#23 Oliver’s incredible backstory

We’re all holding our breath: the birds, the cicadas, Sir Isaac, me. Oliver is finishing up his “backstory” as he describes it. Earlier, he’d asked me to help with the mule. (After a day in the pasture, he needs currying and hoof-picking.) We’re set up at the rolled-open barn door, Sir Isaac tethered on either side so he won’t take charge of us while we brush and pick. Now Oliver and I stare at each other over Sir Isaac’s sway back.

This was how he began:

I thought you might want to know how I came to be living here. It will help you understand why I can help you.

My parents are polar opposites. Literally and figuratively. Dad floats on an observatory in the Arctic to study climate. Sometimes he and his team are frozen in the ice for months. He’s trying to learn how heat moves through the ocean, ice, and atmosphere. Very important in this time of climate change.

This is a selfie my Mom took with a gentoo penguin, so that’s the ANTarctic. She scans the stars with her telescopes searching for fundamental particles. During the day she studies ancient air bubbles trapped in the ice and penguins too, I guess.

They told me last year that while—“of course”—they’ll continue to love ME, THEY were getting divorced. I haven’t seen either one in two years for more than an overnight. I don’t think they’ve seen each other at all. I try to FaceTime with each of them once a month, but the reception at the poles is bad, especially if there are storms.

My first 7 years I had Zia, er, Miss Mary. She owned our house in Boston and lived on the top floor. This was before she took over the farm here.

What does Zia mean?

Zia means “auntie” in Italian. Oliver pauses to hand me another kind of curry brush and continues the saga.

Zia was my everything. She remembered my doctor appointments, knew my favorite foods, read to me, walked me to the parks, bought us both scooters so we could get places fast, started me in kindergarten, picked me up every day.

Then my parents got huge research grants. At opposite poles. And at the same time, Zia inherited this farm from her sister, my Dad’s aunt. “Perfect timing,” she told my parents, “Oliver can live with me while you’re exploring!”

No,they said, “thank you for being the nanny for the last 7 years, but it’s time for Oliver to go to boarding school.I think they didn’t want to admit that Zia could take over all the parenting of little me.

You’re kidding. I’m gobsmacked, to stick with my love of Scottish words. Boarding school, you’re kidding.

Most boarding schools only allow 7-year olds as day students. But my parents found Ramsey Hall. 147 acres, 32 buildings, a St. Bernard mascot, and no hazing. It was okay. Just lonely. No one hit me or abused me, kids or adults. Our house elder-parent taught me to play chess. I got into basketball and baseball. And reading. I started out by going to new friends’ houses on weekends and holidays, and once to Zia’s Boston brownstone. Then my parents decided this farming me out routine reflected badly on them because someone always asked, “where the heck are your parents?

Ramsey kids from other countries usually have special arrangements to stay on campus for long weekends and school breaks if they don’t have other places to go. I became a permanent part of that group. On weekends I stayed and ate bagged meals and the elder parents supervised me. When I got older I was enrolled in special programs and camps away from the campus for Christmas, Spring, and Summer vacations.

What’s older? How old?

Hmmmm. I was 9 for my first whole-summer expedition to a Montana farm. One of my teachers grew up there and his whole family hosted about ten of us. I can still picture it: plowed land, old buffalo wallows, Lewis and Clark trails, flatlands, coulees, and hills. We helped on the farm in between hikes and camp-outs on the Bear Paw Mountains and the Little Rockies. I remember daylight lasting late into every night. The wind blew all the time too. In fact, when we went exploring, our leaders kept an eye out for places to get out of the gusts. We’d head for what are called shelter belts: rows of trees. I got tossed around in that wind, not having had any of my growth spurts as yet, so I loved those tree rows. I still keep an eye out for shady groves with armrest-roots and a generous canopy.

During this “introductory Oliver” speech I didn’t learn all the places he’s been, but he told me that when he and his Zia came for supper the other night he was overcome with peace and happiness because of the paint color in the Keeping Room.

Paint color?

One of my favorite all-summer camps was an expedition to Bryce Canyon—it was where I first got acquainted with mules. Our group explored slot canyons—fins, and spires called hoodoos. We had a geologist on the trip. I learned about the erosional power of frost-wedging and the dissolving power of rainwater that shaped Bryce. It gave me the idea that maybe I was getting twisted by the erosion and dissolving of my family. But whenever warm sun hit the deep red-orange spires of rock, I found a cliff side or rock wall to lean against. It gave me positive energy. I couldn’t believe it when I walked into your Keeping Room and, whammo!, there it was again, the comforting, warming color of Bryce.

(I think it’s called “Tuscan Sun,” but no matter.)

I’ll summarize the rest of what he said:

All this time, Zia had kept in touch with him (lots of letters, cards, cookies, knitted mittens, and a steady stream of good books). Occasionally she would just show up at Ramsey and take him out for a walk and lunch. But his parents were, what’s the polite word? There isn’t any. They were jealous of her. And completely absent. They had given up orchestrating all the Oliver details themselves and had hired a law firm to be in charge and make decisions; to deposit money and arrange everything—what camps he goes to, which school friends he can visit, where he spends school breaks.

But, enough already! Oliver decides to take charge of himself by doing something called emancipation. He was 12 going on 13, but even at that age he realized his parents and the law firm made poor decisions—some of them straight out of Charles Dickens, for heavens sakes: like he could play his guitar in Central Park on his own? But! He needed to check the appropriateness of the playlist with the firm. Seriously?

So, Oliver Googled the ins and outs of how to do this. He went to court. He represented himself. He used his “allowance” for court fees. But, after he filed all the papers and presented his case, his judge ruled Oliver was too young to be emancipated. He could “reopen his file” when he was 16 if issues hadn’t resolved themselves. But Oliver had made an impression on the Judge. So, before he issued his final decision-with-instructions, this judge spent a lot of time in chambers with the lawyers and the parents via zoom. (They hadn’t even bothered to come in person.) But Zia was there constantly. A lot of the adult talk was out of earshot of Oliver but he figures everyone except her got reamed out.

The marvelous upshot of all the judge’s efforts is Oliver’s current situation.

The law firm was fired except for the deposit-the-money part. He thinks his parents still have parental rights, but Zia was given legal custody of him until he is 16 when he can apply to be emancipated if he wants.

When he finished, I look at him carefully. Sir Isaac had locked his knees and was snoozing—did you know mules snore?

Oliver, I whispered. I had no other words. Oliver.

Oliver nodded and sighed. So, Isabel. I know a thing or two about courts. I think I can help you out, if you’re willing.

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