Do you remember the show Green Acres? It was in reruns when I was a kid. The premise was that a New York lawyer (Eddie Albert) drags his protesting socialite wife (Eva Gavor) to a rural farm outside of the town of “Hooterville”. Hilarity ensues.
It occurred to me the other day that, in some ways, I am the Eva Gabor character in my marriage. Not in being high maintenance or really rich, but being in a “mixed marriage”. You see, my husband is from a family raised in Nebraska and Idaho. They have a rustic family cabin in the Boise National Forest near the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho that is like Mecca to them. There is no electricity (gas lights only!), no cell phone service, and certainly no wifi.
In contrast, both of my parents were raised in a city (Detroit) and the dominant culture in my family is that of being Greek-American. Once when he was in his residency at UCLA, my father, goaded by a colleague, went camping and HATED it. He never went again. When I told my dad that my husband and I were going camping shortly after getting married, he said with horror in his voice: “and after you cook the food, WHAT are you going to DO there?”. A famous family story tells of my husband early in our relationship meeting my dad and asking him if he liked fishing. My dad replied with two words “Too pastoral”. My mom, although not Greek, also came from more recent (Polish) immigrant stock and always said “my idea of camping is checking into the Hilton and ordering room service”. For some immigrant families, it seems, the idea of camping and getting out into the “great outdoors” seems ridiculous. I mean, didn’t the family leave the old country to get away from having to gather wood and cook over a fire?
While over the years I have grown to appreciate the outdoors (certainly more than my parents), I still struggle with some aspects of the ‘rustic’ experience. Let me list my top 5: 1) Bugs (and especially those %^&%$@! deer fly that populate the cabin—they hurt like a mother trucker when they bite. And they seem to love me a bit more than others); 2) no blowdryer (I have very temperamental bangs that curl every which way when airdried); 3) being unplugged (with three current federal grants as principle investigator, I like to stay on top of things); 4) “doing nothing” (I start to get itchy and feel like I am being indulgent and lazy); and 5) feeling isolated from civilization (I begin to crave contact with people, even annoying people).
So when this year, my husband proposed a two-week vacation at the family cabin in Idaho (again, no electricity or wifi), I was a little bit trepidatious. In addition to my addiction to checking email and in with “work” multiple times per day. I also have two teen girls (aged 18 and 15) who are constantly on their smartphones (Instagram, Snapchat, etc). I have a 10 year old boy who loves playing computer games on the Ipad. What would happen? But like the Eva Gabor character, I decided that love won out. We had spent last summer’s vacation in England and Ireland on my sabbatical, most of it in cities. We would go to the cabin in Idaho for two weeks (a la Eva in Hooterville), come hell or high water.
So how did it turn out? Well, I am not going to say it was easy. I definitely had some Eva Gabor moments of being a “city girl” (two highlights: sliding down a huge log in a jeans miniskirt on a hike and landing into a pricker bush and being popped out of the raft on our white water trip and getting fully submerged into the Payette River). Oh and also? Those deer flies are still sons of a %^$#$.
However, going “off the grid” and “offline” for the most part was a gift. Yes, I came back to Ann Arbor and was confronted by about a thousand emails (literally). But none of those was truly urgent. And in return, the family: played cards, read books, hiked, went white-water rafting, had conversations that lasted more than five minutes, watched humming birds, listened to family stories/legends/tall-tales, cooked amazing food, looked at the stars, fished, and slept REALLY well. Idaho is a gorgeous (largely undiscovered—shhhhh) place.
I also thought of a way to manage my (likely genetic) need to be busy and productive. As I talked to Pat’s grandmother, dad and aunt and uncle, I began to gain an appreciation for the role this cabin (in the family since 1961) has played in holding the family together. Through death, divorces, moves and other life changes, this cabin has represented “home” to this family. Without realizing it, I created a little anthropology project for myself, taking notes on what they told me about the history of the cabin and the tchotchkes/treasures it holds within itself. Pat’s grandmother Helen, who more than anyone, has kept the flame of the fire of the cabin “lit”, has stories to tell. At 98, Helen continues to amaze. She drove and volunteered at St. Vincent’s into her 90’s. Although in recent years, she has slowed down and her memory is less sharp, she remains the pillar of the family, weathering each and every ebb and flow with aplomb.
I decided to catalogue what I found at the cabin and began to ask her about each item. The joy in Helen’s face as she told me what she remembered was priceless, and this knowledge will make these objects and experiences even more meaningful and connected for the next generations.
I have returned from Green Acres refreshed and awakened, glad to have been there…and glad to be back.