“So, shall I show you around campus?” I asked.
“Sure!” Mom said.
“I was thinking we could walk to the math building, then come back here a different way, then drive around and get lunch.”
“Sounds good! Then go see Uncle Lenny and Auntie Dorothy, then on to Portland.”
“What?” Grandpa said.
“Greg is going to show us the campus,” Mom spoke to Grandpa, slower and louder than her normal voice, carefully enunciating.
“Okay,” Grandpa replied. I remembered a few years ago when Grandpa first had to start using a hearing aid, and these days, more and more often, Mom had to repeat things for him.
“Hey, Greg,” I heard a voice say behind me. Ivan Winn, one of the other students in my summer research program, was getting out of the elevator.
“Ivan,” I said. “This is my mom, my brother Mark, and my grandpa. They’re up visiting for the day. My dad stayed home because he had to work.”
“Nice to meet you,” Ivan said as the others said hello. “How far did you have to travel?”
“We’re from a little town called Plumdale,” Mom explained. “It’s about a ten-hour drive, but we did most of the drive last night.”
“Still closer than my family. I’m from New York.”
“That is far. Greg is going to show us around the campus, then we’re going to go see some other relatives.” Mom gestured toward Grandpa and continued, “My father was born in Oregon, not too far from here, so I have aunts and uncles and cousins nearby.”
“Nice! Have fun!”
“I will,” I said. After Ivan left, I explained to Mom that Ivan was the guy I had mentioned before who knew The Simpsons at least as well as I did.
“Oh, yeah,” Mom replied.
As we walked across diagonally the Quad, I pointed out the Memorial Union behind us to the right. “I thought it was kind of funny how Grandvale State has a Memorial Union next to the Quad, and Jeromeville also has a Memorial Union next to the Quad.”
“That’s right,” Mom said.
“This is Keller Hall, where the math department is,” I announced, pointing across the Quad. When we arrived, I unlocked the door and took my family upstairs to room 202, the study room for the summer math research students. No one else was there on a Saturday morning.
“So this is where you have to go to use the computer to check your email and stuff?” Mom asked.
“Yeah. And where I run code to do calculations for our project.”
“What?” Grandpa asked.
“Greg does his math research using these computers,” Mom explained to Grandpa in the same louder, clearer voice she used earlier.
“What are you researching?” Grandpa asked.
“Quasi-Monte Carlo methods using low discrepancy sequences,” I explained. Assuming that Grandpa would not know what this was, I continued, “I’m looking at a way to approximate a certain kind of calculation that can’t be done exactly, looking at the accuracy and efficiency of a particular method to approximate the calculation.”
“I see,” Grandpa said.
“Sounds boring,” Mark opined. “‘Chlorophyll? More like borophyll!’” he continued, quoting from the movie Billy Madison.
“Well, it’s what I’m doing,” I said. “You don’t have to like it.”
I walked my family back to where Mom had parked the car that she rented for this trip, so as not to put a lot of miles on the family car. Mom continued talking and asking questions, while Grandpa and Mark remained fairly quiet. We walked back a different way, around the other side of the Memorial Union, so I could point out a few other buildings, even though I did not know much about them.
After we got back to Howard Hall, we got in the rental car and drove to the McDonald’s closest to campus. I did not know much about local restaurants in Grandvale, and McDonald’s was something safe and familiar that we could all agree on. I ordered an Arch Deluxe, my usual McDonald’s order.
I sat and ate while Mom told stories about her work. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed one other person seated inside the restaurant, eating alone. As I got bored with Mom’s work gossip, I took a closer look at the other person in the restaurant, a girl about my age wearing a hat with long blonde hair in braids. I did a double take; I knew this girl. It was Jeannie Lombard from my math research program. What was she doing in McDonald’s? She told me once that she used to refuse to watch The Simpsons on principle, and it surprised me that someone that snooty would dare eat McDonald’s. I figured she belonged in some vegan restaurant eating vegetables and tofu. Maybe I was reading her wrong.
