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.

Everything’s Coming Up Roses

I switched on the television this morning and there it was, the 129th Annual Tournament of Roses Parade, already well underway.  This parade with its profusion of elaborately expensive flower-decked floats that glide down Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, Ca. while millions of spectators watch from both curbside and in the comfort of their homes via electronic broadcast, has become as much a New Year’s tradition in many American households as has pop[ing a bottle of champagne the night before.

A gigantic orca made entirely of flower seeds leaps by spectators during the 100th Rose Parade. A palm tree, so exotic to me in my youth, frames the scene from our grandstand seats.

Watching the Rose Parade on television was a New Year’s Day tradition in my parents’ home when I was growing up in middle of the country.  Seeing tall palm trees on TV on January first was an exotic sight compared to the gray, bare-branched oaks, elms and maples shivering in the cold outside my hometown window.  Pasadena’s bright blue and sunny skies (it’s only rained 10 times on the parade and only twice in my lifetime), were a Chamber of Commerce advertising postcard that teased those of us stuck in frigid temperatures with winter’s white snow and ice often coating the ground.

That’s exactly why the Tournament of Roses was originated in 1890 by the city’s Valley Hunt Club. The men of this civic organization envisioned the tournament and established a parade of flower decorated horse-drawn carriages as a way to promote their little Southern California city.  Today, the event has developed into one of the biggest New Year’s Day celebrations in the country.  Millions of flowers, buds, seeds and grasses are used to create the floats and make the Rose Parade one of the most beautiful holiday events in the world.

My aunt and uncle with their special bumper sticker that they attached to their motor home for access to the Rose Parade.

When I moved to Los Angeles I wanted to experience the Rose Parade in person.  I never dreamed, as a kid back in Kansas, that one day I would actually huddle alongside all those other people to watch the big floats pass by within yards of where I stood.  I went three times to the parade while living in Southern California.  Veteran Rose Parade-goers will tell you tricks to preparing and staking out the best viewing positions.  For some that means setting up tents the day before and spending the night on the sidewalk along with thousands of other dedicated and determined folks.  The night takes on a festive atmosphere as people bring in the New Year together at their city campsites.

We never camped out choosing instead to arise well before dawn, load up the car with coats, camp stools, ladder, cameras, kids and provisions for the day then drive the 25 miles from our house in the San Fernando Valley to our friends’ home in South Pasadena.  We parked our car in their driveway (a primo place) and hiked towards our desired parade spot.  Experienced parade watchers have their favorite places from which to watch the two-hour moving spectacle.  The first year, we staked out a spot near the start of the parade on California Boulevard and set up a ladder so that we could see over the heads of those lining the street in front of us. Even from our higher elevation, the floats towered above us as they passed by.

My family sat together in the stands for the 100th Rose Parade in 1989.

For the 1989 Rose Parade Centennial,  we were treated to grandstand seats by my uncles and aunts from Phoenix and California who reserved overnight spots for their motor homes in a parking lot right off the parade route.  My parents, who I’m sure never imagined that they would see the Rose Parade firsthand, my brother, Richard, and his young family flew out for the special celebration.  We assembled early at the motor homes for a quick breakfast before the parade began then strolled together to our seats in the grandstand.  We bundled up as it was colder than usual that year and kept ourselves warm by drinking steaming hot cocoa poured from a thermos.  Everyone enjoyed the show except for my two-year-old son who cuddled in my husband’s arms and slept through the entire thing. Afterwards, we retreated to the motor home where we feasted on sandwiches while everyone else streamed out of the stands towards their cars and homes.

My mother, right, and aunt stand alongside a float following the Rose Parade in the post-parade area.

Following lunch, we headed over to where the floats were parked for post-parade viewing open to the public for  a close-up look at the intricate floral work.  Every inch on the floats must be concealed by the flowers or seeds. The colors are even more brilliant and breathtaking when you see each bloom that was painstakingly glued or stuck into place for the day’s parade by the countless volunteers who work through the night before to complete the decorating.  The floats remain in the post-parade viewing area for a few days before being pulled out and towed unceremoniously by tractor to the many warehouses where they are dissembled.

