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A Tree of Many Tangled Branches – Adoption & Grandma Grace

June 1, 2012 by Kimberli, under Uncategorized, Writing.

Posted 6/1/12  Life changes quickly as the branches fall away, are broken and sprout anew.  Death, divorce, birth…  Posted in honor of those who have passed recently – Grandma Grace Records at age 98 and Grandma Marj Cooney at 98.  And to my fathers Paul Ransom (2008) & Ross Nida (2012), as well as my birth father who is always present even when absent.

These thought are just my memories and thoughts.  Not necessarily accurate.  We all have our own realities.

Kimberli Ransom

Written May 2006

Mine is a tree of many crooked branches.  As a small child, I drew a picture of my family tree.  Like many other children my tree was sturdy and tall and there were three branches.  One reaching out for my mother and father, another for my 3 teenage siblings and a final one for me.  Each branch was straight and lined up perfectly.  I was born in Portland, Oregon, but adopted by this family at six weeks of age.  My cradle rocked gently.

I am older now, a better artist and my tree has more depth and dimension.  It has grown in ways I could not have imagined as that small child.  The branches are no longer straight. There are four sets of parents now, 17 siblings, 29 nieces and nephews, many of whom I’ve never met.  There are so many cousins.  My story is one of adoption, and yet it is simply a story of family.  Perhaps not so different from yours.  My tree is a real tree with roots held firm in all of it -  love, disappointment, joy, nature, nurture.  I have had the unusual privilege of belonging to many ways of life and types families.  My tree includes cowboys, hippies, professors, high school drop-outs, doctors, meth addicts.  We subscribe to Utner Reader and Readers Digest, we support pro-life and pro-choice, we live in million dollar condos and trailer homes.  We serve our country, serve on school boards, serve prison sentences. I could prune this tree, simply cut off the branches that do not frame my life.  Instead, however, I chose to climb up into it and sit in the center, as I have always done, supported by those who are strong and holding fast to those who threaten to blow away.  This is my tree, all of it.

We lived at the end of a long dirt road in Eastern, Oregon.  Ten miles outside of Milton-Freewater, near the Washington border.  Our two-story farmhouse sat a quarter mile across irrigation ditches from our only neighbors, the Records family.  My mother, sister and I used to walk through the cat-tails and milk-weed to that house almost daily.  My Grandma Grace lived there.  Not a grandmother that came with my family, but one I chose to draw into my tree.  She was the one who made me cookies and colored with me.  My sister later married her son, the boy next door, and the branches of our families were grafted together even after he died 15 years later and my sister eventually remarried.

As my tree began to grow so did I.  My red hair and freckles became more pronounced, my legs stretched at an unbelievable rate and though I was unaware of it, it became more apparent that I did not come from my dark haired 5’3” and 5’9” parents.  I was told early on that I was special, that I was adopted, and that I had many people to love me.  That there was another mother and father somewhere who gave me to my family as a gift.  That my family chose me because they wanted a baby girl to spoil.  Throughout my childhood I made up stories about my biological parents because I didn’t know the details – she was a famous pianist, he was in the Vietnam war.  She was married and had an affair with my birth father, and both he and her husband wanted me and she couldn’t decide…  The stories were always full of love.  I don’t remember hating them for giving me up.


At the age of 7 my steady tree shook and the branches bent.  My parents divorced, my siblings were all grown and out of the house.  There was a bitter custody battle and my father moved with me to an isolated ranch in central Washington hours from my mother.  He gave me a puppy to make up for this.  I spent long summer days riding my horse alone through hay fields writing songs.  In the evenings my father and I would drive 20 miles to the local swimming pool where I would rinse off the day’s loneliness.

My father eventually met a woman from Minneapolis through a personal ad in a horse lovers magazine.  She drew pictures of cats for me during the weekend she came to visit.  Soon after we all moved to the middle of a cornfield in North Dakota.  My tree had a new branch including a stepmother with 5 inner-city kids who terrified me.  I watched one of them pull the other down a staircase by the hair our first day as a family.  I was 11 and wanted my mother.

I returned to Eastern Oregon.  My mother’s arms were held wide open for me and on her finger there was a new ring.  My new stepfather was a policeman with two sons around my age.  Another branch was added.  My mother went from a farm wife to a police dispatcher.  Their jobs came home with them each night.  I was learning to oil paint, started theater, was in choir – none of the things my family did, but all of which they supported.  There was room for me to explore and be different.  I was adopted.

Although my family was simply ‘my family’ and I only occasionally gave thought to not looking like them, my mother’s family reunions in Ellensburg, WA, always brought up questions.  The real drama didn’t start until I was a teenager.  Like all teenagers I said terrible things to my parents.  As an adopted child, however, I had the extra ammunition of “You’re not my real family.  None of these relatives look like me.”  Family reunions seemed to bring on these periods of teenage angst more then most.  As a young girl, however, I loved the reunions – all the cousins, my grandma Maudie yelling at my grandpa, “God damn it, Bernie!” and everyone talking at the same time.  My favorite uncle, Uncle Art, always had his guitar and drank Jack Daniels from a coffee cup.  He never knew all the words to a song, but he could still make you cry.  When he passed away, in the midst of my career as a songwriter, I inherited not only his guitar, but his love for storytelling. As little girls my cousins and I would sing and sing under the big willow tree in my grandfather’s front yard.  My mother kept a close eye on us there, however.  There were things girls shouldn’t learn from their family.

