Honoring a Mother, a Nurse, and Life Devoted to Caregiving

Mother-in-Law Day (yes, there is such a thing) doesn’t come until October 25 this year but I’m not waiting until then to tell you about my own mother-in-law.  On this Mother’s Day so many are separated from their mothers due to the COVID-19 pandemic or can not be with their children because they are caring for the critically ill in hospitals and nursing homes across the world.  My own mother passed away nearly eight years ago (still hard to believe) and my mother-in-law died only within a year of my family moving to Bellingham, nearly 24 years ago.  That too is hard to believe some times.

My mother-in-law’s nursing school’s graduation portrait.

I’ve been thinking about my mother-in-law a lot recently since the COVID-19 crises brought to the forefront the important contribution, and seldom recognized, work and sacrifice, that healthcare professionals, nurses in particular make to our society.  I have long had the utmost respect for nurses.

As a journalist who covered medicine for part of my career for TIME and others, nurses were some of my most trusted, reliable and valuable sources when reporting on medical events or issues.  I developed a relationship with many to whom I could turn when I needed a recommendation, not only for personal medical care, but for experts to quote, insider info and verifications on stories.

One of the few photos of Elaine on duty as a nurse in World War II, taken, no doubt while on her way to a patient’s room.

I suspect this was due, in part, to Elaine, my mother-in-law, who was a career nurse.  Elaine began her nursing career in the most dramatic way, graduating from nursing school at Kansas State University and enlisting immediately in the Women’s Army Corps as a nurse.  Not long after, she was shipped overseas (on the very same ship as my Dad, see my post: Saluting a Veteran…) to serve in a field hospital for the Fifth Army during World War II.

Imagine what it was for a young woman still in her early 20s, fresh out of nursing school and never out of Kansas (as far as I know) to be suddenly thrown into a situation caring for and attending severely wounded and dying soldiers, most of them no older than herself.  I suspect that many of the nurses on the front lines in our hospitals today, caring for COVID patients, are facing some of the same challenges, stresses and strains.

Most of the photos from Elaine’s war years are with her nursing friends, shown here in helmets and uniform, the PPE of their time.

We have photographs that Elaine took during her service overseas, but with the exception of one, none were taken of the hospitals or her patients.  Instead, she focused on her nursing friends, the local children and the places where she was stationed.  These were the visual memories she brought home with her after the War ended.  I am sure the mental memories stuck with her until her passing nearly 50 years later.  The only time I ever heard her talk about her wartime memories, was on a few occasions when she and my father sat down together.  And even then, their conversations were tinted with the happier times of those life-changing years.  I think about that because I am sure that all of the nurses tending today’s COVID patients, will carry with them the faces and cases of their patients for long time after the virus subsides and many, I am sure, will suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome.

That’s why, last Wednesday, May 6, National Nurses Day, was such a significant day this year and why, when International Nurses Day comes up this week on May 12, people need to remember these incredibly dedicated people and honor them.

As a grandmother, Elaine took special care of her three grandsons, shown here still being a nurse giving medicine to her grandson, Marshall.

Elaine spent her entire life as a caregiver, returning after the War to a career as a nurse in the Veteran’s Administration hospitals in Phoenix and Prescott, Az., as a single-mother who worked the graveyard shifts so she could be home in the early a.m. to send her only son off to school and see him again after and early evening before heading off for her job, as a daughter who took in and cared for her own mother in her last years, and finally as a grandmother who looked after my own three young sons on days when I worked.

I consider myself fortunate to have had her in my life, regret that she didn’t live longer to see my own sons grow up and to share their triumphs and tribulations along with us.  I have no doubt, had she lived long enough (she would have been 100 this year) she would have been right beside all those dedicated nurses laboring daily at great risk to themselves, in the hospitals now, if only in spirit.

One of my personal favorite photographs of Elaine and my husband, taken at a surprise birthday party for me. You can see how much she beams with pride for her only son.

Saluting a Veteran Who Served Her Country and Cared for Its Soldiers

When most people think of Veteran’s Day, they think of those in our military who fought in our armed services.  Since becoming a national holiday in 1938, Americans have honored those who served in the military, particularly those who are still living.

I have written previously about my Dad’s service in the U.S. Army during World War II as well as that of my other uncles who also fought in that War.  But I’ve barely touched on another who’s service was equally as important and heroic, that of my mother-in-law.  I thought this year, I’d salute her.

Looking every bit fresh off the farm, Elaine was only in her early 20s when she signed up to go overseas with the Army Nursing Corps during World War II.

Elaine signed up after graduating from nursing school in Kansas.  She had grown up on a small farm in the western part of the state and as far as I know, hadn’t been that far from home except perhaps for a visit or two to family living in Topeka.  But upon finishing her nurse’s training, she joined others in her 36th General Hospital unit and the troops bound for Africa and the War aboard the U.S.S. Harry Lee, a converted banana freighter (thanks to my brother Brad for this detail).  Also on that very ship was my own father, was a 22-year-old farm boy from the opposite side of the state.  Their oceanic crossing was in the largest convoy ever to cross the Atlantic.

My mother-in-law and my father never met on that journey. In fact, they didn’t discover that they had  both served in the 5th Army until after my husband and I were married.  The two traded ‘war’ stories one afternoon while sitting at the kitchen table in my mother-in-law’s Arizona home.

The troops disembark from the ship.

