We pulled up to park the car under sunny blue sky in Portland, got out and hitched our instruments over our shoulders to walk across the street where volunteers were running back and forth to set up for the neighborhood party. Portland weather was at its most glorious and a gentle breeze ran free and full of itself in fragrant wisps to tease the varietal mix of adults who greeted one another as their kids splashed around in the shade of the steel river-fountain play structure and waited for the festivities to begin.
Steve and I were there to open the party with music under the tent to celebrate the last summer on the block as St. Francis Park. The Catholic Church owned the city block that housed the church and long defunct brick school. The park in the corner of the property had been developed forty-five years earlier by the neighboring community, but had grown sketchy in recent years as an adjunct to St. Francis Dining Hall where the hungry and homeless came for meals. The land was bought by Catholic Charities, and now they had plans to build affordable housing in its place.
This gathering would be our last stop before heading home to Seattle. We had made the decision to move back home to Portland and this had been a trip to scout for a place to live. We had hiked with Cathy and the boys earlier in the week on a trail we had taken with Cathy twenty years before. She had surprised me with a text that she and the family were coming to St. Francis Park so the kids could hear us play before we left. We were so happy to see them all once again before the long ride back.
During the sound check I saw them file in with the crowd and sit at a table near the cubist water sculpture. Even Cathy’s mother, Dottie, came with them. Looking out from under tent, I saw Cathy sit next to her mom, and Dane took his stance by them with muscled arms across his chest to watch his sons, Quinn and Reed, as they chased each other to the water and back. I couldn’t tell if the tension in Cathy, Dottie and Dane’s faces was from the strong afternoon sun, or if they were anxious as they took in the odd mix of characters settling in around them; shirtless street people with skin burnt umber who sat next to families of all generations joining the party from their houses in the neighborhood. They had walked in to a diverse crowd.
Steve and I broke into “You Are My Sunshine” for the sound check and people starting to sing along. Dottie looked introspectively in another direction from where she sat at the table. Cathy’s forehead was scrunched tight in an expression that looked like she was holding her breath. I wondered if this was fun or hard for them? The kids were playing as normal and Quinn and Reed came up to give us a big hug and to say hello before we began to sing. Seeing them there was the sweetest gift. Grateful, I said a little prayer that this would be a nice experience for all of them – without burden. We were all together but separated by our roles in this odd setting. They were in the audience and Steve and I stood in front to deliver a performance of songs for whoever showed up. It was a little disconcerting and I began to focus on getting my instrument in tune.
Sound check over, we were introduced by the emcee and sang a string of songs on ukes and guitars while my banjo waited patiently in its open case. Without monitors our ears could only guess how it sounded coming out of the speakers. People seemed to listen attentively and mentally I crossed my fingers that it was going over well.
Announcements spontaneously interrupted a couple of times between songs and we were given the “one more” sign early, so we skipped to our chosen finale with regrets for the fun banjo song and “Well May the World Go” lost its place in line to the hurried-up ending of our set. “Shucks, the kids would have liked that one” I thought to myself. Live performance has a life of its own and always teaches me something. This time it was: do the fun songs first because you never know how long you’ve got!
Underneath my smiles and nods afterwards, I fretted whether it had been good enough as we walked into the crowd. Did we sing the right songs? Were they being polite? Did it sound okay? Was Dottie alright? Was Cathy okay with Dottie? Dane was unflappable at being in charge as he anchored the kids, one in each hand, and we all hugged and said goodbye.
As the next act took the stage, my eyes rested on the Portland friends, neighbors and my daughter’s side of the family. I felt so much love for every one of them – and Cathy was so beautiful. She had brought her mother, husband and children with her to be with us, to take us in with our music. Her courage and intention humbled and grounded me and I felt the whispers of self-doubt back down. We each have a part in what has become our family. There is room for all of us. Having stepped from behind the veil of old secrets, we see each other in the light and find ourselves welcome at the table. Whether the performance itself was worth the trip didn’t matter so much; hopefully, the songs did their work. Cathy’s brood came with her because they wanted to be with us as family and that was worth singing about all the way home.
To read my daughter’s counterblog, please visit ReunionEyes.