Sunday, June 17, 2018

"When I See a Broom ...": About Fathers and Integrity

"When I see a Broom, I see integrity."

My father and I were in an antique store in the tiny town of Kinmundy in southern Illinois, about four or five miles north of the farm, just east of (the even tinier town of) Alma, where Dad had been born. It was the fall of 1999. I had traveled back east to visit my dad and to attend a family reunion of his six brothers and one sister.

Grandpa Broom was a fruit farmer. Word is that he had a sixth-grade education. When he became a young man, he went off to Chicago to attend telegraphy school, after which he got a job as a telegrapher for the Illinois Central Railroad. Later, he became a station agent. He met my grandmother in Kinmundy, then he took a job as station agent in Alma after they were married. 

Grandpa and Grandma Broom--John and Nellie--with their oldest child in 1909.

Grandpa's father-in-law, A. V. Schermerhorn, had been a fruit farmer and active in the Illinois Farmers' Institute, serving as president in 1905-06. It was no doubt due to his influence that Grandpa Broom, while working for the railroad, bought his first piece of property and planted his first orchard. 

Great-Grandpa and Grandma Schermerhorn at their farm east of Kinmundy, about 1893.

After ten years, Grandpa and Grandma bought a farm--the "Homeplace," as it was only ever known in the family--and the family moved from town out there. The property had existing orchards: pears, peaches and apples. Grandpa quit his job with the railroad shortly before my dad was born in 1925, and for the next twenty years, he continued to acquire property in the area.

The John and Nellie Broom family, about 1937. My dad is in overalls standing in the center of the front row. 

Eventually, Grandpa's fruit harvest became so large that, in addition to seasonal workers who came through every year, Grandpa hired local boys and men to help bring in the peach crop. On that day in 1999 in that antique store in Kinmundy, we ran into a local man who had been one of those boys. I can't recall now how the conversation was struck up, but when the man learned who my dad was, he immediately started talking about his memories of working for Grandpa during the peach harvest. 

Sorting peaches in my grandfather's packing shed during harvest.

"I thought a lot of your dad," the man said to my dad. He looked away for a moment, as if in thought, then added, "Of course, I knew your brother Walt. Fine man. And your brother, Ernie, too. Also a fine man."

It was then that he added an additional thought which I will always remember. "You know ..." the man said, looking toward the street outside and down the corridors of time, "when I see a Broom, I see integrity."

My Great-Grandfather, John Millard Broom

Of course, I was proud at that moment of my heritage. But, in a way, I wasn't surprised to hear this man say that. I had been raised with an ethos that I knew sprang from my grandfather, and from other fathers before him. My dad had been raised to value integrity, to be a man of his word. He had been taught by his father, among other things, that if he ever borrowed something from someone, to always return it in better condition than he had received it. To do quiet acts of kindness, never expecting recognition. That there was a right way and a wrong way to do things, and it was always worth doing things right.

Dad when he was in college at the University of Illinois.

I had heard Dad say these things from my boyhood. Then I saw how my father conducted his oilfield equipment business, and I knew that he had the respect of his customers. Integrity.

Dad holding me, my brothers Danny and Mike looking on.

Me with Grandpa and Grandma Broom

Me with Grandpa.


I've thought a lot, over the last 7-1/2 years since I came out, about what that man said in that antique store in Kinmundy that day almost 20 years ago. The definition of integrity encompasses a number of qualities, but surely one of them is "being true to oneself." For most of my adult life, it can certainly be--and has been--argued, that I wasn't true to myself. That I was living a lie. That I deceived myself and those close to me. 

That's one way of looking at it.

Another way of looking at it is that I was trying, desperately, to be true to what I *thought* I should be. I was trying to live up to, to be true to, an ideal: the Mormon ideal. I tried extremely hard to be a good Mormon, a good husband, a good father, a good provider, a good person. I was true to that ideal to the best of my ability. As for my latent, hidden homosexuality, that was unwanted--a quality that I never thought I could be, nor wanted to be, "true to."

That all changed when I, unexpectedly, came out. Since then, I have gained a whole new perspective on "integrity." Primarily, I have learned that, among its other definitions, integrity means living authentically. True integrity can never spring from desiring to live one's life according to someone else's definition of what that life should be. True integrity must radiate from within, rather than be imposed from without.

And so, on this Father's Day, I have thought about my dad, faults and all. I have thought about my grandfather, about my great-grandfathers. I know, now more than ever, that they weren't perfect men. But I am grateful, now perhaps more than ever, for their legacy, a legacy--enhanced by the events in the last ten years of my life--that I have tried to pass on to my own children.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Rafting the Colorado 2.0

This year's family vacation with my four younger kids, whom my late husband Mark dubbed "the Quads," is to Moab, Utah. We've been thinking of Mark because we came here as a family four years ago. And we rafted on the Colorado. Which is what we did yesterday. Thus the title of this post, "2.0."

The river was higher then, and the rapids were pretty intense.

This year, the water level was a lot lower due to dramatically lower snow melt from the Colorado Rockies. This made for a mellower trip, and the kids spent a lot more time in the river this year than they did in 2014.

2014. They've grown up during the past four years.

The spot where we put in.

Our guide, Seth

Aaron cooling off.

This trip was different from the one four years ago, and that's normal. That's the way it is supposed to be. Like the waters of the Colorado River, life moves on, carrying us forward to new experiences. But we never forget where we have come from; things that we have seen, felt and experienced in the current of life; and, most of all, people whom we loved ... and who loved us.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Finale: Aosta and Its Wines

This post picks up where yesterday's left off about our last day in Italy on Monday. As much as we were enjoying our time in Carema and would have liked to stay longer, we needed to move on to the rest of what we had scheduled for that day.