As they talked, they were surprised to learn that not only had they shipped out together, but that they virtually followed one another throughout the Italian campaign.  Of course, my father’s chemical battalion was at the very front of fighting, laying down mortar shell cover so that the infantry could advance.  Elaine, on the other hand, was at the rear, in the field hospital, assisting in surgeries and tending those who had been injured in battle.  My father once told me he was certain that some of those from his ‘outfit’, who came down with malaria, had turned up in her hospital.

Like many veterans from World War II, Elaine didn’t talk about her war experiences, at least not when I was around. I regret that I didn’t ask her more about it before she died 22 years ago. I know that she was a Lieutenant in rank. All the women nurses were officers primarily so that the enlisted men couldn’t ‘fraternize’ with them.  As such, they had access to the ‘officers’ club and enjoyed other privileges that came with the rank.  Those small ‘perks’ were not many and offered little in exchange for the endless and tireless work that they did to try to save the lives of those who arrived daily from the front lines.

Her hospital unit trailed my own father’s route, starting in Africa, then up to Sicily, the southern coast of Italy to the interior until they finally liberated Rome.  She, like my Dad, was also in France for a while but never entered Germany as he did.  I wish now that I knew more.

My mother-in-law was one of the nurses for the 36th Division General Hospital during World War II. Don’t know the location of this photo.

I have learned a little from a file in the 36th General Hospital collection at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI. “…After first being shipped to Algeria, the 36th was ordered to Caserta, Italy in October of 1943. Established in the rear of the Fifth Army, the hospital had an average daily census of 1,800 patients. In June of 1944 a Texas hospital unit was added to the 36th to make it a 2,000 bed facility. The
hospital followed the allied invasion forces north into France and was located successively at Aix-en-Province, Dijon, and Garches. The unit was deactivated at Baston in November of 1945. During its 3 1/2 years of service the 36th had treated over 45,000 sick and wounded and received two decorations.”

Unfortunately, my husband and I never heard stories from her about the War and I wasn’t quick enough to take notes the day she and my Dad were exchanging memories.

Elaine was invited by a friend from ‘back home’ to take a plane ride during her wartime tour.

I recall her telling about the time that a pilot whom she knew from Kansas, invited her for a ride in the plane to which he was assigned.  He was flying to pick up some supplies and asked Elaine, who had the day off or requested it, if she’d like to go along.  It was ‘loud,’ she said about her seat in the bombardier window of the aircraft.  The photo of her taken on that day shows her wearing big lace-up boots obviously too large for her feet, a military overcoat and gloves and a tentative smile.  Whether this picture was taken before or after the trip I don’t know.  Despite what must have been a cold, loud and probably bumpy flight, she said had had a good time.  I can imagine that any break from a day of hospital duty would have been welcome.

Her other photos show places where she visited or was stationed.  The cathedral at Rheims in France seems to have made a huge impression on this Catholic-raised young woman from the central U.S. as several photos are from her visit there. In southern Italy, she saw the isle of Capri which also enchanted her. Like so many of the soldiers and service personnel at that time, seeing places that one had only read about in books must have seemed like a  dream.  Sadly, the circumstances under which they found themselves made it much more like a nightmare.

Elaine, on the far left end, and others from her hospital unit at the cathedral in Rheims, France.

Upon returning to the States, Elaine stayed in nursing working for the hospitals of the Veteran’s Administration in Arizona until finally retiring.  I never ‘thanked’ her for her service and am sure that few did.  She was an excellent nurse, precise, kind, caring and thorough.  She was just the sort of person you’d want tending to your wounds.  No doubt  those war years left her with many memories that she preferred to forget.  She did what she felt she had to do for her country and those fighting for it. Her skills and knowledge were essential at a time when nurses were rarely respected or acknowledged. I am grateful for what she did.

This Veteran’s Day I want to posthumously recognize her, along with all the other nurses who like her served our country, for the sacrifices they made and hardships they endured, to provide medical care to the troops. Without them, far fewer would have returned home to be honored later on Veteran’s Day.

An ‘official photo’ of Elaine’s Army Nursing Corps in a Victory Parade. The location isn’t identified on her photo but an arrow indicates where Elaine is in the group.

 

Fremont Church Answers Flood Victims’ Prayers

The carillon of the First Baptist Church in Fremont, Neb. plays every hour on the hour during the day.  Chimed music gently floats over the neighboring area and reminds one of a time gone by, when people dressed in their Sunday best strolled down the brick streets lined with big, two-story American Craftsman and Victorian-styled homes nearby, on their way to morning services.

My brother, Richard, and wife Nola, at the church where he is pastor in Fremont, Neb.

The 150-year-old church sits on the corner of C and Fifth Streets and within sight of the Episcopalian, Lutheran and the former Catholic churches.   These churches likely were built about the same time. First Baptist’s founders met and started their church in 1869, just two years after Nebraska became a state, in a private residence down the street that still stands and is the second oldest structure in Fremont today.  Their current red brick Romanesque Revival style church building is their third and was dedicated in 1923.

The sanctuary reflects the simplicity of a time when it was built in 1923.

Inside, the sanctuary is dignified but simple with massive dark wood beams arching up to the ceiling above the two sections of wooden, upholstered pews divided by a center aisle leading up to the altar area. The minister’s pulpit and choir director’s podium stand on either side of the stepped-up altar area with the choir pews directly behind the massive wooden altar with a large blue stained glass window rising behind in the background. The church still has its pipe organ too with the banks of pipes hidden behind arched screens on either side of the altar area.   Crisscrossed leaded stained glass windows on either side of the sanctuary flood the interior with golden light when the sun shines through.

