Thoughts on returning to Oregon

By Patricia Conover

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”  — Robert Frost 

The flight begins its descent. I see the familiar tall pines and snow-capped mountains in the distance. When I step out of the plane, the fresh scent of green earth and recent rain hits me with such velocity that I close my eyes to breathe it in.  

I’m not an Oregon native. In fact, I’m about as far from an Oregon native as anyone could be. I grew up in and around Manhattan. I made my first trip to the West Coast when I was 25 years old and didn’t visit Oregon until my mid-30s when Kirk accepted a job offer at an architecture firm in Portland. We quit our jobs in the New York City area and packed up our three littles (including a newborn) and waved goodbye rise to our high-rise apartment.  

To say that the move was an adjustment would be an understatement. We didn’t understand the Oregonians and the Oregonians didn’t understand us. I felt as though I had arrived in a foreign country without prior knowledge of the culture, language or codes. 

Whenever I got into my car I risked someone yelling at me. “You can’t park there,” or “Are you really going to make a U-turn?” 

I enrolled my oldest daughter in school. We’d packed all her smocked Liberty of London dresses, bright Mary Jane shoes and the red Rothschild coat with a velvet collar for kindergarten.  

She was wiping tears away when she arrived home after her first day.  

“The kids made fun of my clothes,” she said. “They asked me why I was wearing a costume.”  

What were the other kindergarteners wearing?  

“T-shirts and jeans and sneakers,” she said. “I’m never wearing a dress again!” 

It wasn’t difficult to adapt to the more casual style of dress in Portland. The iron was put away and nobody missed it. 

I did miss my editing job. I tried to find publishing work but jobs like the one I’d had on Lexington Avenue were practically non-existent in my new city. I wrote several stories and hand-delivered them to George Rede, the young Southwest bureau editor of The Oregonian.  

Reader, he bought them! And he encouraged me to write more, fostering me in the writing career that I had dreamed of for years but never dared to attempt. 

Less successful: Dealing with the incessant rain. We’d been warned about it before we arrived but nothing can prepare you for the unceasing September-to-May of it. 

We moved in late summer and the sun never stopped shining until the moon began to rise. We snickered when our East Coast relatives inquired about the rain.  

“Rain? What rain? The sun is always shining here!” 

The laughter faded when autumn arrived. It rained incessantly every single day.  

As soon as the sky opened up, I called the girls inside. I postponed trips to the library or to the museum or the grocery store. My new neighbor, Judy, knocked on the front door after a few days of that.  

“You have to learn to ignore the rain,” she said. “The girls can play outdoors in raingear. Go outside when it drizzles or you’ll never leave the house!” 

We bought rain boots, fleece pullovers and waterproof jackets with hoods. In the winter, we added thermals and woolen layers to the mix. We learned to play and hike and ride our bikes in the rain. 

As a child, I was constantly told not to get dirty. Yet, for my girls, mud was no longer a four-letter word. They loved to play in the dirt. Being outside so much inspired me to plant a garden. The girls helped by digging holes and planting seeds. Soon, we were planning flowerbeds. Did I mention compost? We learned how to compost!   

Time moves forward and all three of our girls were enrolled in school. Their friends were hiking and skiing and windsurfing and climbing mountains. Pretty soon, they were, too. I’d never known anyone who spent so much time outdoors and now my children were living the active lives that we couldn’t have imagined in the Big Apple.  

Still, when we met people they immediately knew that we were from “back East.”  

I suffered the indignities of linguistic insufficiencies. I don’t have a particularly strong New York accent, but when I walked into a coffee shop and ordered a “Cwofffeee,” the barista couldn’t understand me. People asked me to speak more slowly.  

It took two years to learn how to pronounce “Oregon,” “Willamette,” and “Clatskanie.”   

We had no family on the Left Coast and it was too expensive to fly five people back for every holiday. Sigh. 

Somehow the Oregonians knew we were homesick. New friends invited us to Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas tree-trims and summer fun on the Pacific Coast or the Columbia River Gorge.  

The friends who took us in during what we called our “pioneer” years in Oregon are friends for life.   

The loneliness of being outsiders lifted. When newcomers arrived, we showed them the ropes. We coached them on the proper pronunciation of Oregon place names and the appropriateness of plaid flannel shirts and jeans for everything except the most formal occasions. 

Something happened. It started on the outside but slowly moved toward the inside—deep into our hearts—turning each of us into a kind of hybrid New York-Oregonian. Our daughter, who was then four, invented a name for us: Newyoregonians. 