My grandmother once asked my mother how she could love an adopted child.  I don’t know if this was because she couldn’t image it, or if she was curious if the love was the same.  Or did she not love me?  With her seventh pregnancy, in the midst of the depression, my grandmother made a difficult choice.  Did she wonder if she had given the child up instead, would it have been loved?  We are all complex and our branches crooked.

On my 18th birthday I wrote the letter.  Martha was my caseworker at The Boys and Girls Aid Society my entire life.  She was the one who handed me over to my parents at six weeks, the squalling baby who instantly quieted when placed in my new mother’s arms.  I had kept in touch with her my entire life.  Martha held the key to connect my tree with the missing branches.  It never occurred to me that I was part of Martha’s job, that she might chose to work somewhere else, retire or move on.  Two weeks past before I heard back from Martha regarding the letter.  Those two weeks were among the most unsettling of my life. Would she want to see me or reject me?  Who would she be?  I envisioned a woman in a wide-brimmed summer hat sitting at a café in downtown Portland.  But what if she was a drug addict, or a criminal.  What if she had married and had never told her husband?  What if she was dead?  What if, what if?  There was no book on this nor anyone else with my exact experience.  My sister-in-law had tried to find her birth mother and the woman denied having a child.  Martha called, “Your birth mother’s name is Pat, she lives in Georgia and wants to fly to Portland to meet you. You have a half brother and sister.  You have grandparents living in Lake Oswego.” Another branch instantly sprouts to life.


My mother, who’s name is Helen, and I pack up the car and head from Milton-Freewater down Hwy 84 to Portland.  It’s a very long 4 ½ hour drive.  As always, my mother is supportive, trying to calm me, but I see the fear in her eyes.  Who is this woman?  Will she take my child from me?  I stare out the window and try to imagine how my life is going to change or if it will change.  We find our way through the city traffic to NW Portland and Martha greets us at the old Boys and Girls Aid Society building.  “She’s here,” Martha says.  “Are you ready?”  My mother and I look at one another and answer together.  We start walking down a hallway that must be a mile long.  My birth mother, Pat, is walking toward us from the other end of the hall.  She’s not wearing the wide-brimmed hat I had imagined.  We move closer and I see my eyes in her face.  I’ve never seen my eyes in any place except a mirror.  Her red hair moves past me straight to my mother.  She hugs her and says, “Thank you.”  Both mothers cry, I simply watch.  I don’t remember the details from that first hour.  After the meeting we sit in the park by the river.  My mother and I show my birth mother pictures from my childhood.  My first birthday cake.  There’s frosting on my face.  A clipping from a newspaper, I’m 9 and have just won a free throw contest.  She tells us how I looked just like her at that age.  We show her the academic scholarship to attend Lewis and Clark College.  I’m moving to Portland that next month.


My birth mother tells us the story, the real reason for my adoption.  It’s not one the stories I made up, but it’s equally as loving and generous.  She tells me about my birth father.  I have not thought of him recently. I have not thought of anyone aside from a birth mother. Pat is her name, I remind myself.  She doesn’t know where he is, but knows that he wanted me and tried to help her during a difficult time. We drive to her mother’s house for a spot of Irish tea.  “Just a little visit,” Pat says.  The house is full of tall people, my people with my eyes.  There is the most beautiful redheaded grandmother.  Grandmother?  I have not thought about a grandmother before.  There is a small sister and brother ages one and three who want to be part of the party and put their fingers in the cake that reads, “Welcome Kimberli and Helen.”  There are cousins with gifts and tears.  “Who are you people?” my mother and I say to ourselves, all the while grateful to have found so much love.  There are flowers in the bathroom and someone yells that someone must have stolen their bra, they can’t find it.  The tree grows huge big branches and sets these people on top of them until they later become the branches themselves.


The weekend meeting is just the beginning of a long integration that takes some three years to really come to grips with.  There are gaggles of cousins, aunts and uncles, a grandfather who takes me out on the deck for a sipper of scotch when he sees my eyes glaze over.  There are the gifts, the newborn bible and the Madame Alexander doll that all girls in this family are given on their first birthday.  But this is my 19th birthday.  It is, however, my first birthday with Pat’s family and they need me to be a child for a while longer.  There are the heartfelt comments so hard to understand.  The new great aunt and uncle who tell me they have prayed for me all these years.  Like the others, I’ve never thought of them.  My birth mother wonders why they never told her about this.  No one spoke to her about me after she gave birth at the age of 24.  The dam that held that river back stayed in place until I returned 18 years later and the floodgates re-opened.

There are the trips up and down Hwy 84 to introduce family to family.  The city family loads up the car for the long trip to visit my sister’s farm family.  My Eastern Oregon father, Paul, comes to meet my birth mother for the first time.  They could not be more different.  My new little siblings ride the pigs.  We have pictures, there’s more cake.  The tree is growing thick with branches that overlap – nothing grows straight anymore.

We slowly all learn our places and who we are to one another, each filling a new role replacing no one else.  My graduation from Lewis and Clark College brings everyone together once again.  There is my sudden illness and all branches hold my bed firmly in place and wait for the storm to pass.  It passes seven years later.  I am 27, two years younger then my birth father when I was born.  The tree feels steady and solid again. I talk to everyone about finding my birth father for the first time.  I pray he’s not Irish Catholic like my birth mother. My tree is so big already, what if there are more cousins?  I ask Pat for his name.  She cannot spell it correctly.  She’s a PhD, but cannot spell. I’m comforted by this, as I now can blame genetics for my own poor spelling.  I go through state records, look up old information, find a social security number and have someone do an illegal DMV search for me.