Golden light illuminates the church’s stained glass windows.

But the heart and soul of this small town church isn’t its brick and mortar building, it’s the people.  During the past two months, have been one of the most generous and helpful to those in Fremont and the even smaller, surrounding towns that are still trying to recover from the massive flooding in mid-March.  This happened when the two rivers in the area, the Platte and the Elkhorn, overflowed after sudden warm weather melted piles of a recent snowstorm and rainstorm after rainstorm dropped more water than the land or rivers could absorb.  The area was literally turned into islands, cut off from one another and outside aid by washed out highways and interstates that are just now re-opening.

From the air you can se the flood water that still stands over much of the area.

Led by its minister, my brother, Richard, his church has provided assistance to 30 outlying communities and “scores and scores of people.”  The church’s family center was turned into a major distribution center and filled with supplies once they could be delivered.  Financial aid, to purchase essentials and food or to replace damaged hot water heaters or propane tanks that had been washed away, was given to those who needed it.  On a recent visit, I went with Richard to give gift cards for these items to three flood victims who were grateful to tears.

Recovered propane tanks that were washed away by the flood waters stamd abandoned and await disposal.

 

We also spent part of an afternoon handing out bottles of energy drinks, packages of athletic socks, cans of vegetables and soups, 5 pound bags of rice and boxes of nutrition bars to those who lived in one of the hardest hit areas of Fremont.  These were largely low income Hispanic families whose mobile homes were livable but badly damaged. Five families took refuge in a local Hispanic church, staying in the basement until they were reassured that it was okay to return to their home.

Maricella emerged to lead the relief effort with the Hispanic community.

One from their community, Maricella, began the relief effort for these people by giving out donations from a truck at a corner Mexican food market in town.  When Richard and his church discovered this, they stepped in and offered to contribute supplies and people to help.

Buckets were filled by church funds and distributed to flood victims/

With help from her organizational skills, they put together a plan and a place for people to safely come to get what they needed. “We don’t ask where they come from or if they are citizens, or church members or what political party they belong to. If they need help, we help them,” says Richard.

During my brief visit, Richard drove me around the areas so I could see the impact the flood had made.  In the tiny town of Winslow, where 81 people once lived,now only three households are there.  They still have no running water and electricity, if they have it, is created by portable generators.  One couple is living in their garage. A giant mountain of ruined possessions, including appliances and furniture is piled along one of dirt streets awaiting someone to come pick it up.  As we were surveying it, one of the remaining residents walked up and tossed something else onto the pile. Richard stopped to talk with him.

The man, probably in his late 30s, told him that his house had been deemed ‘livable’ by diaster authorities but that he had four inches of mud in his basement. Insurance would cover some of the damage but not all. He was lucky, in some cases,  insurance companies are refusing claims because the water came into the house through the basements, not the ground floors, my brother explained.  Richard wrote a name and number on his business card and handed it to the man telling him to contact them for assistance.  The man’s eyes teared up as he thanked us and we said good-bye.

Richard offers some words of comfort and suggestions for help to a flood victim.

These are the kind of interactions that have occurred over and over as Richard and his church have encountered flood victims. People needing help, not knowing where to find it in many cases or denied aid for various reasons from outside government and disaster relief agencies, grateful to learn that this little Fremont church is offering to come to their aid however they can.

Richard carries out boxes of supplies from the church to deliver to the flood victims.

Donations have come from the church’s national association and through many outside individuals in addition to the church members themselves. The last of the relief funds was used for the three gift cards.  There’s still a Donate button that takes you to PayPal on the church website.  If more donations come in, they will provide whatever aid remains to done, not asking for proof of insurance, or citizenship or political affiliation or church membership.

The Sunday I was in town, my brother delivered a message to his congregation that included the story of Jesus feeding the multitude 5,000 with five loaves and two fishes.  I’m sure that he chose to relate that particular story because it illustrated so well what his little church itself has done recently to respond to the flood victims.  They have made a difference in the lives most in need and have made their funds and supplies go further than anyone would have thought.

Richard retells the Biblical story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 people to his Sunday congregation.

 

 

Mother’s Day Memories Are Homemade

I hadn’t planned to write about Mother’s Day for this posting, after all, what more can be said about it?  But then my sister-in-law asked if I would trimming drawings– some in colored-pencil, some with markers–done by the children and teens of her church to give their Mom’s.  As I slid the blade of the paper cutter up and down, along the lines of each child’s message to Mom, a flood of memories came back to me.

I remembered the homemade cards my own sons had done for me, mostly made in their classroom at school, of construction paper and cut-out flowers glued to the fronts with their simple, hand-lettered messages scrawled inside: “I love you. Happy Mother’s Day.” Construction paper doesn’t hold up as well over time as other paper mediums, it crumbles into flakes so I no longer have many, if any, of those lovely greeting cards.  But I can see them in my mind’s eye just as if they had given them to me yesterday.

Handmade cards by children of the church will be given to their Mom’s.

 

More lasting were some of the handcrafted gifts that they created at school for the special day.  In particular, are the little square boxes made of wooden popsicle sticks stacked like a Lincoln log house and glued together in the corners. Each was painted and had a top individually decorated with various shaped pasta pieces.  One is a delicate pink with pieces of shell-shaped macaroni pasted to it. Another is plain wood with rainbow colored twisted pasta pieces, rotelli and macaroni.  The third is golden, again with the rotelli, bow-tie and twisted pasta attached to the top. There’s also a small block of wood on this one, a handle by which the lid can be lifted.  I keep them in a drawer and use them to store my costume jewelry where I see or touch them almost daily.

