The kids and I watched a silly movie called "I'll be home for Christmas" the other night. A West Coast college student can't talk his girlfriend into a Christmas in Cabo San Lucas, decides to hang out West anyway - until his father offers him his classic Porsche if he makes it home for Christmas Eve dinner.
The girlfriend is actually an East Coast neighbor who can't bear to be away from her family at Christmas, and after an arduous and often silly trip east in a Santa suit, our hero, the girl, and his family all end up at dinner together.
The interesting thing about the movie is that "home" could have been anywhere. East Coast could be New York or Philly, Boston or New Haven. The big, two-story, box-shaped house - which we did see - could actually have been in the Midwest or upper Southeast (I think there was snow at the end, but frankly can't remember). "Home" had completely to do with family, and family in this case included a step-mom but did not extend to uncles, aunts, cousins, or grandparents.
I guess that's about as nuclear and American a definition of family as you can make.
My first years in Wallowa County I'd often hear that one couldn't be a "native" unless he or she could count three or four generations living here. I'd just come from the East Coast, where the Daughters of the American Revolution was still active and New Englanders weren't old-timers unless they could trace to the Mayflower. And before that I'd spent five years in Turkey, where Christians in my city traced their lineage to a church that had been operating continuously since its founding in the sixth century.
At the time of my arrival in 1971, it had been less than 100 years since Joseph's Band of Nez Perce Indians had been chased out, so my immediate response to all the talk about native was to say that I guessed that unless you were Nez Perce you weren't really an old-timer in the Wallowas. And over the years the idea that American Indians have a different sense of "native" and "homeland" than Euro-Americans or African-Americans or Asian-Americans has grown. That "rootedness" in America has a few deep pockets in New England, the Mexican Southwest, and maybe even in the Deep South, but that all of our talk of and search for roots really points to a societal lack of them.
Mobility is the American blessing and curse. It fuels the American dream of new immigrants - though it is interesting to see how the first generations, from my grandfather and his brothers who helped each other get here from Norway to current groups of immigrants from across the world, hang onto an older idea of home and struggle to re-create the best of it in the New World. Mobility takes us away from the comfort and assistance of roots, but allows us to reinvent ourselves away from families and places of origin. It is almost a definition of the American West.
At a Sunday evening solstice party in Joseph there were people who have lived in the Wallowas for three or four generations who I met almost 40 years - a generation - ago. There were people who had been here for only months or weeks. Most of us were more recent arrivals, including at least one three generation family combination. There were college students home for Christmas, and parents biting nails about children trying to make their ways home. The hosts have been here only a few years. Yet we were all comfortable in the setting, all involved in social, work, and community networks that tie us together - or that might, with the help of this gathering and a few more, do so in the future. All, it seemed, in love with where we are.
I met someone recently who had traveled the West looking for a place to settle, and found her way to Joseph. I told her that this was not unusual, that we are a place of seekers. And I guess that I'd fight with anyone who asked that my family be here for three generations before I call myself an "old-timer." We're all just Americans, looking for a place to be old timers and to call home, and for some lucky 6,000 or 7,000 of us, that place is the Wallowa Country in Northeast Oregon.
The best of Christmas to all who have found your ways home - and to those still searching.