Mom commented that the girl I was looking at reminded her of someone she knew back in Plumdale. “That’s Jeannie,” I said. “From the math program.” At that moment, I felt like I should say something, because I did not want Jeannie to think I was avoiding her, but I did not make a scene either. Jeannie was almost done eating when I first noticed her; she got up to throw her garbage away about a minute later, and I looked at her and waved. Jeannie looked confused at first, then a look of recognition came on her face, and she walked toward us.
“Hey, Greg!” she said. “Is this your family visiting?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “My mom, my brother Mark, and my grandpa.”
“Nice to meet you,” Jeannie said as the others greeted her in return. “What are you guys doing today?”
“Grandpa grew up not far from here. We’re going to visit relatives in Salem and Portland. I’ll be back tonight.”
“That sounds nice! Have fun!”
“Thanks! I will!”
After Jeannie walked away, Mom said, “She seems nice.”
“Yeah,” I replied.
“Hello!” Auntie Dorothy said, greeting us from the porch as we arrived at her house. Uncle Lenny stood behind her and waved. We drove straight to Salem after leaving McDonald’s in Grandvale; the trip took a little under an hour.
“Good to see you again, Greg,” Auntie Dorothy said. “Mark! You’ve grown since we last saw you!”
“Yeah,” Mark replied.
“What year are you in school now?”
“I’m gonna be a sophomore.”
“I hear you’re playing basketball? Or was it baseball?”
Uncle Lenny turned to Grandpa and said, “Hello, John,” as the two brothers shook hands. “Peggy,” he continued, turning to Mom.
After all the greetings, we went inside and sat around the kitchen table, catching up. This reminded me of the thing I liked least about visiting relatives, when the adults would just sit around and talk about boring adult stuff, and Mark and I had to sit there and not touch anything. Mark was listening to music on headphones; I had no such thing to distract myself.
I heard a loud rumble outside and saw movement out of the corner of my eye through a window facing the back. The yard backed up to a railroad track, and a train was passing by. This was my third visit to this house so far over the course of my life, and the first thing I always think of regarding that house is hearing trains go by.
“Greg?” Uncle Lenny asked at one point. “How’s your math project going?”
“I have a week left in the program, so we’re gonna work on writing a report of what we learned. I pretty much know what I’m writing about. I just need to put it all together.”
“What else did you say you were doing today?” Auntie Dorothy asked.
“We’re going to see Charlene and Bob in Portland,” Mom explained. “And Mark wants to see the Niketown store.”
“Gonna get some new shoes for basketball?”
“Maybe,” Mark said. “There’s this one pair I’ve been looking at that I hope they have.”
“Well, that’ll be fun.”
The drive from Salem to Portland took another hour; it was the middle of the afternoon when we arrived. Charlene and Bob lived in the suburbs, off of the same freeway that I took riding Tony’s Airport Shuttle from the airport to Grandvale. They had made plans with Mom ahead of time to meet us for ice cream, since Mom knew that we would have already eaten lunch by the time we saw them.
Charlene and Bob were already waiting at the ice cream shop when we arrived, and we went through all the greetings again. They asked me about my math research program, they asked Mark about baseball and basketball, and they asked Mom and Grandpa how everything was going in their lives. Charlene and Bob were family, but the honest truth was that I did not know them at all. Mom had explained how they were related; Charlene’s father was Grandpa and Uncle Lenny’s older brother, who had passed away a few years ago. Mom got Christmas cards from Charlene and Bob every year. But I could not remember ever having met them before. When I was eleven years old, we came to Oregon for a family reunion on that side of the family, and I probably met them there, but that was almost a decade ago. They seemed nice, though, and I was not uncomfortable meeting up with them.
“So are you thinking of math research as a career?” Charlene asked me at one point.
“I’m not sure,” I replied. “Honestly, it hasn’t been that great of an experience this summer. Math research is weird, and I haven’t gotten along all that well with the people I’m working with. But if this isn’t the career for me, it’s better to find this out now after one summer than after I’ve committed a lot of years and money to a Ph.D. program.”
