Thursday, July 29, 2010

Shop 'til You Drop

Two weeks ago, I drove along Highway 99, through the Great Central Valley of California – "America's Breadbasket" – towards the towering Sierra Nevada Mountains. There was plenty of time to think, as well as to enjoy the good companionship of Irene Shibata, who was the co-leader of the trip we were about to conduct for several families on behalf of the Yosemite Conservancy.

We drove past green-canopied groves of olive and orange trees, past vast, leafy expanses of vineyards, and past cornfields growing tall under the blazing summer sun; we sped by farms and little towns that once were home to Depression-era families from Oklahoma and Texans – the Okies – which now are home to those who hail from places with names like Oaxaca, Zacatecas, and Basque Land, who speak, or whose parents spoke, Spanish, Armenian, and Portuguese.

At the time, I didn't pay attention to the people whose land we were speeding through. Perhaps, though, the nature of the trip made me think of my own family, my rather small, extended family.

For whatever reason, I don't have much contact with my mother's side of the family. They've scattered across the broad landscape of the U.S., having started their own clans, far from where I met them all long ago, in Ohio, the place my mom called "back east."

On my father's side, it's down to my wife and two daughters, my brother and his wife, and his two kids, and my two cousins and their wives. And there is the mother of my cousins, the sister of my father: Aunt Belle, our family matriarch, or as we sometime call her, "The Famous Aunt Belle," because she's been so good to our family. (Although we don't see them often, I also enjoy being an in-law to my wife's far larger collection of relatives.)

It was Aunt Belle, though –who will soon turn 96 – to whom my thoughts turned on that pleasant, recent Saturday morning in the Central Valley. Aunt Belle lives in Palm Springs, only 118 miles from my home in Los Angeles. We do see each other. Most of the time I'll visit with my wife, on an odd weekend, or over a holiday, always marveling at the drive that takes us beneath the king and queen of Southern California mountains, San Gorgonio to the north, reaching more than 11,000 feet in elevation, and San Jacinto, to the south, more then 10,000 feet high.

Somtimes I'll stop by my aunt's home on the way back from one of my camping or photography trips, always with Irene or someone else I've worked with. Last year, my wife Kathy and I were knocked out by the grand party my aunt planned and brought to fruition to celebrate her own 95th birthday, in a swank Palm Springs restaurant.

Had I ever made a visit to Aunt Belle on my own, without some other reason to prompt me? I could think only of a a few such visits, including one a few years ago, when I drove my aunt to Las Vegas, to the reunion of employees of the long-gone Dunes Hotel, which was owned by my Uncle Sid. Aunt Belle was the star of the show, treated by all as the visiting royalty she clearly was.

As I traveled to be with other families through a land of families, I grabbed my cell phone (ear-piece attached), and called my aunt. "Can I visit you, Aunt Belle? A week from Tuesday?"

With Irene and the others, I had a great time in Yosemite's high country. Two days after my return from that almost magical land, I rented a little car and drove with my little dog, Beau – the son I never had – beside me, through the megalopolis that is Los Angeles County, and a more impersonal landscape than the Great Central Valley, finally reaching the desert on Interstate 10, beneath and between Mounts San Gorgonio and San Jacinto. I drove past car lots on I-10, instead of cornfields on Highway 99, past fast food restaurants rather than feed lots. There was plenty of time to think, as well as to enjoy the company of my good companion, my little Beau.

I came to a stop in front of my aunt's home, beneath the northeastern flanks of San Jacinto. My bike was in the trunk; I'd hoped to ride for an hour, about as much time as I can take when the temperatures are soaring well above 100. Aunt Belle was busy with her computer guru when I arrived. After a wonderful lunch prepared by Felina, my aunt's friend and companion, she and my Aunt had another idea, which was to go shopping, although I wasn't sure what they wanted to purchase. I only knew that we were soon headed out to Cabazon, past the enormous Morongo Indian casino, past Hadley's emporium of dried fruits and date shakes, and finally to the vast confines of the Desert Hills Premium Outlets.

My truck isn't the easiest vehicle to enter and exit, and with only two seats, there wouldn't have be room for Aunt Belle and Felina. That's why I drove a rental car. Considering how much Aunt Belle and Felina purchased, bringing the truck might not have been a bad idea.

As the scope of our endeavor began to sink in, I sent a text to my wife, letting her know I was going to be in Palm Springs for longer than I'd imagined. Much longer. My wife knows I am not happy to shop, unless it's for cameras, computers, or cycling (the three "Big C's" that are the important toys to real men). Aunt Belle and Felina, though, headed into stores that featured purses and blouses, stores with names like Tommy Hilfigner, Coach and Izod.

Seeing my Aunt's and Felina's enthusiasm as they toiled away at their shopping chores was infectious, allowing me to experience a vicarious shopper's high. And Aunt Belle didn't, for the most part, shop for herself. She shopped for my daughters, for Felina and me, and she was, as usual, indefatigable.

When it was over, about three and a half hours later, we piled the last of the purchases into the car and drove back into Palm Springs, the streets somewhat empty in the early evening heat of the off-season. "That was nothing," Felina informed me about our shopping trip. "A while ago we shopped from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m." Aunt Belle added, "When we got home, I went right to bed."

We picked up dinner at Consuelos, a well-known and long-time Palm Springs fixture. After polishing off enchiladas, chili rellenos, and fish tacos at Aunt Belle's lovely home, we finished the meal with Felina's splendid apple cake, topped with whipped cream. When it was time for me to leave, I promised to return to Palm Springs soon. My bike can stay home, because there isn't enough time for cycling, or much of anything else, when you shop until you drop with the Famous Aunt Belle.

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