At Large in Ballard: Home Sweet
I have a friend who gives me a ride to yoga but almost always leave me to walk home from downtown Ballard. MJ’s Basic Yoga class ends at about 10:15 but it can take hours for me to find my way home.
I have been out of town the last two weeks, the last of which was spent driving on state roads through desiccated fields of corn in the Midwest, during one of the worst prolonged heat waves on record. I was in a black rental car with my mother, making drive-by visits to cousins who have children older than they were the last time that we met. Almost 2,000 miles logged and not a single espresso stand. Never have so many relatives or strangers expressed as much desire to visit or relocate to Seattle as during their 100 degree heat.
Since the first sight of Mt. Rainier to the left of the airplane, I have been soaking up the sights and sounds of the Pacific Northwest as though I am one of the plants trying to survive their drought. My first night home I had to touch every type of plant in my garden and breathe in the scent of the sweet peas that I thought I had planted too late. The famous blueberries are almost ripe in front of the Haftersons on Sunset Hill. Perhaps it will be a good year for tomatoes.
Fortifying myself for the walk home after yoga I tried to order a drink at the new Coffee Works, but it has been so long since I faced a choice other than size at Dunkin’ Donuts that the barista had to prompt me. “Coffee,” she coaxed. I was clutching my coconut bread sample from Great Harvest and 50 percent card for a haircut from Lisa at Haven as though the return to home and recycling bins might be a mirage, or byproduct of heat stroke somewhere between Indiana and northern Wisconsin. Relatives mocked me when I tried to order iced coffee. I saw more styrofoam containers in the last week than I’ve seen in the last year. Once home I wanted to kiss the cashier at Ballard Market to celebrate the plastic bag ban. He told me he had been counting the days.
Until the thunderstorms I returned to the first full week of glorious weather, to a landscape that still seems as lush as the tropics compared to lawns so brittle and parched you cannot walk on them barefoot. I can smell my neighbor’s coffee beans roasting in his toaster oven on the balcony. I can hear the boat horns as freighters pass through Puget Sound in the fog that burns off the top and bottom, leaving the vessels invisible but audible. There’s the thunk of a soccer ball being kicked against a hard surface and the whir of an electric mower, instead of a tractor turning over a failed crop. A slice of premium yellow nectarine is offered to me on a knife blade just one step into Top Banana.
For the last week I have been visiting my mother’s past, looking for signs of old high schools and a path through the woods. Walking my way home I clutch MJ’s Sanskrit chant sheet. Gate Gate Paragate … Gone, gone, gone beyond. Buildings gone but memories returned.
Here in Ballard, heat is not rising from the concrete sidewalks or the asphalt of a flat, flat paved land. I think about where I have chosen to live and columns I want to write: about poetry, dance lessons and 1/2 pound bags of coffee at Umpqua Bank and the mystery of the garden decorated in Barbie dolls. Working my way up the alley to my own block I stop to wish Jim and Marian Hafterson a happy 48th anniversary. They celebrated with a dinner date at Little Coney.
Jim and Marian tell me it is official. They may not be the oldest people on the alley, but they have lived on it the longest. Dating back to three decades to when their children were young and mothers seemingly interchangeable to those who climbed the trees and went from backyard to backyard. We talk about the squirrel their daughter raised, feeding him from a doll’s baby bottle and Jim’s visit to Norway where he learned that his people came from right outside of Hell. They offer me blueberry muffins made with the first pick.
Just walking up the alley is hillier than any stretch of Indiana that I’ve experienced. At the highest point I stop to look down towards Shilshole, with poplars in between and the Olympics as backdrop. Home in sight, sun almost directly overhead. Not gone. Returned. Sweet in every season.