I find him in Missouri.  “Missouri,” I think, “that’s good.”  How would I handle more Oregon cousins?  His name is Darrel.  I have my boss call him.  “Hello, did you know you have a daughter in Oregon?” He knows he has a child, but thought I was a boy. “Would you like to have contact with her?”  Yes.  The answer is yes.  He has four sons.  Two are my half brothers.  He has parents, brothers, and many many cousins all in Oregon.  They had not told my brothers about me, and one of them overheard the original phone call.  He runs down, yelling, “Dude, we have a sister.”  “Shut up and get out of my room,” is their first conversation.   I fly to Missouri, step off the plane.  This time I’m walking toward my birth father.  I don’t see my own eyes in his face, although I do see a resemblance to my flat chest.  Genetics again. The meeting goes smoothly, there is no drama.  No one steals a bra this time.  My brothers wonder about their new sister only between commercials of the football game.  It’s all quite normal.  I fly home to Portland, continue my life and Darrel calls me every single weekend since then.  The branch is firmly in place and grows stronger with each phone call.

I am now 37 and my tree is still growing.  I recently married my husband, Louis.  He’s an L.A. city boy who doesn’t know a how to milk a cow, but may someday create a vaccine for AIDS.   He’s invited all over the world to speak, but his favorite destination is arguably Milton-Freewater and my mother’s Thanksgiving dinner table.  He has two sons, now my sons, ages 11 and 17, and each day I am amazed by what it takes to raise a child. Our wedding was the ultimate gathering.  Both my mother, Helen, and father, Paul, from Eastern Oregon, along with my step-father, Mike, where there and gave me away.  My birth mother, Pat, her husband, my redheaded grandma were there.  My birth father, Darrel, and his wife were there.  And so many siblings.  We did not have a bride’s side and a groom’s side.  We simply felt lucky that the groom’s family of 10 did not run away at the site of all of us.

My birth parents, Pat and Darrel, had not seen one another since before I was born.  No one knew how that first meeting would go, least of all the bride.  I expected a brief an exchange of niceties then off to their own corners for the remainder of the wedding.  What happened was the best gift they could have offered to us.  They liked one another.  Their spouses liked one another.  They sat together the entire weekend long wedding and laughed.  I have pictures of myself with my birth parents.  My only pictures with them.  They left no doubt in anyone’s mind that the mother and father of the bride were my Eastern Oregon parents.   At the same time, however, everyone understood that my tree was full of parents.

There’s one last branch on my tree.  It’s the one Martha, my caseworker from the Boys and Girls Aid Society, is part of.  There’s the foster family who cared for me from birth to six weeks.  There are the people who did the paperwork, who bought my clothes, who made things work so that an infant could find a home.  There are the people I’ll never know who supported the agency financially.  They are part of my tree as well.  Since I don’t know them, I will thank you instead.  Perhaps it was you who made it possible for a farm family to adopt a child because they wanted one to spoil.  Not because they had the most money or access to the best education, but purely because they wanted a child to love.  I’m not sure that most farm families could afford adoption these days.  I’m not sure that most birth mothers could afford to place a child through a non-profit agency when lawyers made such generous offers.  What I am sure of is that the work that is done with infant adoption here needs to continue.  It needs the financial support to be competitive with the way adoption has changed.  What we do here grows branches for children we will never know.

This summer I am invited to many family reunions.  My birth father’s family will meet in Yellowstone, my mom’s family in Ellensburg under the same old willow tree.  But I’m going back down the dirt road with the cat-tails and milkweed to Grandma Grace’s house.  She was the neighbor, the grandma I drew into my tree as a small child.  Family is not defined by biology or legal papers but by love.

Mine is a tree of many crooked branches.  I imagine yours is, as well.

Grandma Grace


The Good Samaritan, A Cat and Thanksgiving 2011

November 23, 2011 by Kimberli, under Uncategorized.

