oblivious and happy, while Harley was hoping things would not get out of hand.

Trillin looking like Queen Victoria on a difficult day
Trillin looking like Queen Victoria on a difficult day

Last week, we had two new arrivals — Neko, a beautiful 12-week-old Lynx-Burmese kitten, and his 9-week-old foster sister, whom we called Evie. Like her namesake, Evie is blissfully confident. She is lanky, feminine, and a tiny bit princessy. She has aplomb, or as Mom would say, “great apomp.” Nothing fazes her.

Neko and Evie
Neko and Evie
Gaston with Evie
Gaston with Evie

Despite some initial growly irritation, Gaston is thrilled. It is not every day that you meet a two-pounder who can take on the world, including heavyweights like himself. Gaston, who is 16 months old now, is a very big boy and still growing. One day Corey, who lives downstairs, had a friend over; the friend looked out into the back yard and said, “I hate to tell you this, Corey, but there is a mountain lion in your back yard.” Corey went to the window and looked. “That is not a mountain lion,” he told his friend. “That is only the cat from upstairs.”

Like Gaston, Evie does not need to acclimate because she fits right in. Wherever Evie and her sweet pal Neko are, is a good place for Evie to be. Don’t we have fun! she says. She knows Harley will acclimate to her in time.

When Judith and Ellen move here, they will fit right in. Maybe some parts of Salt Lake will have to acclimate to them, but everything will come round in time. In most of Salt Lake, in any case, they will be right at home. We have cars, we have washing machines, we have refrigerators. We have just about everything Champaign-Urbana has.

Plus, in Salt Lake, you can ski to school.

Thompsons Skiing Thompsons Skiing

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