“Right,” Charlene said.
“That’s a good way of looking at it,” Mom added.
Charlene asked about our plans for the rest of the day, and Mom explained about the Nike store, which would require a trip downtown. “I have an idea,” I said. “Can we drive across the Columbia River into Washington, then go along the river to I-5 and cross back into Portland there? I just want to see the river and the bridges.” As one interested in highways and geography, this sounded like fun.
“Sure,” Charlene said. “You can follow us, then you can leave straight from there.”
We said our goodbyes, with Mom and Charlene and Bob reiterating how good it was to see each other in person. Charlene also said the same to Grandpa, calling him Uncle John. “Follow us to the river,” Charlene said, and we got in the rental car and followed Charlene to the freeway.
“There it is,” Mom said as soon as we could see the Columbia River. The river, forming most of the boundary between the states of Oregon and Washington, was much wider than most of the rivers I had experienced in my life. The nearest river to Plumdale, the Gabilan River, was dry most of the year, with much of its water diverted to agriculture. Jeromeville was on a fairly small stream called Arroyo Verde Creek, a tributary of the Capital River. The Capital was a fairly wide river, comparable to the Willamette that flowed through Grandvale, Salem, and Portland before joining the Columbia a few miles from here. But the Columbia was much wider. I had never seen a river this big before; I had flown over the Mississippi River a few months ago on the way to Urbana, but I did not get a good view up close like this. I could also see Mount Hood rising above its surroundings to the east.
The city of Vancouver, Washington, not to be confused with the similarly-named Canadian city north of here, was across the river from Portland; we took the first exit and headed west. But instead of driving across Vancouver to Interstate 5, Charlene got back on the freeway headed south, across the same bridge we had just crossed. Mom followed them.
“No!” I said. “I wanted to go across the other bridge! I said go west to I-5.”
“I’m sorry,” Mom replied. “Apparently they misunderstood.”
This bridge, the newer of the two connecting Portland with Vancouver, was fairly simple, looking more like a freeway overpass with water underneath, but it was still a beautiful view of the river. I could see the airport along the river on my right as we headed back into Portland. We waved at Charlene and Bob as they exited a couple of miles past the river on the Portland side of the river, and we continued to the next exit, onto Interstate 84 toward downtown.
“That was fun,” Mom said. “That’s probably like if they came to Bay City, and we met up with them there, and they wanted to drive across the Bay City Bridge.”
“But what if they wanted to see the Oaksville Bridge too?” I asked.
“Oh, come on,” Mom replied.
Downtown Portland was full of dense urban neighborhoods on the west bank of the Willamette River, a few miles upstream from where it joined the Columbia. We found a public parking garage within a few blocks of the Niketown store. Mom took lots of pictures of downtown Portland as we walked around. “Downtown Portland kind of reminds me of Bay City,” Mom said, “with all the tall buildings right next to the water.”
“I can see that,” I said.
Nike had a strong presence in the Portland area, with its headquarters just outside the city. I looked around as we walked into the store, a bit overwhelmed by the multiple floors of shoes and various kinds of athletic clothing and equipment. I was not looking for anything in particular; Mom and Grandpa and I just followed Mark around as he admired the merchandise, looking for the pair of shoes he wanted.
“Are you getting anything, Greg?” Mom asked.
“Probably not,” I replied, still looking around nevertheless.
After exhausting our search on the first floor, we climbed the stairs. “I think that’s them over there,” Mark said, pointing. We followed him to the shoes he saw, and after looking at boxes, he said, “They don’t have my size.”
“Really?” Mom replied, voicing disappointment. “Let’s ask someone if there are any more in stock.”
“Fine,” Mark said, obviously annoyed, as Mom walked to the nearest employee and asked about the shoes. The employee walked back to the stockroom to check the inventory.
