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How I Met Your Mother

September 16, 2010

I’m having lunch with my parents and my 91 year old grandmother.  It is September 12th, 2010.  I had just flown in for the weekend to attend an Ohio State football game the day before with my old college, and high school buddy.  Having only flown in for the weekend, time was an issue but being that I live 3,000 miles away I would become the black sheep of the family if I hadn’t visited my parents… unless of course I never told them I was even in town, but I couldn’t have done that.  The best I could do was fit in some lunch before my return flight to Arizona. 

We had lunch at a great restaurant that my mother insisted we try, called the Wild Mango.  Granted it is attached to a shopping mall – but one, at least, doesn’t enter through the mall, nor is there any hokey pseudo outdoor seating on a faux patio within the hallway entrance to the mall.  So when you are in there, one feels that they are in a standalone contemporary pan-Asian-fusion style restaurant.  Those words “pan-Asian-fusion” sound cliché and tired these days.  However you must understand this; I’m eating with my parents, in their neck of the woods, I was wholly impressed they were brave enough to try Asian inspired food.  It wasn’t until I was 16, and had a driver’s license before I tried my first taste of Chinese food (pedestrian chicken fried rice) at the local mom and pop wok shop in the strip mall down the street.  So these are very big steps for the folks.  My hope is that Wild Mango is the perfect gateway drug to Vietnamese, Thai and Korean cuisine for them. 

Our meal at Wild Mango was terrific.  They started with a complimentary bowl of soup, a puree of peas and cream with diced diver scallops.  I ordered an appetizer of pan fried chicken pot stickers – equally delicious to the soup.  I think it was the first time in my grandmother’s life that she tried a pot sticker, perhaps my parents too – but they might not be happy with me saying that.  For a lunch entrée I had a roasted duck breast, with a hoisen sauce served over steamed bok choy, a bed of sticky rice, and some artfully stacked fried sweet potato “fries”.  It was great and the presentation of the food was top notch.  It’s really nice to see a place like this on the Westside of Cleveland. 

As we were eating I was quizzing my grandmother on her life’s experiences.  At 91 years of age I, sadly and obviously, feel my time with her is limited.  I still can’t get over typing ninety freaking one years old.  I, who feel am going to die an early death, would be amazed to live 91 years.  That would put my age at decay to 2066!  I struggle to imagine how the world will be changed in 2066 and how I will cope with new advances in technology and lifestyles.  During this meal my grandmother asked me to explain what an “email” is.  After struggling with and grasping for a way to explain this concept, she then asks what this “Face” thing is that everyone talks about.  I didn’t even know where to start. 

I have been blessed to have all four of my grandparents an influential part of my entire life, I presently still have the benefit of 3 of them while my wife is left with none.  I also certainly feel like I have taken this blessing for granted.  I feel selfish as a person sometimes, we grow up in our own little world and we never truly appreciate where we came from, how we got here, and what twists of fate made our existence.  I guess as I get older I grasp for these life histories.  I don’t want my grandmother to pass without her sharing her story.  Of course it is ridiculous for me to think that an hour long lunch can serve as the canvas to paint her life – but I feel compelled to start somewhere.

“How did you and Grandpa meet?” I ask my grandmother….  It was wonderful hearing the joy in her voice as she retold her abridged story of when they met back in eastside of Cleveland in the 1930’s.  My grandfather was student at Case Western Reserve University studying mechanical engineering.  My grandmother was attending Cleveland Heights High School.  Every morning they would both take the street car to their respective destinations down Euclid Avenue.  Grandma told me that this was the first time Grandpa saw her and he told his friend, at the time, that she is the one he was going to marry.  Then one day Grandma and her friend, Sandra, had to change their route from Euclid Avenue to Mayfield (I never asked why) and she never saw Grandpa again.  Until after graduating she took a position as a cashier at Woolworths (making $0.23 an hour) and grandfather ran into her at the store.  He had an acquaintance whose wife also worked at the store and had them arrange for a party where he and her could meet.  They started dating and a few years later married in 1942, just prior to America entering full scale into World War II.  After an amazing 62 year marriage, Grandfather passed away in 2004, on July 15th.  There are so many more details I would love to be privileged to hear – yet in all likelihood, never will, as my grandmother is an immensely private and formal person.   Incidentally my grandmother’s oldest son, my Uncle, met his wife for the first time on a bus.  I guess this public transit thing is running in the family.

All this talk of chance meetings and circumstantial acquaintances got me thinking – what will I pass on to my son or daughter?  I had always assumed that I would have that opportunity to tell them “how I met your mother” long before my faculties and gifts of recollection would elude me- but what if they don’t last, what if I go before my time?  My wife has long been working on a book, a memoir of sorts, which would certainly document the unlikely convergence of our singular lives much more in depth than this ever will.  Should the case happen that she never gets to that chapter I thought it would be important to, at the very least, gloss over the most unlikely of introduction between my wife and I…

It is June, 1995, one month before my 20th birthday and between my sophomore and junior year of college at Ohio State.  My life is simple, straightforward, and ordinary in contrast to Jennifer’s.  Someone I had never even met until this time.  A few months previous to this I had read a feature article about Dude Ranches in Colorado and Montana, in the travel section of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.  They profiled about 6 vacation ranches, listing amenities, pricing and contact information.  I, having had quite a bit of horseback riding experience (albeit in a riding ring, on an English saddle, and in the most controlled of conditions) thought to myself “to hell with a vacation to one of these places, I want to get paid to do this!”.  I wrote letters of interest to all 6 of the ranches latter that week, inquiring about summer employment as a “wrangler” or trail guide.  Only one of the ranches ever even contacted me, Latigo Ranch, just north and west of Kremmling Colorado. 