Among my most treasured items are the homemade boxes by sons made and gave to me on Mother’s Day years ago.

On another Mother’s Day, I received baked clay figurines.  One of my son’s sculpted what appears to be a steagosaurus, the length of my forefinger and painted blue and green and nicely finished with a shiny glaze.  I keep it on a little shelf near by kitchen along with some other collectible figurines that  aren’t nearly as precious to me.

As they grew older, the gifts changed or stopped entirely.  One year, however, I asked for and received from my youngest son, who was writing poetry, if he would write a poem for me.  He did.  It was about dusk falling over New York City, where he now lives.  I placed it in clear glass and it hung, for a time, in his old bedroom at home.  Now I have it among my keepsakes.

Made for me by one of my sons, this tiny steagosaurus has a place on a shelf in my home.

My oldest son, also a fine writer but different, made a card with a photo of a lighthouse, of which he knows I’m fond, that he found on-line and printed a simple, but heartfelt message inside.  This stands on my bookshelf in my studio where it’s easily in view.

Sure, over the years I was given some lovely Mother’s Day presents, a lot of flowers and treated to brunches or dinners out.  But truly, the ones that I treasure are those simple, handmade, hand-crafted or handwritten gifts or cards.  Who knows where the pictures I trimmed this morning will end up?  In some shoe box saved along with other, similar drawings? In a little frame that sits at work on a desk?  Or slipped into a scrapbook with the grade cards and photos from school?  One thing I do know, the will certainly bring a smile, maybe even a tear to each Mom who receives them and maybe, like my own, become an enduring memory of the little one who created it and gave it with love.

 

 

Food, Family and Fun Times around the Christmas Table

This year for Christmas, I made a photo book for each of my brothers titled:  “Food, Family and Fun Times.”  I was prompted to do so when my younger brother, Brad, asked if I had any of the recipes from my mom and my aunts.  He was looking for one in particular, the red-hot salad that was on our table at nearly every Christmas dinner.   Maybe you know the one I mean:  cherry or strawberry jello combined with applesauce and those pill-sized red-hot candies that are melted before you stir them into the mixture.  You chill it to congeal.  It’s tasty but full of sugar. That’s probably one reason I too liked it so much as a kid.

One of the photos I found while assembling my photo gift book was this one of my Dad slicing green tomatoes for his pie.

Everyone has their own traditions when it comes to Christmas dinners, if your family is fortunate enough to be together for the holiday and can afford this one big feast.  As I assembled the photo book, I searched through my parents’ old photo albums, many of which I have, as well as my own to find photos that I could include in the book.  Originally, I was looking for snapshots taken of my parents and my aunts in their kitchens, preparing some of the foods for which I had the recipe cards.  But I discovered that I had very few of these photos and the ones I had were mostly of my Dad taken just a few years before he died making his favorite picalilli relish or green tomato pie.

One of my Dad’s favorite recipes was this one for the piccalilli relish.

Instead, what I  had were several snapshots taken at the family dinner tables before the meal commenced.  Many were taken on holidays or special occasions, such as birthdays. As I sorted through the years of photos, I studied the dishes placed on the table. Some I could easily recognize, like the fluffy lime green jello salad with pineapple and whipped cream (usually the artificial Cool Whip product) folded in.  Sometimes there was turkey, often ham as the main course.   Mashed potatoes, especially for the Thanksgiving dinner, but at Christmas it often was scalloped potatoes that I recall my Aunt Marie prepared.

There were dinners at the table in the make-shift dining room at my parents’ house at the motel my parents co-owned with my aunt and uncle and where grew up.

The dining room wasn’t large at my parents’ home at the motel where I grew up but the Christmas dinners always took place.

It was a pretty tight squeeze to get everyone seated around my mother’s Duncan Phyfe table, even with the leaves put in.  My mother’s nice china was set out with the centerpiece a little  handcrafted tiered Christmas tree made from red netting material.  Some years my Aunt Oleta and Uncle Joe who had moved from my hometown to another small town 45 minutes away joined us; sometimes it was just my Aunt Marie and Uncle Dale.

Two of my favorite Christmas dinner photos were taken years apart of the family together in the basement of my Aunt Marie and Uncle Dale’s home where we gathered for big celebrations.  The first was made when I was eight-years-old (I can tell by the dress I’m wearing). This photo special because one of my aunt and uncles from California, along with my cousin, is there as well as my aunt and cousin who lived in Hutchinson, Kansas,three hours away in Kansas. My cousins, Kevin, Leland and Debbie–just a baby–are there too with their parents, my Uncle Jiggs and Aunt Bernice.  It’s quite a photo because so seldom was this many of the Crooks clan together at Christmas.  Even though we’re not sitting at the table, I know that the table is set just on the other side of the camera with dinner no doubt waiting for us all.

The family gathers for a Christmas dinner.

The other recalls the another big Christmas gathering the first year I was in college.  (Know that from my hairstyle.) We’re all there again, minus the California and Hutchinson families and plus my youngest brother who is standing beside my uncle and just peeking over the back of one of the heavy, tall, carved oak chairs at the table’s end.  And again, the cousins who lived in town, are there, with my aunt and uncle.  This time, however, the photo is in color, the color film technology having long since become readily available.

Taken years later from the first gathering, the family comes together for another Christmas dinner in my aunt and uncle’s basement.

