Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The things that go wrong

An ode to a friend.

Mort was my dad's best friend at his law firm back when Dad was a working man in Toledo, Ohio. Morty was a loud man; his normal speaking voice could carry for miles without effort and bore a very strong Brooklyn accent. He was funny and boisterous and one of the kindest, most welcoming, most exuberant people you could ever hope to meet along the journey.

Mort and his two daughters were our ski vacation buddies. We took annual ski trips to Colorado together throughout my childhood and adolescence, rented pretty slopeside condos together, ate my mom's famous and appropriately dubbed "ski trip chicken" recipe at least once during our weeks in those cozy condos, sometimes twice.

Something went wrong on nearly all of those trips. It wasn't always fun in the moment but we now know the stuff that goes wrong is often the good stuff, the stuff we relish remembering all these years later, the stuff that makes us laugh, the stuff that made our time together rich and memorable. There were always botched rental car reservations, lost luggage, chaotic meandering drives trying to find elusive ski condos, serious sun poisoning resulting in unrecognizable puffy faces, tense people speaking to each other through clenched teeth as they debated who'd locked the keys in the car again. It was a rare trip indeed it all went according to plan.

I was the baby of the group by a wide margin so haven't always remembered the details of those ski trips thanks to my youth and spongy young memory brain -- plus my parents always stuck me in ski school as the rest of them cavorted around on the slopes together so I wasn't even present for most things. I'm not jealous of that at all, yes I am, very much.

But I've heard the family folkloric stories so many times, I've internalized them clearly as if I was sharp as a tack and taking notes for each and every one. For one example, "the flaming logs at Snowmass" incident. Our first night in the Snowmass slopeside condo, Mort closed the flue on the chimney when he thought he was opening it, then built a roaring fire as Mom cooked ski trip chicken in the kitchen. Mort continually and enthusiastically refilled her wine glass, proclaiming loudly, "Wine for the cook! More wine for the cook!

It didn't take long for thick black smoke to pour into the room. As the rest of us hustled our butts out of that condo, Mort lunged for the fireplace tongs. He grabbed the flaming logs one by one and dropped them off our balcony into the deep snow three floors below. It was about this time his wife called from Ohio to see how things were going. He was honest with her, and she grew alarmed.

We like to imagine the faces of the cozy skiers living below us as they soothed their aching ski muscles at the end of a long day with a glass of hot cider or mulled wine. What did they think when flaming logs began falling from the sky? They knew we were in town, that's for sure.

Sometimes our extended family joined our trips.
This is my dad, my second cousin, Mort, my aunt, Mom, one of Mort's daughters.
Where was I?
Likely face-planting in ski school. 

Dad likes to recount the time Mort convinced him to do "one last run" before the chairlift closed for the day. They made it back in line just in time and were the last people allowed on the chair. They high-fived. We did it! One more run!

The motor broke on the chairlift on that last trip so Dad and Mort were stuck swinging thirty feet above the ground for hours. It got cold up there. Dad began to resent Mort in that moment, the man who made him take one more run when he should have been back with us at the condo holding a steaming glass of hot cider or mulled wine by then. Ski trip chicken is an elusive far away friend when you're stuck on a chairlift.

After a few dangly hours, they saw the ski patrol run a new motor up on a snowmobile. Not too long after that, the chair lurched to life again and began slowly moving up the mountain. Dad and Mort made their way down the slope carefully with no light aside from the ambient light of a full moon. Dad says it was the most beautiful ski run of his life. Further proof that sometimes the things that go wrong are the best parts.

I'm not sure what this one was all about
but that's yours truly on the right in my '80s acid washed pegged jeans
and Mort is doing something to my head
and Dad is holding a stuffed hippo. 
Plus, so many hats. 

Mort, a Jewish man, was the biggest fan of Christmas carols you've ever met. My mom played the piano at every law firm Christmas party and Mort would stand directly over her, bellowing those tunes slightly off key with an unbridled joy never before seen at a law firm Christmas party, especially from a Jewish man. He was very hurt when a semi-professional singer joined the firm's staff and received the coveted  "FIIIIVE GOLDEN RINGS" solo on "The Twelve Days of Christmas." That had always been Mort's verse, you see.

Mort passed away from cancer a few years ago. It was a huge loss for my parents, one they grieved to their cores. Someone like Mort can't leave the Earth and his absence not be felt profoundly. There was only one of him, and that is a gross understatement.

Mort requested his ashes be spread in three locations, three places that held great significance in his life and ultimately became three of his happiest chapters. The first was Coney Island, where he spent an idyllic free range childhood. The second was at the top of Half Dome in Yosemite, where Mort defeated a lifelong fear of heights when he climbed it with my dad and one of his daughters about fifteen years ago. The third was right here in my backyard, in Olympic National Park, where Mort spent a few weeks with the Student Conservation Association at the age of 16, clearing trails and rebuilding Humes Ranch, a historical cabin off the beaten path.

