It's interesting looking at these two families we now know in the Portland area -- the family whom we rented from in August, and our friends in Vancouver we are now once again staying with, until we go back East at the end of this month.
The first family is of the type that would give Dan Quayle the howling fantods. "Keep Portland weird", goes a popular slogan, and no neighbourhoods succeed as well as some of the older working-class areas. Our August rental was in the middle of North Portland, a ghost world where it seems one in four people drives perfectly preserved 1960s antique cars, where perfectly preserved 1950s gas stations turn out pizza if they are not pumping gas and where the streets are named after Eastern places -- Atlantic, Philadephia, Portsmouth, New York, not out of pretentiousness but like a parallel dimension...It feels like parts of...old Baltimore or something. The house is a one-story ranch dwelling, really much like a triple-wide that has sprouted roots, becoming a house, while sending forth a light-filled tower in the form of a studio with a balcony, but otherwise dark, cluttered, messy, filled with artwork, all of them tasteful as individual pieces. The matriarch is a 5'4", wise-cracking, chain-smoking, transplanted New Yorker with a BA in English lit and MA in adult education and runs a silk art business. She's Jewish and proud: she has the Gefilte fish bumper sticker. For her, Shabat is a beautiful woman and it is the duty of the man, come Friday night, to serve, and lest you think this is metaphorical, she adds, whether the actual act is performed through a hole in a sheet or not (she is a nonobservant Jew in some things but has Orthodox roots and is OK with them). Above all, though -- above her clear feminism and defiance of conventions -- Judaism is about family, more than ethnicity or doctrine. So six years ago, at 46, and divorced (she admits to to being "a terrible wife" who "emasculated her husband at every turn ) she decides she still wants a kid -- an infant. Though underemployed and with some strikes against her (probably she means financial), a sliding scale and a lucky draw of case manager let an open adoption go through. Mo -- 5'9" birth mother and 6'1" father, both fair and Nordic professionals -- will certainly have some questions as she gets older, but she is lucky, if appearances are correct. She is a physical, hands-on, patient mother. The house is warm and food gets on the table, even though the running of the household sometimes seems to hang by a thread. The line between family and community is blurred or non-existent.
The other home we know is also as full of focus on the family and love as the first yet here nothing is desultory. There is an aspiration toward dust and clutter-free living, not only because some of the residents have severe pet allergies, though four kids (all of them natural) make it all but impossible. Calendars and schedules decorate the refrigerators, not just aphorisms about how to live and treat others as in the first household. The Estonian wife grew up in a superenergetic family that runs a summer camp on their farm in Estonia. Before my wife became her deskmate at school, i.e. when she was not yet school age, this family was going on extreme trailless hiking trips in Russia's Far East that make my Olympic traverse look like kids stuff. Her American husband, meanwhile is Portland to the core, affable. He was left fatherless at an early age and seems like a self-starter. Despite the fact that they are each strong personalities, there is a streak of patriarchalism. It is clear that he, though from an Arab line that is Orthodox Christian and moved to the Caribbean, retains some of the aspects of his forebears and that he calls many of the shots. Though to be honest, who knows if it is really that. Perhaps the wife has simply decided to be diplomatic and not oppose him on any of the little things, in the interests of smooth runnings, as they say in the West Indies. And thus maybe it isn't sinister Church sanctioned submissiveness or stereotypical Arab male dominance, which are of course just tempting and facile explanations. What must be said that there is none of the day to day strife that can sap so much of my and my wife's energy. There is also no babysitter (we had hoped to use him or her occasionally), ostensibly because the kids are so hyper, three Ramona Quimbys (and now a baby) that no one wants to take on. But that can't be true. They aren't that bad. This family just does things together. Like the first household, they are barely scraping by on paper. And they rarely go out to eat. But resourceful and organized home economics make it possible to have a pretty comfortable life. The food budget is only 250 bucks a month for six different sized mouths. And there are tons of extended family members who provide support, fruit, daycare... Naturally he works a lot, outside the house. He has no degree but compensates with great social skills and personal charm. He is a middle manager for Costco (which explains the food budget) and also helps clients with Macintosh issues. The house itself? A suburban two-story with vinyl and PVC everything. Like the ranch dwelling in North Portalnd, also a cut above the other houses in the neighborhood in some respects.