I carry on the Christmas dinner tradition with my own family. My parents, aunts and uncles with whom we ate have passed on but there’s a new generation who gather round the table that includes my sons and when possible the grown children and now grandchildren of those aunts and uncles.  I still insist on taking a photo of everyone once we’ve all sat down for the holiday dinner so we can relive these priceless moments in the future through the photographic memory.  The foods, the fun and the family time together are the real recipes for what makes the season bright.

Tour de Whatcom is Tour de Force

Bellingham is a town that loves its bicycles but even more of them than usual could be found all over the surrounding streets and roads this last Saturday when hundreds of cyclists pedaled between 22 to 100 miles in the Tour de Whatcom.  The popular charity biking event is in its 13th year and this year benefited the Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition.

The back of a cyclists racing jersey says it all.

It’s a colorful display of bicycles and cyclists as they whip across county roads, past lakes, through farm country, by rivers and along beaches with views of snow-capped Mount Baker rising in the distance all the way. The tour started and ended at the award-winning Boundary Bay Brewery in downtown Bellingham located directly across from the Bellingham Farmers’ Market which was also in full swing yesterday.  In fact, that’s why I was there. I spent two hours yesterday distributing postcards to people to promote the upcoming July 26th outdoor adventure film evening–Sports Shorts–being presented by CASCADIA International Women’s Film Festival at Fairhaven’s Village Green.

The aluminum arch of the Tour de Whatcom’s finish line spanned across the street from the Farmers’ Market Railroad Depot buildings.

Afterwards, I wandered over the market and Boundary Bay for a closer look at the activity.  Boundary Bay’s beer garden was filling up with cyclists who had just come in and were thirsty and hungry.  Outside, a long line of cyclists strung down the street as they checked in their bikes into the secured bike parking lot set up in the street. Other muscle-weary cyclists were receiving  rubdowns under the purple canopy of the Massage Envy tent.  And some, as did my friend Audrey who rode the 22-mile route in the tour, mingled with the marketgoers to have a bite of lunch there.

Following a long ride, the massage tent was a popular place.

The entire place was bubbling with bikers, beer and booths full of farm fresh food and crafts.  It brought back memories for me of the summer my family and I spent a month in Bellingham prior to deciding to move here permanently.

We had rented a house from friends (long before VRBO or Air BnB existed) for the month of August. It gave us a chance to explore the area and experience it as if we lived here.  One Saturday, we strolled down to the historic Fairhaven area where we discovered a road bike race was about to get underway.  At that time, the race–the Old Fairhaven Bicycle Race–began on Fairhaven’s main street and the course tracked up and down the hilly Fairhaven area to eventually finish a little further down the street from where it started.

Cyclists line up in the Fairhaven Bicycle Race.

We nabbed a ringside seat with two of our sons at an outdoor table in front of the Colophon Cafe. The Colophon was favorite spot with my sons because of its ice cream counter where big scoops of the cold dairy delight were heaped on top of waffle cones for a dollar or so. The boys ordered peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, my husband and I had bowls of clam chowder.  We ate and watched as the nearly 20 riders whizzed around the corners.  Other race watchers stood behind or sat upon the hay bales that had been places along the street for the purpose of blocking off the streets and marking the course.  It was truly a fun afternoon and one that I’ve long remembered.  The photos I took that day preserve the day not only for me but for my sons who have long since grown up.

Racers round the corner while competing in the Old Fairhaven Bicycle Race.
Sporting his new helmet, my son readies to take off on his own bike ride. Notice the training wheels on the rear.

That was the same summer too, that my oldest son, Matthew, learned to ride a bike.  Neither I nor my husband recall now where we got the bike, but unlike in Los Angeles where we lived, the sidewalks of Bellingham’s South Hill proved a great place for him to hop on and take off.  He wasn’t a particularly coordinated kid when it came to physical activities but once he figured out how the chain drive of the bike worked, riding it was no problem.  He returned to L.A. ready to ride with his friends and we returned to L.A. convinced, in part by community events like the bike race, that we wanted to make Bellingham our new home.

Love Loved Life

I didn’t make or send any Mother’s Day cards this year.  Making cards and sending them to my Mom and my aunts was something I always enjoyed and had done for many years after leaving home and living on my own.  Sadly, I my Mother passed away six years ago, (simply hard to believe still) and the last of my many aunts died only a month ago leaving me now with only two uncles whom I love and keep in close touch.

It’s an odd feeling to go from having such a large, extended family to such a compact one although I have many cousins who now make up the family network.  I was fond of all my aunts and feel fortunate to have had them throughout the greater part of my life. And now that I don’t, it’s disconcerting.

My mother’s sisters and brothers assembled for a rare photo together taken in 1944. From left: Norman (on leave from the War), Austin, my mother, Phyllis (in front), Oleta (the oldest sister), Lavetta, Imogene and Hazel

My mother had six sisters and two brothers.  She was the third in line.  They all had names that you don’t run across everyday, even for the time that they were growing up:  Oleta, Hulda Victoria (whom we called Hazel), Ollie Nadine (my mom), Jesse Imogene, Lavetta and lastly, Phyllis.

My aunt Phyllis, the baby in the family, passed away two years ago leaving only my aunt Lavetta, who died last month.  I hadn’t seen Lavetta in several years although we kept in touch through Christmas cards and correspondence.  But during the past two years, dementia took its toll and it became difficult to connect with her although she still responded and remembered her brother Norman (my uncle) who played his harmonica for her whenever he phoned.