“It’s okay,” Mom said to Mark. “If they don’t have it, we’ll see if there is some way to order the shoes and have them shipped.”
“Sorry,” the employee said after returning from the stockroom. “We’re all out of that size. Is there anything else I can help you find?”
“No thanks,” Mom replied. “I’ll let you know if there is. He’s just a little disappointed,” Mom said, gesturing to Mark, “because we traveled a long way to come here and he really wanted to see the Nike store.”
“This is actually our smallest Niketown store. I’m not sure where you’re from, but the biggest one on the West Coast is the one in Bay City.” As the employee told us this, I looked at Mom, and we made eye contact, apparently sharing the same unspoken thought: they drove all the way to Portland to see this store when there was a better store just a hundred miles away from them in Bay City. Later that day, after we left the store, Mom said the same thing out loud.
Mark did end up buying a different pair of shoes, so as to not leave empty handed. We also took a detour across the other bridge and back, so I could see it; it was older, a truss bridge with girders spanning the highway. We stopped at a Taco Bell somewhere between Portland and Grandvale for dinner, not wanting to have burgers again.
That morning, I had packed all of the things that Mom had shipped to me earlier in the summer. I kept only what I needed for another six days, only what I could fit in my suitcase and backpack and bring with me on the airplane, and sent the rest home with Mom, Mark, and Grandpa. I would not have my stereo and music for the next week, but it was logistically the only way to get my things home without my own car. We said our goodbyes, and Mom, Mark, and Grandpa left Grandvale in the early evening and drove south for another two hours before stopping at a motel, so that they would not have as long of a drive the next day.
I was tired from the long day, but I still decided to walk up and down the hall to see if anyone was around. Jason, the graduate student in engineering who hung out with those of us in the math research program, had his door open; Julie, Jeannie, Ivan, and Marcus were in his room too. I could hear “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls playing from inside Jason’s room.
“Hey,” I said, walking into the room.
“Giddyup,” Ivan said.
“What is it with you guys and ‘giddyup?’” I replied, laughing. That word had become an inside joke with our group over the last couple weeks.
“It’s just a funny word.”
“Is it ‘giddyup’ or ‘giddyap?’” Julie asked. “Because once I read something that said ‘giddyap’ instead.”
“It’s probably one of those informal slang words with regional dialects,” I said.
Emily walked into the room. “What’s up, E-Dog,” Julie said.
“Hey, guys,” Emily replied. “Hey, Greg. How was your day with family?”
“It was good. We saw Grandpa’s brother and his wife in Salem, the same relatives I saw a few weeks ago. Then we saw Mom’s cousin in Portland. And my brother wanted to go to the Niketown store. And they took home everything I won’t be able to fit on the plane.”
“Nice! Did you enjoy the visit?”
The song ended and started again. “You have ‘Wannabe’ on repeat?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” Jason explained. “The Spice Girls are the next big thing in music. They’re gonna be the greatest girl band ever.”
“I need to get this CD,” Julie said.
“I can borrow Jason’s CD and make you a tape,” I said. “Oh, wait,” I added, remembering something. “I can’t, because my parents took the stereo back with them. Sorry.”
“So you guys have one week left in the program?” Jason asked. “How was it?”
Everyone said positive things, but I said, “I’m still homesick. And I kind of feel like the biggest thing I learned was that math research might not be the career for me.”
“It’s better to figure that out now than after you’ve given years of your life to math research,” Marcus said reassuringly.
“I know. I said that same thing to the relatives today.”
Six days left in Grandvale. Then two weeks back home, then I could hurry up and get back to the life I knew in Jeromeville, with my roommates, my church, and my friends. Friendship never ends, the Spice Girls sang again; I had lost count of how many times, with Jason playing the song on repeat. Wannabe was one of those songs I loved to hate, but it was somewhat catchy, and the Spice Girls were right about the importance of friendship. I just had to make it through six more days, and finish writing a report.
Readers: Tell me about a noteworthy time that you visited relatives, or had relatives come to visit you!