Time continued to move forward. Kirk was offered a job in France. It was an offer we couldn’t refuse. Our daughters were 16, 14 and 12. Portland was their hometown. There were many tearful goodbyes when we packed up and moved to Paris in 2006.  

That Oregon head-to-heart connection? It’s still there. Our daughters, now in their mid-twenties to (gasp) thirty, still refer to themselves as Oregonians.  

Along with our garden, our girls planted their roots in the rich soil of Portland. They developed strong wings, too, that have taken them to the four corners of the world.  

They always know where home is. 

And when Kirk and I return, however briefly, that deep feeling of connection wells up and somehow reaches our eyes.  

Did we leave our mark on Oregon? I’m not sure. But Oregon left its mark on us. And, like the ink from a Portland tattoo shop, it’s permanent. 

Patricia Conover loves books. She’s especially drawn to biographies, historical novels and travel memoirs. Born and raised in a suburb of New York City, she spent her first career at G.P Putnam’s Sons and Random House. She became a freelance writer after moving to Oregon. She’s written essays, features, profiles and criticism for publications including The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Oregonian, Kirkus Reviews and The Montclair Local.

Patricia is currently a project editor and writer for Going Global, publisher of guidebooks on culture, careers, economies, education, health, and travel. She’s also an English instructor. You can connect with Patricia on twitter @ParisRhapsody.

***

Editor’s note: Patricia and I have known each other long enough to agree we don’t want to know the precise number of years. Suffice to say that we met in the days when print journalism was thriving and before the internet as we know it was created in 1990. Though we’ve lived on opposite coasts for most of our careers, that was hasn’t gotten in the way of mutual appreciation and admiration. She’s a fine writer and a fine human being.

Tomorrow: Melissa Jones | Please print! And don’t recycle.

6 thoughts on “Thoughts on returning to Oregon

  1. When my wife and I landed in Eugene in the fall of 1973, the weather was glorious, until November. Then it rained every day for weeks. We were both from Iowa, the circle of friends we initially met were all from other states. Over the years we have all become Oregonians.

  2. I have a similar experience, but it was within Oregon. I was born in Portland and raised there until I was seven, then moved to Pendleton, Oregon. I went from lush green, bustling with people, lovely houses, to a dry, dusty very hot small, and what i thought was a boring place. I was pretty sure I’d died and gone straight to hell. Never got over the move. Came back to Portland at about 25 yrs old, and have lived in Vancouver for 30+ years. I loved this piece. You get a real sense of the flow of your lives, and how you slowly become like the space you inhabit. While I never liked Pendleton, when people ask me where I grew up, I say Pendleton. And there are memories from there that I wouldn’t trade for a gazillion dollars. And because I lived there, I know a lot more about what I don’t want, as well as what I do.

  3. I wonder which was the more difficult move for you – from NYC to Portland or from Portland to Paris? Geography is more defining of who we are than we often care to admit. I, as a life-long Californian have lived in four distinct communities within the state and each move required an adjustment to local values, lifestyle, fashion (of some sort) and social networks. I found something to enjoy in each place and consider them all as “home”.

  4. Are you back in Oregon now? I like the way you brought in the emotional connection we have with the place we live in. It was nice to read about your daughters and see the pictures of them grown up. Your next piece should be about Paris!
    My experiences were similar, but a little more intense – I moved to Massachusetts from India and then came here. I must say it wasn’t exactly pleasant being a “foreigner” here in the 80s, but looking back, now, I realize it was a place where I had the most amazing experiences. Two days after I landed in Portland I joined my husband’s work skiing group on a trip to Bend and I learned to ski on Mount Bachelor. I have wonderful memories of backpacking in the Olympic National Forest, hiking in the gorge, riding a dune buggy on the dunes and camping on the Coast. Now after 30 years we are leaving Oregon for good. It was an agonizing decision – we have lived here longer than in any other place in the world. But we will be back frequently, I’m sure, because it will always be our first real home in America.

  5. In the first weeks of my first, full-time newspaper job in the area, my editorial page editor slammed his hand on the table and exclaimed during one of my story pitches, “It’s the Willamette, damn it!” I never mispronounced it again! Cheers to the places we call home.

  6. I grew up in Westchester County, NY, and moved away in 1973, never to return. After bouncing around for a few years, I ended up in Albuquerque, NM, where I stayed for 15 years, and then eastern Washington for another six. When we moved to Oregon in 1996, the first word I felt was “home”. It was like coming home for the first time in a very long time. I’ve been here now longer than anywhere, and it’s where I’ll remain.

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