The sisters and brothers assembled again for a photo in 1985 at the cemetery where their grandparents, father and oldest sister are buried. They were there to honor their grandparents who immigrated from Sweden. From left: my mother, Hazel, Norman, Austin, Phyllis, Lavetta and Imogene.

As a kid, she was pretty mischievous and was often sucked into trouble by her older and younger brothers.  Once, so the story goes, her younger brother talked her into laying her finger down onto a tree stump whereupon he then sliced off a chunk of it with his little hatchet.  Whether it was an accident or intentional, her brother was severely punished. My grandmother managed to save Lavetta’s finger without a doctor’s assistance, although I don’t recall exactly how.

One of her jobs on the Missouri farm where my Mother’s family then lived, was to bring the cow up from the pasture to the barn. Lavetta often did so by riding the cow instead of herding it in.  She could never retell or listen to the story without breaking into laughter, I suppose from recalling what must have been a very bumpy ride.

One of my favorite photos of my aunt Lavetta taken by my father on the tennis courts where she lived.

I always thought Lavetta was quite beautiful with her big dark eyes, short, always stylish dark hair and bright smile. She was also very athletic her entire life, who, like my Mom enjoyed playing softball when growing up.  She also was skilled on the tennis court, or at playing badminton or in the swimming pool. Later she took up bowling in which she regularly competed until back problems caused her to curtail those games.  I too have been athletic my entire life which may be one reason I always admired ‘Love’ as the family called her, and welcomed the chance to play a game of tennis with her whenever she visited.

Lavetta, with her first husband, Gene, and her daughters, as a young mother.

Lavetta began a career as a flight attendant, back in the days when they were referred as ‘stewardesses.’ She left that behind when she married my uncle Gene and started a family.  My family often travelled up to the Chicago area where they lived to visit them.  Together we’d go to the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Museum of Science and Industry, Marshall-Field’s big department store in downtown or once, made the trek together up to the scenic Wisconsin Dells.  I have fond memories of those visits.

She later remarried after her first husband died suddenly of a heart problem.  With her second husband, Lavetta attended the family reunions in Missouri’s Ozarks where they took part in the skits that my aunt Hazel had written, sometimes dressing up in hillbilly or sailor costumes as the part she played may have called for.  Her new husband, Del, was a vocal teacher who had a beautiful baritone voice and together they’d sing old songs to entertain those gathered for the reunion and dance to tunes that my mother’s generation loved.  Del even made a CD collection of those songs for us recording a personal introduction to each  track.

My aunts Lavetta, left, and Imogene wearing their warm, plush Mouton coats. I now own Lavetta’s coat and wear it whenever the weather is cold enough to do so.

Simply said, Love loved life and loved to laugh.  While she had her serious moments, it was her big laugh, along with that acquired Chicago-area accent that I recall best.  Now that laugh is silenced forever and I have only my memories, my photographs, the CD collection and a fabulous Mouton coat that once belonged to her to keep her close. She and my other aunts are no doubt having a wonderful time together again in their afterlives.

I miss all of them dearly, especially on days like this one when I would have popped five or six Mother’s Day cards into the mail.  Our time together now seems relatively short-lived but full and rich.  Happy Mother’s Day to my Mom and my dear aunts. You still live in my memory.

The 5 Ps For When You Must Leave Include Photos

I’ve been thinking a lot about all my family and friends in Southern California where some of the worst wildfires in the state’s history continue to burn out of control. (Hopefully by the time you read this firefighters will have gained the upper hand.)  Fortunately, the flames have missed most of my family and friends, but last week, two of my dearest friends had to flee their home in the middle of the night.

At the time, theirs was a voluntary evacuation, although the threat has crept ever closer until the fire line is now only a little more than a mile from their home.  They tried to return to their house yesterday to gather a few more belongings but their attempts were thwarted when the main freeway was closed between where they are now staying and their home.

Photos taken of me by my father for our annual Christmas card are among those that I prize now and wouldn’t want to lose in the event of a natural disaster.

They grabbed what they could last week as they quickly abandoned their house.  Among the things that went with them, were their priceless family photo albums and the external hard drives on which they had stored their digital images.

This was on my mind because I’m obviously very concerned and worried for my friends but also because I had heard a television news item earlier last week about the “5 Ps” to take in case you have to evacuate.  Photographs was on the list, along with pets, personal papers, prescriptions and your personal computer.  In a year when this country has seen devastating fires, hurricanes and floods, too many Americans (including those in Puerto Rico where they are still struggling), have had to decide what to take when suddenly told to leave their home.

I have had only one instance in my life when this happened to me. That was the year the 6.7 Northridge earthquake rocked our neighborhood.  When the shaking stopped, we gathered our sons, carried them out to our front lawn and told them not to move while my husband and I went back into the house to collect some items. Plumes of smoke were rising into the air from a nearby fire. We decided to prepare for the worse, not knowing whether another quake would follow or whether the fire would move to our house, pushed by the Santa Ana winds predicted for that day, the same winds driving the terrible fires in Southern California now.

I hadn’t quite learned to sit up in time for my first Christmas as you can see here in this snapshot with my cousins. I particularly love the hand on the right coming in to catch my cousin in case he toppled over.

Among the things I considered essential, were my family’s photo albums and the portraits hanging on my walls. I carried out armful after armful, nearly filling the family van. One reason I could do this was because I kept the albums in one spot and stored the boxes of photos not yet in albums in one place.  This is something I still practice although I now have many more albums, along with the boxes and the photos still to be sorted from my parents’ home.  Some of the photos I couldn’t stand to lose are those from Christmases when I was a kid.