Mort's two daughters carried out his wishes at Coney Island and on top of Half Dome in the past couple years. For the third and final stop at Olympic National Park, Mort's family invited my parents to join for the five mile hike out to Humes Ranch. My parents accepted with gratitude and I immediately decided the kids and I would join, too. We were eager to reunite with our old family friends, recount stories of Mort, celebrate his big heart and the way he lived his life.

Our two families gathered in neighboring rental houses for a long weekend at Lake Sutherland, just outside Olympic National Park. It doesn't get much more Pacific Northwest picture perfect than Lake Sutherland in the fall. It was gorgeous and crisp and calm and kind of smug with its autumn charms.

My parents brought Lucien a slingshot,
which we now know
is a perfect gift for an eleven-year-old boy.

Mom made ski trip chicken. We refilled her wine glass often, obviously, as Mort taught us to do --

The next day we hiked out to Humes Ranch. We stopped halfway through the hike to light a candle and remember Mort and tell stories of his larger than life personality.

Dad told a story I'd never heard before. On my dad's very first day at the law firm, there was a firm meeting in which most attendees, including my dad, showed up in polished dark suits. Soon after the meeting began, Mort walked in wearing jeans and a George McGovern t-shirt. George McGovern was a liberal 1972 Presidential candidate not at all embraced at the mostly-Republican law firm but Mort didn't much mind. Dad liked Mort immediately and then they were friends. History made!

Humes Ranch --

Mort's two daughters, a son-in-law, and two beloved grandkids.

Us, minus The Loosh, who was off somewhere
being moody and pre-pubescent.
(Help me)

My parents could not be any cuter.

Our long weekend celebrating my dad's best friend got me thinking about lives well lived. About how simple it is to do it right, or at least how simple it is in theory, how simple it should be. Mort lived life enthusiastically and warmly. I doubt Mort was perfect, none of us are, but he was a good man, a good father, husband and friend. I don't think anyone can aim much higher than to be those things, and to be remembered for such things when we're gone.

If Mort could see us from wherever he is now, I know he was giddy seeing his grandkids play with his dear friend's grandkids at Humes Ranch. The four kids ran through the fields, played hide-and-go-seek, laughed their bubbly little kid laughs. I could almost see Mort beaming and hear him bellowing with enthusiastic joy. He may have also been singing Christmas carols but that's cool, we'll give him a pass on the seasonal appropriateness.

(I'm also pretty sure I heard a faint, "LET'S DO TIN PANTS," an ode to times when we would be spread out along the chairlift but Mort would let his ski run wishes be known by yelling at all of us up and down the line...)

My dad wrote a long essay that was read at Mort's memorial service. I wish I could cut and paste the whole thing here because it is a beautiful homage to friendship and shared history but in lieu of the entire thing, this is the final paragraph. It made me verclempt as hell. I hope Dad is OK with me sharing it here, I didn't ask -- hi, Dad!

"A good day of skiing has three parts: early morning is the time of elation and anticipation of the coming adventure. The air is cool, the trails awash in morning light, the body eager. Mid-day is the time of accomplishment in the heat of the day, the time for fast skiing, maybe in moguls. Late afternoon is the time for relaxing and reflection, for slowing down and really seeing and feeling the beauty of the day and the warmth, golden light and long shadows of late afternoon in the mountains - skiing as a metaphor for life. Judy and I are in the late afternoon now. Mort has passed through it, but we still see him, content in the mountains, happy with friends and family who loved him."

One final thing about our long weekend, a tone change so I can, ahem, clear this dust out of my eyes. Lucien hurt his back over that weekend on the peninsula when he flipped around on his bed and landed on the back of his neck. His neck and back were still sore a few days later so I took him to a chiropractor. Lucien has never been to a chiropractor and doesn't quite understand their treatment methods as evidenced by his alarmed, "Why are you hugging me? WHY IS THE DOCTOR HUGGING ME?" as the chiro wrapped his arms around Lucien to adjust his spine. The chiropractor laughed so hard he had to stop and wipe his eyes with his shirt.

I love that kid.

The kids and I returned to Seattle from the Olympic Peninsula via the ferry. It was a beautiful day for a ferry ride. I have loved many places in the world but I am most absolutely content to be in this one. It's so fantastically pretty up in here.

I hosted my annual Halloween parents-gone-wild fest over the weekend. I'm going to post on that ASAP but after that, November will be all about the Paris book, a NaNoWriMo tweaked once again for my non-fiction needs. It's time to confront the reality of my editor's feedback, which hurt my feelings but is likely right on the money. I'll be around.

Until we meet again, 
here's to all the great friends we meet along the journey.

More wine for the cook! *clink*