I went for one final Rose Parade with my three sons, then ages five, seven and nine-years-old, in 1995.  My husband chose to stay home. The rest of us arose pre-dawn, packed up the car, drove to Pasadena, parked and walked together up the street to our grandstand seats.  The parade rolled by as we watched live one final time.

In the post-parade viewing area, you get a close look at the flowers that decorate the floats.

Float after float went by interspersed by the marching bands that had come from all over the country to take part.  A little more than midway through the parade, one band in particular caught my eye.  It was the Golden Eagle Marching Band from Ferndale, WA.  Excitedly I pointed out to my sons that this band was from the little town we had visited near Bellingham, where we had vacationed the previous summer.   It had to be serendipitous that the band made its one and only appearance in that Rose Parade. Only two years later, we would be watching  the parade on television from our new home in Bellingham and recalling the New Year’s Days that we had gone to Pasadena to see the Rose Parade.

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.

 

A Legacy of Canned Love

This Tuesday,  Nov. 20th, would have been my Dad’s 98th birthday.  It doesn’t always fall this close to Thanksgiving but it did the year my Mother’s passed away.  That was an especially emotional Thanksgiving for all of us.  My family celebrated the holiday with my Dad at my brother’s home in Kansas just days after my Mother’s funeral and my Dad’s 93rd birthday.

My Dad died two years later.  Although he’s no longer here to eat Thanksgiving dinner with us, we still enjoy the fruits of gardening and cooking with the few remaining jars of canned food that he left us. It’s almost as if he’s still sharing a meal with us.

My Dad loved working in his garden and canned the bounty he harvested.

Canning the tomatoes, beets, green beans and cucumbers harvested from his garden brought him great pleasure.  Often, a jar of tomatoes, green relish, piccalilli or, his favorite, stickles would wind up under the Christmas tree as a holiday gift from my Dad.

My Dad’s gardening hat and his hand sickle along with the jars of canned vegetables he made are touching reminders of his love for growing his own food.

Sadly, I didn’t care for the stickles until  recently when I snapped open a jar sitting on my pantry shelf.  I taste tested a tiny bite to determine if the stickle was still safe to eat.  To my surprise, I found it deliciously sweet, not at all what I had expected.  For those of you unfamiliar with this down home delicacy, stickles are made from cucumbers with white vinegar, some drops of green food coloring, celery seed, sugar, some lime and salt. The cucumbers are cut lengthwise into strips and come out sweet and much different from traditional pickles.  My Dad had tried hard to convince me that I would like them but as I’m not a big fan of cucumbers I never did.

My Dad’s handwritten recipes along with the cookbook he liked to use when cooking.

Another favorite of his was pickalilli, a sort of relish made with tomatoes. I think I have only one jar of this remaining. I can remember my Dad saying “Um, that’s good!” when he’d eat a spoonful.

After adding some spoonfuls of his green relish (foreground jar), my Dad samples the filling for his deviled eggs for Thanksgiving.

He also made sweet green tomato relish that he’d mix into the filling for the deviled eggs that he made to that Thanksgiving dinner at my brother’s home.  I’m taking deviled eggs as an appetizer to my friends’ Thanksgiving dinner this year.  There’s a jar of that relish on my refrigerator shelf. I may add some to give the egg filling a little more zip.

Of all his canned creations that we still have, I love the ‘pear honey ‘ the best. I have only one jar left. It’s half empty now. I covet every single spoonful that I spread onto my warm toast, usually for Sunday morning brunch.

I have fond memories of my Dad associated with the pear jam.  It springs from the day that we were driving back to his home after a visit to my brother in Kansas City.  My Dad spotted an aged pear tree growing in a field alongside the highway. The tree obviously had not been pruned or tended for a long time. At my Dad’s request, I pulled over to the shoulder and parked.  He slid out, taking a plastic grocery bag with him as he headed for the tree. “Um boy,” he exclaimed. “Look at all these good pears. These will make some good pear honey.”  I could almost hear him smack his lips.

Spotted growing beside the road, my Dad picks pears from an old tree to take home for cooking and canning.