I first wrote about this after the devastating tornado hit Moore, Oklahoma in 2013.  What I said then still goes: nearly everything else, with the exception of family heirlooms, can be covered by insurance or replaced  when destroyed by disaster. But a family’s photographs are truly priceless and often irreplaceable.  I offered then some tips for keeping your photos safe and encourage you to go back for a reminder by clicking here.

Digital photography has made it easier in many ways to archive your precious images by uploading them to a ‘cloud’ storage service, or burning them to CD or storing them on external hard drives, hopefully you do at least two of these.  In addition, make prints of the images that mean the most to you because as wonderful and convenient as ‘cloud’ and digital storage is, there’s still no guarantee that these systems are fail proof. And keep your prints somewhere where you can easily grab them in the event you are ordered to evacuate.

My friends are safe, for now, hoping and waiting for the winds to die down, for fire fighters to gain ground and for the fiery monster approaching their home to be stopped. There is much they will lose if the flames aren’t extinguished, but along with the family pet, their prescriptions, their personal computer they have their family photos.  I hope others who also have had to head for higher ground in rising water, hunker down against a hurricane or run from engulfing fires this year also had the chance to grab their own family’s photos.

None of this matters, of course, if lives are at stake.  There are ways to reconstruct your photographic history if it comes to that, even prior to digital technology.  You may lose some of your most meaningful visual memories, but nothing surmounts the loss of life.

 

Parting Shots to Last a Lifetime

Western Washington University here in Bellingham welcomed back its 14,000 students this week as classes for the fall quarter got underway.  Hundreds of students, faculty and staff, led by WWU President Sabah Randwana, walked together from the hilltop campus to downtown for the Paint B’Ham Blue celebration, now in its second year. But before the evening procession, students and parents went through their own ritual of saying good-by to one another.

My son, center, was busily making new friends before the traditional procession through the streets of the campus and too busy to notice that I was capturing the moment.

A week or two earlier, I watched as my neighbor’s son packed his car up to head back to college and as his parents followed as he pulled out the drive, his mother, camera in hand, snapping a few last photos as he drove off.  I was enjoying the moment and reliving in my own mind the same experience when my own sons left home and I said good-by knowing that life at home would never be the same.

Like my neighbors, I too snapped photos of my sons as they either packed up, unpacked or departed for their years away at college.  With each one, the last good-by was a little different and full of mixed emotions.  I’m sure those of you who’ve had children can vividly recall that day of departure, whether it was heading off to college or to living on their own.

During a visit to University of Oregon, my son Matthew consented to a photo at the main gate of the campus. Doesn’t he look thrilled? Still, I love this photo.

I’m glad to have the photos I took on those memorable days.  When I look back at them, the memories come rushing back as fresh as the day it happened.  Those snapshots give me a tangible tie to that moment in time and I was heartened to see my neighbor going through the same motions that I had gone through 10 years ago.  I first wrote about those good-byes four years ago in my blog post “Autumn’s First Day Moves In.”

Before moving in to his dorm behind him, Marshall let me grab this photo of him, suitcase in hand.

No doubt my sons were a little embarrassed by their mother clicking away when they arrived on campus although I certainly was not alone in insisting I take one more photo before leaving them. It is heartening to me to see parents still repeating those same actions, capturing images, now on their phones as well as with cameras, so that they’ll have them to look back upon later.  I hope they download and print out these precious memories so that they’ll truly have them forever and not lose them to a mishap with the ‘cloud’ or computer or phone.  If they do, they’ll have them for their sons or daughters long after college graduation.

I am grateful to my sons who allowed me, and continue to allow me, to photograph them during these life events and everyday moments, particularly at times when it might not otherwise have seemed ‘cool’ to do so.

My son indulged me in a photo together before we said good-by on his college move-in day.

Every fall, when I watch the new students and their parents arrive at the neighboring university, their cars pulling one after another into the dormitory parking lots, the boxes and duffles and suitcases being carried up to the rooms where they will live for the next several months, I am genuinely pleased as parents pose their freshman for one last parting shot so that they too will have the image to reflect upon when they go home alone.  The scene brings a small smile to my face, a tiny tear to my eye and the tug on my heart.

 

Experiencing Totality Totally Worth the Time and Effort

“Mom, it won’t be back in the same place for another 375 years,” my son, Tim, was telling me in a phone conversation just a few days before the August 21 solar eclipse. The significance of the astronomical event was punctuated by the urgency in his voice. “We’ve got to go see it.”

I had considered making the trip south to Oregon, where my cousins live in Albany, almost directly in the charted path of the solar eclipse and where totality would take place.  After all, how likely was I to be this near a total eclipse again in my lifetime? But the prediction of the traffic snarls, shortages of food, gas and water as well as my own work schedule caused me to abandon my plans. Tim convinced me otherwise and offered to fly from New York to join me.

An essential to watching the solar eclipse, protective glasses.

I kicked into last-minute planning mode; first contacting my Oregon family to ask if we could stay at their home, postponing appointments on my calendar, reading what was required to photograph it, picking up food to take along on the five-hour drive south and even asking my uncle to purchase ten gallons of gas for me in case the anticipated fuel shortages came true.

When Saturday arrived, I hit the road, stopping in Seattle to pick up my son at the airport then continued on towards Oregon. The drive was uneventful and we arrived that evening in time to take part in a ‘name that tune’ challenge with my cousins while sitting around the backyard fire pit at their home.

