Opinion: Musings on the Coast

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Family Roots

Two weeks ago, we were in Lawrence, Kansas, visiting cousin Jeff Longhoffer, now stuck in his wheelchair with incurable pancreatic cancer and counting his days. He was stoic about it, very Midwest, very Kansas. It is what it is. With him was his husband, Jerry. With me were my three adult children and cousin Juliette.     

My kids had come from New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Juliette came from Missouri. Jeff was only strong enough for about an hour, so we arrived at 11:30 a.m. with lunch sandwiches and wine. It was fun. There were many jokes. I thought Jeff would be tired, but he wanted to share more and went on for hours.

He began with my grandfather, James A. Ray, head of Education for Marion County (the family home) in rural Kansas, farming territory. His first wife, after giving birth to two boys, died in later childbirth. James, as was the custom, soon married again, this time a 16-year-old girl, Inez, who bore four more children, my father included.

Jeff then waggled a finger at us, and his voice rose, “It is because of her, your great-grandmother Inez Ray, that we are not ditch-diggers or file clerks. She was an autodidactic self-taught genius who would accept nothing less than excellence.  Period. It was her alone who created the family ethic.”

He then told the individual stories of Inez’s six children, and all did pretty damn well. My father, a hobo, road the rails west to the golden shores of California during the Depression. He eventually landed in Newport Beach.

Jeff concentrated on the oldest girl, Mabel, a tall beauty who left Marion at an early age to pursue ballet, modeling and acting; but she changed her dreams and attended UC Berkley for a degree in Psychology, then returned to Topeka, Kansas, joined Menninger’s mental health clinic and started programs of her own still used today.

Her behavior and success at that time when women were actively suppressed was startling. “But,” Jeff said as he looked a Juliette, Mabel’s granddaughter, “She was a lousy mother.  It wasn’t in her.”

The odd thing—the thing my kids will remember forever—was Jeff passed no “judgment.” People were who they were, and all my kids and me, all super judgmental, were taken abac. We even felt shame. Here was Jeff, facing death, and his message was to accept people as they are, not as you want them.

The next day we drove to the old family home in Marion, population 1,800, and visited the Marion Historical Museum and saw my father’s high-school graduation photo and other family mementos from the 1920s and 1930s. That night we stayed in a tiny but elegant old hotel and got wonderfully drunk.

The next day we jetted back to California and the 21st Century. It felt strange, not real. The next day all three kids called and told me Jeff changed their life.

One last thing: as we were leaving Jeff’s house, we were alone and I said, “Jeff, you know we’ll never see each other again. This is it.”  Silence. Then we burst into tears and hugged, but only for a moment. We were in Kansas, stoic and fatalistic. Tears were not part of it. We soon stopped, looked at one another one more time, nodded, then one more time, and I joined my children outside.

It was over, and upon my return to Laguna, I felt both impossibly perplexed about who and what we are—and who and what we should be.

Michael is a Laguna Beach resident and principal officer emeritus of Laguna Forward PAC.

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