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Keeping Oregon a secret

Thirty-five years ago, I ignored the view of Chicago from my 40th floor office window behind me and looked instead at a small painting on my desk, as I had for years. It was of a garden full of pink and red flowering bushes on a soft rainy day. Someday, I knew that would be my garden. A few years later, it was.

My husband’s job required a transfer that year, so I agreed to give up my 20-year corporate career for only one place: Portland. He had gone to Reed; I’d had business trips there, and we vacationed at a guest ranch near Bend, so we knew it well.

Our Chicago friends said, “Where is Oregon exactly, near California?” I said it was the last great secret place in the country, and we were getting there before word got out. (Later, they came to visit, intrigued. Word got out.)

We found a house near Portland and moved in with our young daughter. After years of urban living followed by a brief suburban life with a daily three-hour commute to/from my city job, I looked forward to becoming a consultant/stay-at-home Oregon mom. But I needed a mentor for this, and my new neighbor was glad to oblige.

Let the lessons begin. First, I learned to call it the Willamette River, difficult since we had lived in a Chicago suburb called Wilmette. Second, those weren’t pine trees in the yard, they were firs; you can tell by the needles. Third, the big trees with droopy tops were just hemlocks being hemlocks, with tops not bent on purpose by Native Americans long ago to show a secret way through the forest, as I’d read as a child. Darn.

Next stop, the grocery store, a place owned by someone named Fred. We could buy not only groceries but underwear, pillows and a can of paint at the same time. Ingenious; nothing like this in Chicago! But who was Marion? Why did she grow berries? And what did one do with gooseberries and huckleberries? Onward to something called a warehouse store, where I stood transfixed before the biggest bag of goldfish crackers I had ever seen. Wow. They must eat a lot of goldfish crackers here.

One morning that first winter, I drove past a large bush covered with what appeared to be big red plastic flowers. Tacky. In the next block was one with pink flowers. I pulled over to look more closely. Amazingly, those were real flowers, camellias, blooming in February. Flowers bloom in winter here? A few blocks later was a holly tree; who knew holly was a tree? I’d only seen it in Christmas wreaths.

On winter phone calls to old friends back east that year I didn’t really need to ask about their weather; I had once scraped frost off of my bedroom wallpaper in Chicago when it was 23 degrees below zero, so I knew what they were experiencing.

When they asked about mine in return, it was fun to say “Oh, I’m looking at the early plum trees blooming, and the daffodils are up.” It’s a wonder they didn’t all hang up.

And that spring I finally had my own garden of pink and red flowers in a soft rain, just like the painting on my desk.

I was used to walking and talking at a fast, get-it-done clip from my years of living in New York and Chicago, but my nice neighbor gently suggested that I “relax and take your time, we’re friendly here.” And how nice it was, once the brakes were on. Maybe I was becoming an Oregonian at last.

While on a business trip to Texas a few years later I had my answer. In an upscale department store I saw a display table promoting Oregon products: wine, chocolate, pretty wooden boxes. I was horrified. I slid up to the proud Oregonian standing behind the display. “Please,” I pleaded in a quiet voice, “could you stop telling Texans about Oregon?” I had so wanted it to stay the last great secret place.

Peggy Keonjian is a member of the Jottings Group at the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.