July 2, 2015

In Praise of the Fourth of July




I wish they could have seen her, those white-wigged guys in their buckle shoes. Propped up in a hospital bed, wearing one of those silly gowns, she was nearly as pale as the bleached white sheets and pillowcases behind her. She was one month shy of her 41st birthday, six months into chemotherapy. She’d hit a rough patch at the start of July, spiking a fever and landing herself in the sixth-floor oncology ward. I came to distract her, because that’s what friends do, staying with her for the afternoon while her worried and worn-out husband—trying to keep things normal when “normal” no longer had meaning—took their nine-year-old kid for a swim. (more…)

May 12, 2014

A White Girl Remembers Billy Frank


There is delicious irony in the fact of Billy Frank, Jr., lying in state this past weekend literally within a stone’s throw of the first American pioneers to settle on Puget Sound. For five hours on Saturday, friends and admirers of the most famous—and arguably most beloved—American Indian elder in the Pacific Northwest paid their respects not 50 yards from the graves of old pioneer settlers in Tumwater’s Union cemetery. Those pioneers were the vanguard of the huge wave of Oregon Trail emigrants who would soon displace and marginalize the indigenous people of Washington, changing their world forever.

Somewhere, Billy is grinning. “Goddamn,” he says. “We’re still here.” (more…)

March 11, 2014

Blues Highway

On a warm October morning in the Mississippi Delta, more than a decade ago, my husband and I set out before dawn to search for the grave of the man who—according to legend—sold his soul at the crossroads so he could play great blues guitar.

No figure looms larger in American blues mythology than Robert Johnson. Whether by a deal with the devil or through his own hard work and practice, Johnson played wicked slide guitar during the 1930s. He died in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1938, ostensibly poisoned by a man who thought Johnson was eyeing his wife. Or at least that’s the story. The tale of the jealous husband, like that of Old Scratch at the crossroads, adds both danger and mystery to the King of the Delta Blues. (more…)

February 6, 2014

George Washington Underfoot


When it is it acceptable to tread on the face of George Washington? The senator from Samoa thought the answer was “Never.”

“This is terrible,” he said, hanging back in the foyer of the Washington State Governor’s Mansion while the rest of his tour group moved on. “So disrespectful—walking over George Washington. This is an important man, a man who fought for freedom. He shouldn’t be here on the floor where people step on his face.” (more…)

January 13, 2014

Kam Wah Chung


From the outside it doesn’t look like much. Given its location, standing alone in a city park in the small eastern Oregon town of John Day, the stout little structure might be mistaken for some kind of shuttered concession stand—a place to buy hot dogs and soft drinks in summer, when the park swimming pool is open. Except for the hand-lettered sign overhead saying Kam Wah Chung & Co., and the fact that its address is on Canton Street, you’d never guess that this building— just blocks from the Grant County Fairgrounds—once stood at the center of one of the largest “Chinatowns” in the American West.

When gold was discovered not far from John Day in the early 1860s, Chinese immigrants flocked to eastern Oregon just as they’d rushed to the California gold fields a decade earlier. In 1887 two Chinese men, Ing Hay and Lung On, bought the existing Kam Wah Chung store in what was then a flourishing Chinese frontier community. They would own and operate their idiosyncratic business—part general store and part traditional herbal dispensary—in its original building for more than 50 years. (more…)

December 15, 2013

The “German” Pickle Ornament




Germany has given us some first-rate Christmas traditions. The Christmas tree, for starters. The advent calendar. The gingerbread house.

It did not, I am quite certain, give us the Christmas pickle.

“I see the pickle!” my mother’s next-door-neighbor announced when she came to admire my mother’s tree.

“Heather bought that,” my mom replied, completely missing the reference. This is a solid clue, by the way: a woman who has celebrated well over eighty Christmases—someone whose father’s parents emigrated from Germany—but who is totally unfamiliar with the German pickle tradition. I’d never heard of it, either, at the time I bought her the ornament. I just liked the green color, and the fat, bumpy, vegetable absurdity of a cucumber on the Christmas tree. (more…)

November 24, 2013

God Save the Beets


By special request—a Thanksgiving essay written years ago and reprinted more times than any other article I ever published. It’s slightly historic itself now, but still fun.

The only time I ever missed an American Thanksgiving dinner was while I was living in England on a study-abroad term in college. That year my landlady served up sausages and peas as if it were any other Thursday, and her husband sagely observed that if I wanted Yankee holidays, I should have stayed in America.  (more…)

November 8, 2013

A Hole Worth Not Fixing

There’s some really good stuff inside the historic Tennessee state capitol: cast-iron railings and spiral stairs, columns of limestone and marble, elaborate gasolier light fixtures decked with tobacco leaves, cotton blossoms, Indian corn, and elk heads. The elegant upstairs chamber of the House of Representatives is the very spot where American women finally secured the right to vote in 1920 when state representative Harry Burn switched sides unexpectedly—making Tennessee the last state needed to sew up the Nineteenth Amendment—because, among other reasons, his mother wanted him to.

But that’s just my third-favorite detail in the Tennessee statehouse in Nashville, after the tomb of its architect—who is buried right there in the building—and the 1866 bullet hole in the stone rail of the main stairs. (more…)

August 27, 2013

Hats Off

75 years hats


My husband and I discovered no end of peculiar items while clearing the house where his parents lived for more than fifty years: an astonishing number of flashlights, almost all of them broken; an appliance designed exclusively for heating frozen pizzas; soap in the shape of George Washington from the American Bicentennial of 1976. One of the most unexpected things—and one of the few I kept for myself—was a 1951 magazine that celebrated the history of American ladies’ hats. (more…)

July 17, 2013

Radical Wobblies and Porcelain Plates

Of all the radical American labor unions of the early 20th century, the loudest and most militant was the organization that called itself Industrial Workers of the World, whose membership was more familiarly known as the Wobblies.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, the Wobblies were mainly loggers and lumber mill workers—most of them single and transient, a lot of them immigrants. Encounters between the IWW and conservative local authorities were strident and sometimes violent. To the middle-class population of many small logging and lumber towns, the Wobblies were nothing but trouble. Bolsheviks and anarchists, in the view of the timber companies. Unpatriotic firebrands who sought to undermine industry and the American way of life. (more…)