Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Ranch Labor Day Party

One of these days I will write a detailed memoir about the annual Labor Day Weekend (LDW) parties we hosted during the years we lived at the Ranch while the children were growing up. My thoughts are filled today with memories of LDWs from those glory days. The LDW event had a life of its own, that overflowed the confines of our family and our remote 40 acres of forest. In its heyday, it was an extraordinary phenomenon that touched many lives. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to share that experience year after year with so many wonderful people.

We moved to the Ranch on August 28, 1991 and we invited our friends from the Bay Area to come up and camp out one weekend at the beginning of October. It was in preparation for that October camp-out that I painted and posted the original “Where the Heck Are We?” sign (that eventually found its way into the SF Museum of Modern Art, which is another story) on the boundary of our property. That sign, unmistakably the result of our family’s sense of humor, prevented many a visitor to the Ranch from throwing in the towel just short of our driveway and heading back down the five miles of dirt road they had just traversed from 101. The 1991 autumn camp-out was such fun that we hosted another camp-out the following year on the anniversary of our move to the Ranch, which coincided nicely with LDW. The LDW camp-out was an excellent way to wrap up the summer and it became our family’s signature celebration.

Invitations to LDW suggested that visitors bring everything they needed with them and not plan to return to the store from the Ranch (since it took 30 minutes to drive into town) after arrival. Our list of what to bring (and not bring) grew longer with each passing year. I asked LDW guests to bring tents, food, lawn chairs, coolers, musical instruments (especially drums), dogs, ponies, elephants, Noah’s bagels, swimsuits, towels, books, games, magic carpets, ice, costumes, and, once, talking pineapples. They were asked not to bring firearms, misbehaved dogs, beets (I greatly dislike this unfortunate vegetable), and bad vibes. Despite our suggestions and wish-lists, it seemed that people mostly wanted to bring food, food, and more food. After our friend Jessica arrived with several truckloads of food from Costco two years in a row, we started writing on the invitation that she was not allowed to stop at Costco on the way up. We threatened to call Costco Security and ask them to locate her in the store and to tell her to step slowly away from the pie.

We met Jessica, who became the quintessential LDW guest and has become family to us, when a mutual friend brought her and her children to the first LDW camp-out. While the mutual friend did not return, Jessica returned every year with her children. This happened with quite a few people, who came with mutual friends and thereby met us by staying on our land. Certain people returned every year, which was the only time we saw them (and the only time they saw each other). A core group of LDW cult members formed and came every year religiously.

During the years when we had small children, many families with children, toddlers, and babies camped out on our land for the weekend. Some years we had as many as 30 people camping out. The children quickly coalesced into a pack that ran like wild wolves; roaming the woods, riding things with wheels, playing games, swimming, and climbing trees together. The visiting dogs formed their own pack and, under the naughty influence of our Australian shepherd Juno, snuck off to the pond to get muddy, returning with their tongues hanging to their knees and big smiles on their faces. A few years after we moved to the Ranch, we put in a doughboy pool, which became the beloved watering hole of the LDW crowd, especially the children. The adults sat under the watchful gaze of a wizened old oak tree while the children frolicked in that tiny pool (4 feet deep and 18 feet across) all afternoon as if they were at miles of beach; playing Marco Polo, making tidal waves by running around and around in a circle, jumping onto pool noodles and floaties, riding inflatables back and forth, and devouring lemonade, peanut butter sandwiches, and watermelon every couple of hours.

One of the best LDWs we hosted was the Tropical LDW. We wished we could go away on a family vacation to a tropical location, but we didn’t have enough money to do it. So we invented a tropical vacation by telling everyone it was the theme of the LDW party. The children made themed signs that we posted throughout the property. One sign pointed to the coconut grove, another to the beach, and another to the coral reef. One read simply “Yoh Mon” and another “No Worries.” We bought an inflatable shark for the doughboy and posted shark warning signs. We played tropical music and spoke like Rastafarians. We bought leis to present to guests as they arrived and drank tropical drinks with paper umbrellas. We have a friend who likes to dress and accessorize Barbie dolls and place them in “scenes” so we put on the invitation “No Malibu Barbies allowed.” Our Barbie-obsessed friend set up a display at our gate featuring Malibu Barbies, action figures, and plastic dinosaurs holding protest signs accusing us of discrimination. The display evolved over the course of the weekend, with many additions and changes, and photos taken.

Once, as we chatted over breakfast on the deck with the last few guests on the final morning of the weekend, we discovered that a young couple who was sharing that breakfast with us had not come to our house with anyone we knew. They had heard in a nearby bar that there was a good camp-out (with drumming) up in the woods in our direction. Did someone draw them a map to our land on the back of a bar napkin? To this day I have no idea how they found us. This was before the invention of the Tom-Tom -- but even after the invention of the Tom-Tom, our house was not on the radar of navigation systems.