By the time we left the Carema cooperative's winery, the heavy rain that had occurred while we were inside had stopped, and the few sprinkles that remained dissipated as we headed on toward Aosta. On either side of us were towering peaks enshrouded in clouds that occasionally parted to give us a sense of what we might be seeing on a clear day.

As I drove, Piermaria noted some of the many castles that dot the mountainsides of the valley, and I made a mental note that, someday, I'll come back and see them. One such is the reconstructed Fort Bard, pictured below, above the Dora Baltea river. Previously referred to as Bard castle, it had been flattened by Napoleon in 1800 after 400 Piemontese soldiers had held off his army of 40,000 soldiers for two weeks, thus destroying the element of surprise of his invasion of the Po River valley.

The strategic location of the Aosta Valley was evident as long ago as Roman times, and indeed there was an important Roman settlement in the town of Aosta, and remnants of this settlement remain today--something I didn't realize prior to our visit.

The Arch of Augustus in Aosta, built in 25 B.C.

Ruins of a Roman theatre, also built around 25 B.C.,
that could accommodate up to 4,000 people.

The romanesque bell towers of the 1000-year-old cathedral in Aosta.

Our time in Aosta was limited, but Piermaria did her best to show us as much as possible, including the Church of Saint Orso/Ursus and nearby cloister which date back to the 10th century, though the church was expanded and remodeled in the 15th century (being, thus, practically new).

Remnants of a "Black Madonna" fresco in St. Orso's

I've seen a number of depictions of Saint Sebastian, but this fresco in St. Orso's kind of stands out.

My favorite part of the Saint Orso church was the Renaissance-era choir, which featured beautifully carved stalls.

We had lunch on the square in front of the cathedral. Piermaria had chosen it in part because it offered traditional Aostan fare as well as other dishes. I opted for the Tartiflette, a Savoyard dish prepared in Aostan style that features cheese, potatoes, onions and more cheese. Basically, it could have been called "Cholesterol Bowl." Yes, I ate the whole thing.

The cathedral in Aosta, parts of which date back to the 11th century (the facade being less than 200 years old).

Mountains above Aosta

After lunch, it was time to head a few more miles up the valley to Sarre to Feudo di San Maurizio, the small winery of Michel Vallet. My introduction to Vallet's wines had begun, really, with my first class in my Northern Italian Wine course, which covered Valle d'Aosta.

Two months later, while in San Francisco, I visited Enoteca Vino Nostro and purchased a bottle of Vallet's Mayolet--a variety basically only found in Aosta. Later, I read some articles about Feudo di San Maurizio, including this one written by Matt Kramer for Wine Spectator, and I felt we had to go there after our Piemonte wine tour, primarily because Michel Vallet has made it his mission to preserve local varietals and produce quality wine from them.

Michel Vallet

Matt Kramer very aptly described the person we met on Monday afternoon in Michel's subterranean winery, the entrance of which looks like an underground garage. We squeezed past a parked van and stacks of folded cardboard shipping boxes to enter a room that looked like a huge party had just been held there. Chairs were scattered around a large table that was littered with empty wine glasses and a number of partially-drained wine bottles.

Michel, the winemaker, looked as though he had just come from the football pitch, dressed in gym shorts and a tightly-fitting tee shirt. Our guide and translator, Piermaria, introduced us as Michel dashed back and forth. Eventually, we learned that a group of sommeliers had just left from a tasting. Michel had forget they were coming and was working in the vineyard when they arrived. As Matt Kramer mentions in his article and as we heard directly from Michel, he really doesn't use email or for that matter, in his exact words, "anything modern."

We were shown into an adjoining room and took our seats around another large table. Michel's wife and son cleared a spot for us as they cleaned up the remains of the sommeliers' visit. Then the tasting began. As he has no doubt done dozens, if not scores, of times before, Michel told us a bit of his story. How, without any formal wine education at all, he began making wine in the late 80's from local varieties to sell in his bar. Little by little, he expanded, acquiring small plots of vineyard here and there all over the area. His energy and passion for his work would have been evident in his eyes even had he not said a word. Intense, almost frenetic, energy exuded from him.

Michel talked about low yields, about his project of planting Nebbiolo vines in a vineyard enclosed by stone walls below a local castle where his godfather had tended cows years before. He decided to seek the lease to the ground and to plant the vines because he read in an old history how members of the House of Savoy had commented that the wine produced on the castle grounds tasted like wine produced in the Langhe. He assumed from this comment that Nebbiolo must have been grown at one time there, so he decided to try it again.

The vast majority of Vallet's production is consumed locally. Only occasionally is wine shipped to the States. And we could forget about having a case shipped to us privately. Wasn't happening. Fortunately a number of his wines are available in San Francisco. One that we tasted, however, is not:  his "XXII Settembre," made from Prié blanc, one of the oldest indigenous grapes of Valle d'Aosta and found almost exclusively there.

The wine is named after the feast day of San Maurizio, from whom Michel's winery takes its name. I couldn't resist bringing a bottle home with me, and I'm looking forward to drinking it on some future special occasion.

It seemed somehow appropriate that our last day in Italy ended where my Italian wine adventure had begun with that first class in my Northern Italian Wines course going on two years ago: Valle d'Aosta. Our last wine in Italy, however, was not from Aosta but rather Asti. Piermaria presented us with a bottle of Albugnano, a Nebbiolo produced near her home, as a parting gift, and we happily drank it Monday night at our hotel near Turin airport (since none of us had any room left in our luggage for one more bottle of wine).

Of course, as these things sometimes work, on the day that we left, the sun rose to reveal the Alps in all their glory after a week of rain, cloudy skies and haze. As we took off, I looked at those mountains, reflected on all that I'd experienced in the previous 10 days and thought: "I will be back, Piemonte and Valle d'Aosta. We have unfinished business. I will be back."