My mother was born in Unalaska during the WWII, ending up in Oregon after her father, a physician and officer in the Navy, finished his service to our country. The Pacific Northwest never left her soul and she spent most of her life living on its westernmost edge.
It was while she lived in Oregon, attending high school in Eugene, that she and a friend pedaled their bicycles to the beach town of Lincoln City one summer. It was 1953 and the two teenagers rode 124 miles to the ocean, throwing their bikes over guardrails when the sun set and sleeping in the soft grass along the highway at night.
It’s amazing to me that my grandparents let her go on this unusual exploit, not because they were afraid that the roads were filled with serial killers and criminals, it was a much different time then, but because it wasn’t standard practice for two girls to ride bikes that far and back, to be solely on their own, and create an adventure that was so independently and uniquely theirs.
My mom told me she fell in love with Lincoln City on that trip and went back, via car, as often as she could. And when she, at the young age of forty-seven and now living in southern California, lost my father to cancer, she took the savings he left and moved her life to that very same town she had sought out in her one big, teen adventure.
I was with her when she first shopped for houses. We flew there from Southern California and met with a realtor that drove us up and down the coast. I was highly protective of her, after losing my dad, and struggled to hide the immense ache in my heart when she’d ask me to teach her how to pump gas or figure out the VCR. She had relied heavily on my father all those years and while her life started out with a shimmering streak of adventurousness, marriage and children certainly dulled the shine, until she found herself living as the housewife she once told me she never envisioned while envying my career and work.
So when she decided to move up north, I knew it was her chance for an adventure all her own and I enthusiastically helped her look for the perfect place to start her new journey.
Now that dad was gone and the kids were grown and she didn’t have to tend to anyone else, I wanted to help her find out who she was and what she wanted, just for herself.
With the help of our cousins, she designed and built a beautiful house, standing proud against the Oregon mist, with a 180-degree view up and down the rocky coast.
This was her new quest, to embark on the expedition that would reconnect Kris with the Kris she remembered from her youth.
I visited there often, less to get away from my hectic career and more to check in on her, but I missed her as well. We talked long distance at least three times a week but I would long for the nights at her beach house where we’d stay up late drinking Earl Grey tea, playing cards and laughing about silly things. We loved going to the only movie house in town that showed only one movie, and beachcombing for agates so early in the morning that our windbreakers would be dripping from the ocean’s foggy mist.
So I fell in love with Lincoln City, just as she had, and when, on one of my first trips there, I saw a particular highway sign on the outskirts of town, a seed of a book idea sprouted in my head.
Lincoln City stands on the 45th parallel. It is woefully neglect in the merits of a landmark when you compare it to a Gettysburg battle or a national park, but it nevertheless intrigued me. The 45th parallel meant that Lincoln City, as well as all the other places that shared the same latitudinal address, was exactly halfway between the Equator and the North Pole. So the frick what? Being halfway between two more notable places didn’t make Lincoln City special. It was just a highway sign that someone in the department of transportation or the local Chamber of Commerce had posted as a place of interest. But someone thought it was interesting enough to boast its existence.
That’s where my author brain kicked in and the two words that always sink into my cerebral matter, like water parasites picked up in river swim while trekking through Zimbabwe, refusing to shake themselves loose, those two words that come to me more often than not, wormed into my head.
What if the people of this little beach enclave suffered from a small town Napoleon complex? What if a quaint little town, that served saltwater taffy and beach kites and seashell souvenirs to tourists, wasn’t really charming at all and the people were as habitually odd as the ‘small town mentality’ stereotype insinuates? What if a woman returns to the town her recently deceased mother adopted, only to find that things as strange as the town folk she encounters, were happening to her?
That was how my latest novel was born. The bug that was The 45th Parallel, swam around my brain with other “what if” organisms and waited, developing slowly over a number of years, until the idea had fully reached maturity and I was ready to purge myself of the growth.
Coming out this month, the printed offering is my homage to a town that brought my mom, and me, a lot of joy in the last few decades of her life. Parts of the story are similar to a person, or four or five, who my mother would tell me about or a town rumor she’d heard, while other parts are entirely fictionalized.
The small town essence thrives in the novel, as well as the real town, though at times I have strengthened its literary concentration. That’s because there’s something so interesting about the dynamics of people who circulate among an American hamlet such as this, listening to gossip, forming polarized opinions, and generally practicing the tradition of highly busy bodied meddling.
It was a joy to write The 45th Parallel because I could revisit the time I spent with my mom and have a little fun with the characters that were from memory as well as imagination.
I can still smell the flowery fragrance of Earl Grey tea and feel the grits of sand in my beachcombing shoes. And I still see her smiling at me from over a hand of Canasta cards.
The 45th Parallel isn’t the kind of tribute one usually makes to their mother or the town she called home, but it represents a unique adventure in a peculiar town – the same town where my mom, having lost my dad, found herself on her own again to create an adventure that was independently and distinctively hers.