After a few phone interviews, reference checks and a Red Cross CPR class later, I shipped off to Colorado for the summer.  A Greyhound Bus, after a white knuckle ride through switchbacks of the Continental Divide, drops me off in front of the Kremmling “Dairy King”.  I wait there with my trunk of belongings, and misshapen cowboy hat, for the owner to pick me up.  

Three weeks into my tenure of the best job I have ever had, we had our usual Monday morning wrangler staff meeting to go over the coming week’s guests, their riding experience and horse pairings.  Our manager made special note to point out three guests from Boston that I would be taking out: a mother, her 22 year old daughter, and her daughter’s cousin were all here for a special occasion.  The 22 year old daughter had just been terminally diagnosed with liver cancer.  This was to be her “make a wish” vacation of sorts.  Something to cross off the bucket list if you know what I mean.  When I saw her that morning for the first time I was immediately and frankly just shocked, this beautiful young woman, with a limited life before her chose this place, this vacation, this experience, as one of the last things she wanted to do before moving on.  Thoughts immediately raced through my mind.  I loved this place in the mountains of Colorado; but why did they chose this ranch, how could someone so young, strong and beautiful be facing death like this?  How could I possibly make this a fulfilling experience for her?  I had been on the job only 3 weeks and I get loaded with making this one of her last memories for god’s sake, how the heck is some 19 year old boy supposed to do this? 

Her mother hadn’t ridden in quite some time so it was decided that she would do some light riding and instruction in the ring with another wrangler that morning.  I was charged with taking the daughter, Jennifer, her cousin, Carrie, and a few others on a short orientation ride that morning.  We rode up to Jumper Flats, a reasonably high overlook to the ranch and the Middle Park valley below.  I highly doubt it fulfilled their expectations but it is what time allowed.  As it turned out, Jen’s mother hadn’t been on a horse for a lot longer than we initially thought and fell off that morning, hurting her back.  She didn’t want to simply quit riding the remainder of the week, so she asked to go out on short “walk only” rides in the mornings and in the afternoons.  I, being the low guy on the totem pole, was assigned this mundane task.  When you are only walking while on a horse you can’t do much else but a lot of talking.  I did the best I could to with my tour guide spiel of the local geography, flora and fauna.  With that of course was time for small talk.  I learned a lot about her, her career as a College President, as well as her daughter those few days while riding with her mother.  About Wednesday or Thursday that week, Jennifer’s cousin Carrie lingered around the barn area a little longer than usual.  That evening I and a few staff were planning on heading down to town (about a 20 mile drive) to get away.  So I, having no nefarious plans, thoughts, delusions, or actions, of course other than thinking it would be a nice gesture, asked Carrie if her and her Cousin would like to go into town with us.  I think Carrie made her mind up on the spot by politely saying “she’d ask Jen but didn’t think it to be likely, thanks anyway.”  My assumption at the time was that she was really thinking “no thanks you dirty creep, what kind of girls do you think we are”, but I later came to find out that she did actually ask Jennifer, but it was late and she wasn’t feeling great.  At the end of that week Jennifer and her family returned to life in the “real world”. 

I had been told that at the end of Jennifer’s week long vacation and after repeated nights of telling the ranch owner’s how great of a place they had, that one of the owner’s offered Jennifer a job should she make it through to the next summer. No one expected her to make it.  In August of 1995, a softball sized tumor was resected from her liver.   Months of experimental chemotherapy later she finished her Master’s thesis and contacted the ranch to tell them she’d take them up on that offer of a summer job there. 

I hadn’t planned on returning that following summer, but the exodus of a staff member left them with an opening so the ranch contacted me to see if I could fill in.  I drove out a week later and met Jennifer for the second time, a week after my 21st birthday in July of 1996.  We immediately connected and began spending time together.  About 3 weeks later on the one year anniversary of her successful liver resection, a Saturday day off, I asked the owners if I could take Jen out on a trail ride to Windy Gap, my favorite place on the Ranch.  We rode there that morning and having never been there or seen it, she loved it.  Windy Gap is a peninsula like ridge line that thrusts itself out into the valley below.  Practical shear drops on all sides, there is one very step, and rocky cowpath that leads off down the eastern side into an aspen grove.  We cantered through the grove, jumping felled trees, simply trusting our horse’s better instincts to find the best path forward.  Later in the afternoon we drove out to and then hiked up to Hanging Lake, near Glenwood Springs.  An hour long hike uphill leads to a spectacular mountain side waterfall which feeds a beautiful turquoise colored, and crystal clear, lake.  Words don’t do the place justice – I don’t think a camera could do it either. 

I was happy to have had the opportunity to spend this very special and unique day with Jennifer.  I think it was that very evening that I was struck by how lucky, or perhaps how strong, she was to have survived such a ravaging experience to her body only a short year ago.  It was at this point that I knew how lucky I would be if I could spend the rest of my life her.

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