It’s raining, raining, raining.  It’s two days before Thanksgiving, 2011.  I have more important things on my mind than getting my cat to the vet – though she is requiring all my focus this particular November morning here in Portland, OR.  “Kitty, get in your box!”  I shove kitty into box.  Cat in box.  Cat in car.  Purse on top of car.  Garage door open.  Drive away into raining, raining, raining, toward meeting at my photography studio with my web master.  It’s busy season in my family photography studio.  Dry season is dead of winter February/March and heat of summer August/September.  One must take advantage of timing in this business and mine is now.  Never mind the life happenings.   You can wait.  Now is the time to work.  I can work.  So kitty is in her box as I head out toward the studio in the wet, wet, wet with cat yowling at the top of its lungs.  “Nice kitty,” I croon.  “It’s okay, Lucy,” I whisper.  “Shut the fuck up, kitty!” I yell.  No difference.  Kitty yowls.  In the meantime, I venture down my street, I’m bombarded with a downpour from my leaking moon roof.  “Shit!” the cat exclaims.  Why didn’t I fix that during the glory days of summer?  I dodge the downpour and slide to the right.  Almost to the studio, but still late for the web master meeting.  I reach for the cell phone to call but realize, “Oh no!  Not there! In purse…. which I put on top of car in garage right before loaded the damn cat!”  U turn, worth at least two driving violations.  Looking, looking, looking for camel skin expensive purse along the fall leaf-strewn rain-filled roadways as I retrace the road to my home.  Nothing.  Nothing inside the house or along the box-filled sidelines of my one-car garage.  “Shit!” the cat yells!  Must get back in the car and go meet the web master at 10AM regardless.  10AM being the only reasonable hour in my morning even during busy season.  I am most creative between midnight and 3AM, but no one understands or respects that, least of all the cat.  Wakey, wakey, the cat says to me each morning at 8.  My clients like what I create for them during that time, even if they are not aware of it.  I’m not a huge fan of my cat right now, and I’m starting to worry about the $600 replacement cost of the lost iPhone, not to mention said web master’s annoyance at being left outside in the pouring, pouring, pouring.  I know about iPhone replacement costs, as I once flushed mine down the toilet.  This is another story.  One which my ex-husband was not amused by, although I found it hilarious.  Clearly, there are some areas upon which one should not compromise.  Agreement upon what is or is not funny is one of them. This, too, could apply to a cat, I think.  I drive back toward the studio.  Cat can take no more and expresses her dissatisfaction with the entire situation in the form of an off-load.  “Goddamn, Cat!” I yell in my best East Indian accent with a slight head waggle.  My little sister would appreciate this as we often tell jokes with this accent – mostly after red wine.  I roll the windows down to subdue my gag reflex and it is now raining, raining, raining into my car in yet another way.  I double park in front my studio building and leave the cat.  Up the stairs in a single bound to the wet raincoat hung in front of my door.  My pleasant and ever-patient web master, Ron, greets me with, “I was worried about you.”  I love him.   We unlock the studio door to the 800 sq foot hardwood calming space and I being to tell him my tale.  “First the cat and then the purse and now… “  When all of a sudden we hear a splash.  Then a very big splash.  I’m on the 3rd floor of a 5-story loft building and there is water gushing through the ceiling onto my external hard drives.  “Shit!” the cat yells from the car outside.  I throw a plastic shower curtain backdrop over the computer equipment and run downstairs to the management.   “Water, computers… you help….” Then run back upstairs to where Ron is managing the deluge.  I continue on about the raining, raining, (he’s soaked from standing outside the front door and gets it) and the 10 minutes of missing purse and can I borrow his phone to call anyone…. And you can only imagine the week I’ve had with the call in Seattle and my step-father…. And maybe someone… and, “Oh my God, there’s a voicemail from a kid!”  Said kid, “Ryan Rice from Newberg,” and his friends who were just driving down the raining, raining street when and they happened to run across (literally over) my purse (with their car) and thought it might be cardboard but it didn’t feel like it so they stopped and got out (in the raining, raining?!) and tried to take it to the police department (conveniently right across the street), but it’s all locked up so then they found this number on what looks like to be the phone number from my photography company as he’s now calling it realizes he’s calling my iPhone (that’s sitting my purse so it’s not going to do me any good) so what they’re going to do try to find my place (four blocks away) and drive the purse to the street address (that’s on my driver’s license) and then ring the bell and if I’m not there he’s going to call me back to tell me where they hid my purse.  Okay?  I call him back and say, “Thank you, Kid From Heaven!  Please take all the cash in my purse (over $100) and you will have good Karma forever.  Thank you, you good Samaritan!”  I needed you today.  I continue my meeting with web master then head home to collect the purse and soggy iPhone before the vet visit.  Poor kitty still in car.  “Shit!” is all it says to me.  The wet leather purse, iPhone, $100 and my eye glasses are all perfectly fine.  There is a smashed to smithereens 25cent pen there as well.  Proof that they really did run over my purse.  How did I get so lucky today?  I think about this Ryan Rice all day.  The vet hears his story.  My friends hear the story.  The cat agrees, Ryan Rice is a good young man.  We are grateful for him today, my friends, family and I.

The end of the day comes and the news we’ve been waiting on for the past 24 hours….  My step-father, Ross, has lung cancer.  Stage four.  Inoperable.  We breathe deep – my birth mother, sister, brother in Afghanistan and I.  We look around at both the raining, raining, raining and little blessings and are grateful for what we have right now – and tomorrow as well, if we are lucky.  Our time together, however long that is. That’s all any of us can say, really.  Today, I am thankful for one kid named Ryan Rice from Newberg.  Thank you for letting me spend the extra few hours with my family instead of canceling credit cards and buying new phones.  Your gift was more than you can imagine.  The cat thanks you, too.




Italy Gallery Show & Video of the Open House 2011!

November 17, 2011 by Kimberli, under Uncategorized.

Here’s a taste of the Italy Gallery Show at the KIMBERLI RANSOM PHOTOGRAPHY studio on Nov. 12, 2011.  We had a great turn out (1,500 people!), not only for our studio, but for the 25 other wonderful studios in the Towne Storage Building. The Italy exhibition was a hit, along with the family and commercial photography we had on display.  We had two slideshows plus 20×30 framed prints, these posts hanging from the 15′ ceiling, as well as lots of wine and cheese.  Thanks again for all of your support!  You can read the posts about each of these images in the archives of this blog.  Let us know if you can think of other locations to show this exhibit!  (posted by nathan the intern)

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April 28, 2010 by Kimberli, under Uncategorized, Writing.

Funny, my former music life on the road comes back around once in a while.  Tomorrow I’m being interviewed by Elmore Music Magazine in NYC. They are doing a story on house concerts.  I dug out this 1999 NYTimes article.  My book about touring the country via house concerts, co-written with Doug McLeod, was featured in this front page article.
I’ll post again when the Elmore article comes out.

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Italy 8-Italian Bathrooms and Magic Powder

June 25, 2009 by Kimberli, under Italy, love, photo, Uncategorized.

Part 8 – Italy

Note:  Thankfully, there are no photos associated with this chapter.

