‘What does this all mean?’

May 31, 2012 02:34 pm
“Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between,” said Harper Lee at the end of her classic novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a book about a small town in rural America.

The book is about racial tension, poverty, and childhood rites of passages, but it’s  also about neighbors. Jem, Scout, and their summertime playmate, Dill, interact with the neighbors on their street on a daily basis, for good or for ill.

I spent the first part of my childhood in a coast range town of 500 people who lived primarily off the timber industry and the second half in rural, southeastern Oregon in a county dominated by Herefords. Today I could walk through my old Lakeview neighborhood and rattle of the names of neighbors for blocks in every direction.

Four years ago I ran into a classmate at Warner Canyon, the ski hill outside of Lakeview. Several tragedies had struck people we knew and I said it sure seemed Lake County had an overabundance of sadness. My old friend said it was because we knew everybody that it seemed that way.

Six months later I moved to Wallowa County where the whole county feels like a seamless community. I came here because the owner of an inn had died and his family needed a manager to run it. I never met Chuck Fleser, but he was such a force of nature that I quickly felt as if I’d known him for years.

Chuck was diagnosed with melanoma and after initial treatment he was still able to run his motel and a fishing train that departed from Minam and dropped off fishers along the Wallowa River during steelhead season, bringing visitors from around the country.

When he grew sicker, friends helped rent and clean the rooms and greet the guests who were drawn to the loneliness of the canyon. Some returned because Chuck had touched them personally and made them feel at home.

Chuck was the perfect Wallowa County ambassador greeting its visitors at its far western edge, where two rivers and three canyons meet. It is where elk, deer, bears, cougars, migrating and resident birds, and steelhead, salmon, and trout beckon hunters, fishers and rafters. But it was that personal touch of Chuck’s that made the canyon come alive and stirred his friends to help him live his dream.

My indirect connection to Chuck prompted his friends to take me under their wings, till the garden, bring wood for the fire pit, vegetables from their gardens and company in a lonely place. When I moved to Lostine, it was friends connected to Minam that found me my house.

Some days I come home to find cartons of eggs, flowers, and hand-me-downs on my doorstep. Even the dogs have a sense of neighborhood. My neighbor’s bird dog, Max, comes to visit on his own accord and often I have to go roust my chow mix away from his yard.

Tuesday my neighbor didn’t bring me eggs or flowers, she brought me news of another death in our circle of friends. Mike Erickson died in the middle of the night.

Deja vu all over again. I brewed coffee, and we sat together, dumbfounded.

Eventually I got my wits together and went to see Mike’s wife, Cindy. People had been in and out of the house since before dawn. There was food on the kitchen table and more would be arriving for an evening barbecue, when another stream of friends and neighbors and family would be arriving.

A ribbon from Cindy’s birthday bouquet lay on the counter. Written in black lettering it said, “Happy Birthday. I love you.”

“What does this all mean?” my neighbor asked over her coffee cup. “What is this all about?”

It’s about food, it’s about flowers, and it’s about the little things we give each other in between.


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