The food was always spectacular and abundant. August was apple canning season so I had a kitchen overflowing with apples, and I baked pies. I always did pasta with pesto made from garden basil, and a huge garden-tomato salad. I often baked bread. We usually made hand-cranked vanilla ice cream (the best). We always BBQed. There was the year of the famous exploding hotdog. (I have no idea how this piece of meat on the grill blew up.) Ron started the ball rolling with ongoing references to the incident by warning our guests to beware of pork shrapnel. Naturally a Jewish home was not a safe place to cook pig meat (does pork shrapnel qualify as flying pigs?). One year Ron was having so much fun hanging out with our guests that he burnt all the meat on the grill. No one seemed terribly concerned about the loss.

There was the time that we were sitting on the deck eating dinner when our friend Bond arrived from Berkeley. As Bond raised his hand in greeting he managed to toss an entire Boston cream pie over his shoulder. It landed with a thump behind him on the deck, all in one piece, but it had jumped out of its tin pan. We gently lifted it and placed it back in the pan and later ate it for dessert. And the time that our friend Nanette went into the woods to drum and managed to attract a flock of 40+ wild turkeys that settled in the trees around her and “booped” at her (as turkeys do). She drummed madly to her appreciative avian audience, which loyally remained perched around her in the trees, undeterred by her racket. Another time we had just said farewell to the last camper on Monday afternoon and our family had collapsed into our respective beds for a nap when we heard voices in the living room calling, “Hello? Where’s the party? Anyone home?” A couple of friends had misread the invitation and thought the party was ON Labor Day, not on the Saturday of LDW. They had turned up with a casserole ready for action. We were exhausted. Party on.

The Ranch was a magic place and the LDW party always reached one or more bright points when a late night conversation or early morning coffee convocation on the deck organically turned to deep truths of the heart and in some miraculous way changed our lives. It always came down to this eventually over the course of the weekend. People left the LDW at the Ranch slightly changed from who they were when they arrived; they were more hopeful, renewed, clearer. One year a couple that was having relationship problems sorted them out and decided to remain together. One year a couple with relationship problems decided to split up. One year the adolescent son of a visiting friend lost his virginity with his boyfriend in a tent in our forest. One year I celebrated my 40th birthday and we cleared the living room and danced the Electric Slide with the crowd for hours. (We often danced and one year we set up karaoke.) Once, a group of theologians talked philosophy, religion, and spirituality until after midnight under the splash of bright stars where they sat at the picnic table – the group included a rabbi, an ex-priest (Catholic), an ex-nun (married to the ex-priest as they had both left their vocation when young to marry and have children), a man with a PhD in theology, a minister, and a group of deep thinkers. LDW was a spontaneous retreat, a spiritual affirmation, an embrace from the universe, without ever intentionally trying to be any of these things. The extraordinary beauty of the land and the awesome presence of our ancient trees brought out the wonder and made transformation happen.

When a Midwestern friend was visiting us in California one summer, I asked her if she would still be in the area for LDW. “Why?” she asked, “what happens on Labor Day?” Our youngest child, then about seven years old, gave her an incredulous look and asked in astonishment, “You mean you don’t know about Labor Day?!” In our family Labor Day was as legendary and adored in the canon of festivals as Christmas or Passover. We took an ordinary, generally unfestive, three-day weekend and transformed it into a community event of significance and splendor filled with exploding hotdogs, drumming, shark-infested swimming pools, talking pineapples, dancing, pesto magnifico, and transformational conversations. Now that we have moved off the Ranch to our house close to town, and no longer have the energy or inclination to put on a big shindig, we invite a few close friends over for the evening during LDW and raise a toast to the days of the all-in LDW event. We made some sweet LDW Ranch memories to carry with us always, for our children to carry with them. 

And we have not given up on making memories; not by a longshot. We had a fun music jam with a few close friends last night. Keyboards, guitar, harmonica, drum, and other percussive instruments. Dancing and singing. Celebrating our good fortune to live here in the same time and place with such terrific people, aging together, watching our grown children step out into their lives, appreciating the overflowing abundance of our lives. I am a lucky woman. May you be equally blessed, dear reader.

This photo of the sign was taken by Jessica Nelson. Here it is in its natural habitat. 
The sign is no longer there after a complicated series of events, which you can read about here


Sylvia Mullally said...

Reading about the LDW at the ranch and hearing tales about it from Elena, I almost feel like I was there.
This past weekend there was magic afoot at your home. Heartfelt thanks for the fabulous food and the amazing (Ron will cringe) food and company!!

Sylvia Mullally said...
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