I continue to be confused, on a number of levels, when it comes to international plumbing.  First, there is the problem with my own plumbing whenever I travel.  (Those of highly refined manners or delicate sensitivities may wish to simply skip to the next chapter at this point.)  There is the issue of a body being hauled over land and sea, through time zones and possibly war zones, only to be dumped into what may either be morning or night, fed a foreign meal and then being asked to perform as usual.  Mine just simply refuses.  “No,” it says, “you can not tell me it’s morning when I know it’s night and you just kept me awake like some sex-crazed college student.  You didn’t even give me any fun!  I was forced to sit in a seat much too small for my long legs, next to a man who drooled on me, all the while listening to screaming cranky children.  Oh, yes, you tried to entertain me with those five feature films in a row, but I know better.  You really pulled out all the stops with those sleeping pills and when that didn’t work you snuck to the back of the cabin and desperately downed a beer.  No, I didn’t get a wink of sleep and I know for a fact it is nighttime.  I just don’t know why the sun is rising.  Ridiculous!” My Body, with a capital “B,” tells me in a very matter of fact tone.  “I’m simply not going to reboot like your beloved laptop!  My internal clock is going to shut down until you give me a good explanation for the mayhem you’ve put me through.”  And so it goes.  Body stops functioning in a “regular” way.  The first few days pass, but nothing else does.  I try to stay up until night and go to bed when the Italians do, but toss and turn all night.  “Nope, not gonna do it,” Body says.  I eat and drink according to schedule, but no go.  I try to translate Milk of Magnesia to Elisabetta, but I’ve already told her that I’m allergic to milk and now she is also confused.

I go to the pharmacy and they hand me magic powder.  “Ok, I understand, just a little powder with a lot of water or there will be a big problem.”  I take a teaspoon with a glass of water that night.  Nothing the next day.  Meanwhile I’m still eating – pizza with eggplant? Sure!   The next night, a tablespoon more plus my glass of water.  Eating, eating.   It stands to reason that if what goes up must come down, then what goes in must come out.  Nothing.  I’m getting worried.  I’ll eat more greens with balsamic vinegar and olive oil.  Olives are green, right?  The problem is there’s also bread and pasta and prosciutto everywhere that just puts a stop to everything.  I have a little water with my glass of magic powder on the sixth day.  And on the seventh day God created relief and blessed women with their pre-pregnancy figures.

This is not the only problem of this ilk that I face when traveling, however.  For the part of my plumbing that always works there is equal confusion. Usually it has to do with how to flush the toilets that look relatively similar to those I’m used to but seem to hind the flushers. There are those hanging pull chain flushers that linger just above my head and out of site.  Then there are the most common of pulling knob flushers that sit on the back of the toilet and mock me for missing them.  Finally there are the steppy foot flushers that conspire with the sink to hide themselves from view.  I can spend hours looking for these flushers.

Worst of all are the truly deceptive toilets.  Just evil. For example, the first day I was here in Italy I went to the all-female olive-skinned-nakedness beach where I displayed my lily-white carcass and strikingly male chest.  Why I didn’t just go back into the ocean, I’m not sure.  But I decided to use the Italian porta potties that sat on the far edge of the rocky beach.  I step into one and then immediately step out again thinking it must be the men’s.  Then I remember, I’m on a women’s beach.  No male porta potty here.  I go back in and close the door behind me. This will require some brain power.  There is a hole in the floor and around it the plastic floor is molded to run toward the center.  Ok, I think, I’ve seen this before.  I’ve been here six times, how is it I always forget about public toilets.  Somehow I do.  I think it’s self-protection, like when a child has a terrible trauma and forgets its past.  I decide to go out on a limb.  I start pulling down, then eventually give up and pull off, as I can’t seem to figure out how it would work just pulled down.  I stand over the hole, facing the back wall and wonder,  Am I supposed to do this like a guy?  Oh, no, no, no, how silly of me.  I’m supposed to crouch down a little like I’m doing a wall-sit at the gym.  Now I remember.  I look at the wall three inches from my face then down at the hole and then my feet.  Wrong direction!  I turn around and wall-sit again, facing the door this time.  Tighten those abs, squeeze those glutes.  How in the world would my mom, after a mastectomy that borrowed muscles from her stomach so she can’t even do sit-ups now – pee in Italy?  Would she fall in and get sucked down the tiny hole?   And my birthmother with her triple Zs, she would tumble forward and fly out the door.  I’m trying to figure out how to both squeeze the glutes and relax the rest when I remember I’m still not doing it right.  I have to squat all the way down.  Ok, try not to touch the floor now.  Oh God, where is the hand sanitizer!  I’m so grateful the magic powder worked yesterday instead of today.  Thank you, thank you, thank you…  I look around for the toilet paper, which is miraculously balanced on a knob over a brown bag of politely rolled up used toilet paper.   “How quickly can my American behind get out of this porta potty and back into the ocean?” I wonder.

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Italy 7- Dark & Light Passages/Grief

June 24, 2009 by Kimberli, under Alps, fibromyalgia, grief, Italy, love, photo, Uncategorized.