Scouting locations for the eclipse, we visited Buena Vista park, a picturesque setting but not the location we chose for our viewing experience.

Early Sunday morning, Tim and I went out to ‘scout’ locations that might be best to view the eclipse. Tim had already picked out on possible spots on the internet. We headed off, driving north on country roads from my cousin’s home.  A few minutes later, we passed by an open farm field where the horizon could be seen without any trees blocking the view (not an easy thing to find in Oregon).  We wanted to be able to see the horizon line because at the time of totality, it would appear like sunset all the way around.

We drove on to a little county park, Buena Vista Park, outside the tiny village of the same name.  The unincorporated town, as far as I could tell, exists primarily as a toll ferry point to cross the Willamette River.  A few campers were in the riverside park enjoying one of the last summer weekends. Although a very picturesque, clean and relaxing spot, not ideal for eclipse viewing due to the tree line on the opposite of the river.  We moved on.

Back on the country road, on our way to Independence, six miles away, we pulled into Hilltop Cemetery. It was empty of visitors except for a woman walking her dog and two men studying some of the older gravestones. The view was encouraging. True to its name, Hilltop Cemetery  was situated on a hill that overlooked the beautiful Willamette Valley that stretched below.  So far, this was the best vantage point we had seen.

Independence Oregon is a historic town with quaint structures such as this little church.

The cemetery, established in 1849, serves nearby Independence, a charming little town of almost 10,000 with a two-block storefront downtown built in the late 1800 and early 1900s. As we drove into town, it was obvious a surge of eclipse viewers were expected as entrances to parking lots, driveways, school grounds were blocked. A big sign with an arrow pointed to “Event Viewing.” We stopped just long enough for me to take a photo of a historic church.

After searching for one more spot, which we never found,  we agreed that Hilltop Cemetery would be our choice for Monday’s eclipse. It was directly in the path for totality. The next morning, we hopped back into the car, along with my other son, Marshall, and his friend Trevor, visiting from Los Angeles.

During the eclipse, my sons and friend study the effects on their shadows. You can see the unusual quality of the light that occurred. This photograph has not been color corrected or adjusted in any way.

The last total solar eclipse viewed from contiguous United States was on Feb. 26, 1979, according to NASA. The longest total solar eclipse of this century, lasting 6 minutes and 39 seconds, occurred on July 22, 2009 crossing Southern Asia and the South Pacific. Totality in our location would last nearly two minutes!

My sons and I with our eclipse glasses pose for a family photo at the eclipse.

The last time a solar eclipse passed the U.S. from coast to coast was on June 8, 1918 and it would be 2045 for it to happen again.  No wonder millions of Americans, like myself and my two sons, were so excited for the chance to see it.

As television’s CNN reported: “According to NASA, this is a ‘celestial coincidence,’ as the sun is about 400 times wider than the moon and about 400 times farther away. From certain vantage points on Earth, the moon will completely block the sun. This is called totality.” We were about to be lucky enough to witness it.

Some eclipse viewers brought their breakfast with them along with their camp chairs.

Hilltop Cemetery had come alive with people who, like us, tossed their blankets, set up camp chairs, laid out beach towels for the eclipse viewing.  I could set up my cameras in hopes of capturing images of what was likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime event for me. The atmosphere was festive. People had brought their kids, their cameras, their eclipse glasses, their breakfasts.

With everything in place and ready, we donned the eclipse glasses that Tim had purchased in New York. (Local outlets in Oregon and Washington had run out several days before.) The suspense built as the moon first kissed the edge of the bright sun. As it slowly progressed, more and more people tilted their heads up towards the sky. Their chatter became anticipatory and hushed. I made the first of my exposures using my film camera which didn’t require the special solar filter that any digital or electronic device did.

My two Nikons fitted with atop tripods with 300 mm lenses and shutter releases were ready to photograph the eclipse. Neither had the solar filter as it’s possible to photograph without during totality and film cameras do not require one.

Gradually, the dark shadow of the moon eased across the sun’s face.  As it did, the temperature became noticeably cooler. I retrieved my jacket from the car. Someone pointed to the two vultures that swirled overhead. We hoped it wasn’t an omen of things to come. The light took on an odd quality, almost grayish-yellow in color, as if the sun had been shrouded by heavy smoke from a large wildfire.  Our shadows looked oddly muted and ashen, softened by the vanishing light.

In my image of the solar eclipse’s totality you can see the reddish glow of the sun’s chromosphere.

And then–totality! A spontaneous cheer went up from the cemetery. People clapped for the moon’s performance. I snapped a few more photos both of the eclipse and the view from the cemetery. I expected to be thrown into total blackness but it more closely resembled twilight just before the sun’s last light disappears. A couple of stars twinkled in the darkened sky. The eclipse viewers gazed in wonder at what they were seeing. Then, it was over. The bright flash of light, known as the diamond ring effect,appeared as the moon began to retreat.

During totality, our surroundings looked like twilight with just a sliver of light across the distant horizon.

We stayed, as did most of those gathered, until the sun was once again fully revealed, as if people thought staying could prolong the moment. And what a moment it was. The eclipse was a reminder of nature’s power, something so extraordinary that people will travel hundreds of miles, some even thousands, put up with hours of clogged traffic on the journey back to experience two minutes worth of daylight turning into darkness.

The drive home that night took more than twice the time as usual. But I would do it again because it created a memory for me with my sons, family and friends that I will talk about for the rest of my life.