Part 7- Italy

italy-275I am remembering  Mark Andres’ painting class back in 2006 again.  We’ve practiced seeing our straight lines and curved.  I am looking at a blank canvas when he stops us and introduces the concept of dark and light passages.  I am not an impressive painter by any means, but I am amazed at how often I process the world as if I were painting.  Since I was twelve and started taking adult lessons, I’ve observed life in terms of what colors I would need to mix to paint it.  When I met my biological grandmother at 18, I learned she did the same.  We still will look at random things and both say something like, “It needs a dot of red, right there.  To anchor it.”  So my instructor Mark, with his thick gray hair flopping in his face, tells us to prime our canvases with washes of dark and light paint.  He asks us to notice how the darks in the picture connect and form passages, even when they are not literally touching.  How the lights do the same when you squint or let your vision blur.  How the darkness of the earth ties to the shadows on a tree and moves upward and out of the frame through the browns of the roof on the house.  How the light swirling clouds in van Gogh’s Starry Night connect with the stars and move horizontally across the top two-thirds of the painting while the darks cover the bottom third and streak up into the left vertical third.  Like the idea of straight lines and curved, I think of these light and dark passages as I shoot photography and as I try to process my life.  The lightness of love and trust – melon gelato, prosecco bubbles, sweet strawberries.  How they connect to one another and tie together easily once they begin.  The darkness of infidelity and disappointment – aged balsamic vinegar, black truffles, blood sausages.

Here in Italy I’m reading a book called the Grief Recovery Handbook. I read it twenty years ago after being diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and spending over a year in bed.  At that time I followed the exercises and drew timelines of my first twenty years.  Now, at age forty, I’m doing the same exercises again, but have an additional twenty years of life, love and loss to cover.  I look at the timeline and see that there have been dark and light passages flowing through it all.  The darkness of illness that cycles, the death of a brother that is called up again with the loss of another brother that is brought back by the death of a friend and then another and then another.  The lightness of music and periods of good health, friendships and travel.  Bright passages of hope and love that connect the lovers and family members to one another and bring them all together in a marriage ceremony.  Darkness that inks out everything as the timeline covers the past four months.  There are periods that hold together like graphic blocks, bold and decisive with only general memories.  Black or white.  The are other years that are cluttered with details and whirl together like marbled paper.  I am all of this, I think.  The timeline becomes a painting in my mind, and the painting becomes a photograph I capture in the uneven doorways and electrical lines of the Venetian Jewish ghetto.  The textures, the entryways and exits, the cumulative effects of it all.



Grief and four days
I don’t sleep well these night in Italy.  I dream of houses collapsing, the walls falling outward while the family sits silently at the chrome kitchen table.  italy-390 “Move on.”  “Put it behind you.”  “You’ll find better.”  “Time will heal,” are the things people say.  I know myself, however. The hole not deep enough to bury, the distraction not sweet enough to sugarcoat and the mask not opaque enough to pretend. I have to process, regardless of well-intended advice. Tonight I was envisioning the past six years as a tall stack of wrapped boxes I carry around. The straight edges of the creased wrapping paper and twirly-twisty ribbon on top.  I had taken a walk along the harborside and set my camera on the ground to shoot slow shutter photos of the sailboats in the water.  In my mind I took my tower of boxes down and sat it next to me.  I imagined the ways in which I could deal with these boxes.  I considered several options.  1) tie the boxes together with rope, firmly attach a sailboat anchor to the end, along with my ankle, and push it into the ocean.  2) find one hundred helium balloons, I can’t yet see if they are all black or all colors, and watch the tower float off into the Italian Alps  3) open each box carefully and photography the contents. I know that some boxes will contain gifts, others grenades.  Some will hold beauty, others bombs.  I wonder how strong I will have to be to do it.  How flexible I will need to be to discover what was not as I imagined.  “Strong like a memory, strong like a willow in the wind. Strong as you’ll ever be, you will always need to bend.”  Singer-songwriter, Craig Carothers
Is it final now?  Four days since the paperwork was to be submitted. Four days for the judge to sign. Four seconds – a name on the Blue-toothed dash.  Four days of silence.  Forty days to move out.  Fortieth birthday.  Four month in a shocked coma.
Four minutes to book a flight to Italy.
Am I better yet?

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Italy 5 – Salty Sea and Peanuts

June 14, 2009 by Kimberli, under espresso, father, Italy, Osmizza, photo, Slovenia, Uncategorized, Wine.

…continued from Italy 4.  The Old Man of Ternova

Part 5 – Italy italy-1340

The light filters in through the fly-proof-velvet front door as the old man from Ternova sets a heavy silver pot on the stove top and lights the flame.  It percolates as we are directed to sit at the lace-covered kitchen table.  He shows us the room, one of two, one piece at a time.  This is our new stove, this is our refrigerator.  He draws our attention to a beautiful antique hutch containing the small espresso cups and saucers he will offer up for our coffee.  Passed down through his family, he says.  He hands me a small spoon and bowl of sugar.  The coffee is strong and works to counteract the glass after glass of red wine.  It’s a high percentage of Terrano grape mixed with whatever else he grows on his small farm.  Black or white wine here.  Not red wine or white wine, as we would say.  Not a specific vintage, just black or white.  Whatever grows on your land.  That’s what you can sell during your ten days.   It’s some of the best wine I’ve ever tasted.  My mouth puckers as the tang bites at the back corners and makes my molars twinge.  Again, the red clay has served its true purpose.

I think of how my father told me, in his final year, that he wished he had gone to war with his three older brothers.  He says this as we try to figure out where he will live and how my siblings and I will pay for his care.  My father, who was twelve years older then the man of Ternova, could have been the soldier who needed his own shoes and denied them to a child.  He could have been the GI who taught the boy to say, “cunt.”  Instead, he was forced to stay behind on the Washington state dairy farm and manage things for his newly widowed mother who was short three sons.  I imagine my father milking cows and making cheese that this man, as a boy, was dying to have.  My uncles sending the kid to town for prostitutes, not knowing if they would make it home to wives or perhaps not caring after what they had done and seen.  When my father says he wished he could have been there what he means is that he wishes he could have the health care in his old age and not burden his children.  My father was not a man of many words.  He seldom talked.  Period.  Perhaps his brothers were the same.  Did they ever really tell him about the war as this man was telling me?  Or did they protect their younger brother from the realities of WWII?  Was it left behind or lived out in silence the rest of their days?  My uncles were welcomed home as heroes, but I wonder if they were ever heard as men.  What they must have seen.  The stories they must have held close. The boys from Ternova they must have met.

My camera clicks away as we enter the back of the house, the cellar, where the smoked ham legs and long, thickitaly-1339 sausages are hung. The smell is overpowering, but the light is perfect. The youngest son of this man is my age.  His wife-beater undershirt and cigarette give him the look of my cousin Steve who, in the ’70s, rode with a motorcycle gang.  This son, however, winks at me as he tries to speak Slovenian with an English accent.  He wants me to take pictures of him and his dog.  It’s a big deal, these photos of his dog.  It occurs to me that these 10 days of life each year are their experience of the world.  They don’t own a camera.  I ask them if I can email photos back from America.  They don’t have a computer, or a phone.  I tell them I’ll send them prints.  They gather around the makeshift bar, everyone in the yard – cousins, girlfriend, dog and discuss what their address might be.  The postman has finished his lunch and wine and vanished.  They finally bring out a slip of paper with all the information written in the wrong order.  Elisabetta corrects it for me when we return home.  I ask why they don’t know their own address.  “Didn’t they have to give it to the water company or someone?”  “Yes, probably originally.”  Then I remember, the old man from Ternova saying, “This farm has been in our family for 300 years.”  It’s been a very long time since they hooked up the water.


Salty Sea and Peanuts

Groups of children are equally noisy wherever I’ve been.  They likely all say the same types of things in any language, “Ah, he has a booger!  Look at his booger!  You farted!”  The children of this bus must be on a field trip, I think.  Perhaps to a prison, as they look like aspiring convicts.  Rough little Italians, even at the tender age of five and six.  I’ve finally figured out how to buy a bus ticket, boarded my first bus, unraveled the mystery of validating the ticket and then this!  Baby felons.  I’m off for a cultural excursion to Miramare Castle.  Something about Maximilien, Emperor of Mexico, and a summer home.  I’m sure it’s all very interesting and would make for beautiful photographs, but what I’m really about today are the beaches I saw when I passed the castle on the way in from the airport.  It’s hot. I need cool water and silence.  I want salty water and peanuts.  Maybe I’ll make it to the castle for some culture later, I think.

As the bus lurches away from the station the prospective criminals begin their assault.  They are pushing and teasing as their schoolmarm-ish teacher-guards watch with practiced resignation.  If they riot, will the marms react? I’m sitting in my little seat minding my own beeswax, my face resting on my hand so I can plug at least one ear, trying to block out the chaos.  I think of my happy-place on the beach.  I’m like this around groups of small children.  I don’t have the “off” switch that most parents have for babble.  I hear everything.  Everything.  All the time, everything.  Children one at a time work best for me.  Preferably with a muzzle, in case of an emergency.  Then only if they are related to me.  Then only on Tuesdays.  I can say that because I’m in Italy.  Many things happen only on Tuesday.  Or Wednesdays after 1pm or every other Friday.  That’s just how it is.  Try to buy fish here, for example.  Only Thursdays mornings on the north facing side of the street.

So we’re on the bus and these miniature jailbirds are caw-cawing away and gyrating like actors in an Indian musical.  I’m plugging my ears and thinking, “happy place, happy place,” when I see the one in front of me pointing to someone or something in back of me.  He has huge brown Italian puppy dog eyes that would be lovely in a soundless photo.  I’m imagining him in print when I see his terror on his face.  “Ragno, ragno,” he yells and points.  I catch myself before I turn to look behind me at what must be no less then Freddy Kruger himself when I realize that he is looking directly at me.  Ragno, I’ve heard this word from Elisabetta’s grandson.  Ragno, sounded like Arachno to me.  Arachno, Arachnophobia… SPIDER!” the translations runs through my head.  Spider in my hair.  I fly off my beeswaxed seat and shake my head.  The ragno falls to the floor and the children scurry out the door as their stop arrives.  I swear I see their black and white striped shirts disappear through the gates.  I turn to the people behind me who I’m sure say something like, “You go girl,” though it’s in Italian.  The bus is silent the rest of the way to the castle.

italy-2007I see the castle over the hill and through the woods, and turn and walk the other direction.  The water is, indeed, clear and cold and salty.  I take out my peanuts, as well as my borrowed red towel, and look for a place to sit here on this “free beach,” i.e., a concrete pier.  It’s right next to the “pay beach,” which is the concrete pier a few feet away, but costs ten Euro and includes a lounge chair.  As I’m reaching for my book and getting myself situated a chorus of voices says, “Ciao, Luca!” I look up to see the wide-mouth smile of Luca.  This young man with Down’s Syndrome soaks in the welcome and then jumps straight off the pier into the water.  His mother, lines running deep in her sun baked face, pushes back her flowered headscarf and slides out her clothes down to her thong bikini bottom.  She is received as warmly as Luca.  It’s obvious that this group of fifteen or so people know one another well.  A petite woman with curly blond/brown hair and a killer body looks up at me as I adjust my sunhat and apply more sun block.  She asks in Italian if I want her to move her blue jeans and bag.

Thus begins another friendship here in Italy.  MariaPia is somewhere closer to my age then the young newlywed couple and gregarious Sara-of-the-red-dress that I met the first night of my stay here in Italy.  Though they also play an important part.  She is old enough to have her PhD in mathematics, but young enough to still be doing her post-doc work instead of a full-time position.  She is old enough to have lived abroad for a number of years, but young enough to want to again.  And me?  Am I older or younger then that, I wonder. MariaPia speaks English and shares my peanuts – good enough reasons to be friends.  We make a plan to meet again – perhaps Croatia?

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Italy 4 – The Old Man of Ternova

June 7, 2009 by Kimberli, under father, Italy, love, Osmizza, photo, Slovenia, Uncategorized, Wine.

Part 4 – Italy

I stare intensely into the side of his face as he speaks to Italian to Elisabetta. She translates, but I’m not hearing what either are saying, his words float around my head like clouds of cotton.  I’m almost dizzy.  I want to reach out and touch him like I did my father, that last morning nine months ago – and I do.  The palm of my hand reaches across and settles on his cheek.  His brilliant blue eyes, as clear as my father’s were, turn to me.  I can feel the stubble of his morning shave and see the patches of white whiskers on the creped skin of his neck.  His wife of fifty years must have recommended he swipe his nose with the blade for this special week as well.  Dark, empty pockets hold fast on the fleshy mound.  When my father could no longer reach up to pull the skin of his neck taunt to one side, he too would cultivate plots of whiskers like winter wheat.  Long, thick hairs grew from the cartilage of his ears and ridge of his brow.  I imagine his mind, as it wandered at the end, picturing tiny combines mowing down these crops and bailing them into little rectangles to be stacked for the fall feed.  Not the rounded bails farmers roll out today.  Like this sweet man, my father had a better memory for the far faraway past.

Someone recently sent me an email.  If you get a second chance, grab hold of it with both hands.  So for the two and a half hours I spent drinking wine, eating homemade prosciutto, fresh bread and taking photos, I held tight to my second chance.  In some way this old Italian-Slovenian man became my father – a little visit, if only in my mind.

Here in Northeast Italy there is a very special exception to the normal food and alcohol laws.  Families can, for ten days or so, italy-1262hang a tree branch outside of their family winery or farms, and sell whatever they themselves produce. These once a year outdoor “restaurants” appear and disappear as quickly as you can find them.  They are called Osmizza, in Italian, or Osmica, in Slovenian.  I call them absolute heaven.  A peak inside the gates of country life in Italy.  I want to follow every branch and sign down every country road into every little farmyard.  But today, we found this Mr. Alberto Skerk on the side of the road and followed him home to his family in Ternova Picoola.

I studied his face and listened to the singsong rhythm of his stories.  There in his old blue pants and stripped suspenders, his face was a dried lake bed.  I could nearly see where the water had traveled then disappeared.  How the childhood he described were the cracks and crevasses.  How drawn and gaunt must have been the face of the ten-year-old boy, once supple and plump.  I imagine the elasticity of hope that gave way to texture of hunger as WWII took away his father, uncle and food.  “We had nothing to eat,” he said. “My mother left us four children with our grandmother as she walked the countryside looking for flour.”  I imagine what cold comfort the grandmother may have tried to give them.  Here where the limestone rivers run deep into the earth with only a thin film of dirt at the surface.  No gardens of rounded eggplant leaves.  No lines of cherry trees crisscrossing the land then.  Rock and water.  “The Germans took my uncle to a concentration camp.  He came home a skeleton.  They rounded people up off the street, no reason.  Just there, in the street,” his large, callused hand point beyond the wooden gate to the cobblestone, “bodies all over.”  His shoulders fall forward and his face is dark.  “Germans,” he curses under his breath.  The war is tactile here.


We sit quietly for a while.  We pour more red wine into small glasses.   He tells about the first troops to come after that.  3000 New Zealand men in this small village, spilling out over the hillsides.  They set up their kitchen, “There…” he points out the same place he did before.   Sometimes they had extra food and fed the children.  Eggs, bread.  “We had no clothes, nothing.”  After that the Americans came.  “We asked them for shoes. But, no.” He waves his hands in a sweeping motion and the dog scurries from under the picnic table.  “Get outta here!” he yells, remembering their words.  Did I really just hear that?  I’m dumbstruck.  This 74-year-old man who wears his years like he’s 90, just opened his mouth and shouted in the perfect nasal-twang of 1940’s American vernacular, “Get outta here!”  Jimmy Stewart couldn’t have said it better.  The vowels ring with a Brooklyn “ou” and the hard “e.”  Then he gets a wily smile and says to no one in particular, “Cunt!”  His face crinkles in on itself and he giggles like the schoolboy he would have been when the American soldiers last spoke the word.  He wants to know what it meansh but from his reaction I can see that has spent the past 64 years with a pretty good idea.  There’s more wine as the postman walks through the gates and has his lunch with the small group of relatives who stand around the makeshift bar.  The Americans didn’t give them shoes, he recalls to us, but they did give them a way to make money.  The GIs would pay him and his young cousin to go down to the town, Trieste, 15 kilometers, about 9 miles, and bring back the prostitutes.  There was no shame, everyone needed a way to make money.

A tiger-striped cat runs though the open farmhouse door.  1898 is carved into the limestone frame.  My family has been here for 300 years, he says to us.  The old man walks to the entryway and pushes back the coconut husk ropes that feel like velvet and keep the flies out.  The cat has come for lunch, he explains.  He motions for us to come with him.  I grab the camera and adjust the setting for the lowest light I can.  Some opportunities don’t come around twice…..

To be continued….


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