The few jars left on my shelf are each labeled with the contents in my Dad’s handwriting on a strip of masking tape. I think I’m not going to remove the label when the jar is finally empty because it will still be filled with memories .

 

Halloween Costume Challenges Treated with Homemade Love

I was riding in hired car to the airport yesterday when a young Spider-Man and Princess Jasmine from Disney’s Aladdin movie hopped in with their mother. They were on their way to a school Halloween fair.  Sharing the ride with me kept the fare cost low for us both. Spider-Man, whose name I soon learned was Julio, really wanted to dress as Mickey Mouse but as there were no Mickey Mouse costumes at the store, he had settled for Spider-Man until his mother could finish making him a Mickey Mouse suit.

Wearing their homemade turtle shells, my sons pose for a Halloween photo beside the street’s sewer opening, where the cartoon turtles lived.

The costumes were cute, in that commercial sort of way, but I know the one his mother is crafting will be much better simply because it is homemade and is assembled with love.

I recalled to the mother the year that I had created Ninja Turtle costumes for my three sons. The fact that I could stitch up turtle shells from felt was in itself a fabrication feat.  Now I wonder exactly how I managed it given my limited skills as a seamstress.  And yet, year after year, I seemed to pull together my sons’ costume choice for Halloween.

With Matthew dressed as “The President” my sons are ready to depart for trick-or-treating.

Some years were simpler than others, like the time my oldest son, Matthew, then seven, decided to masquerade as ‘the President.’ He wasn’t interested in impersonating any one particular person who had held our country’s highest office but rather as himself, dressed as, well, the President.

That meant pulling from his closet the one and only suit jacket and dress pants he owned–probably bought for another special holiday or celebration–shining up his shoes, putting on a white dress shirt and tie and handing him a trick or treat bag.  As a finishing touch, he also carried with him a copy of the Constitution.

A disposal painter’s suit, snow boots and Dad’s work gloves transformed my son into an astronaut one Halloween.

The year he landed on being an astronaut was a little more complicated.  We borrowed a helmet and had a big pair of snow boots and his Dad’s work gloves to wear, but what to do for the suit itself?  Finally, I figured  it out. I visited a paint store, picked up a disposal painters suit and stitched on the front and sleeve the Space Shuttle patches bought at NASA’s souvenir store at Edwards Air Force Base when I attended a Space Shuttle landing. The adult size even in small, swallowed my nine-year-old son, but hey, spacesuits aren’t skin tight. He was happy and looked very authentic.

That particular costume was much easier than the Halloween my son Tim chose to be a pumpkin. Fortunately, some bright orange shiny polyester fabric stitched pieces together into a rotund shape with openings for his arms and legs did the trick. We stuffed him with inflated balloons to plump him up and fill him out once he had slipped it on.

My son Tim strikes a Halloween pose in his pumpkin costume before leaving to trick-or-treat.

The pumpkin was less of a creative challenge than the Darkwing Duck request that came from my son, Marshall, one year.  That may have been my finest fitting.  Darkwing Duck was a heroic cartoon character that had captured five-year-old Marshall’s attention.  DD has long since faded into hero obscurity but he was a dapper masked defender dressed in a wide-brimmed hat, short, double-breasted purple jacket with big gold buttons and flowing purple cape. (Don’t ask me why a duck that can fly needed a cape.)

Darkwing Duck with his first-grade teacher at school on Halloween. See how my son’s chin is lifted so he can see out the mask?

In one of my most inspired design moments, I constructed a hat from felt that even a milliner could respect, stitched up a cape from purple fabric, cut big round buttons from bright yellow felt and tacked them on to a purple sweatshirt along with a makeshift collar, and tied a purple satin band that kept slipping out-of-place, over my son’s eyes so that he had to keep lifting his chin to look down through the holes.  He was a fine masked marauder that year. I was grateful when, in the years following, he was content to masquerade as a hockey player by wearing his own hockey sweater and carrying his stick.

Whatever happened to those Ninja Turtle shells I don’t know. I suspect they eventually fell apart with so many hours of play in the days after Halloween. So did the astronaut suit.  Darkwing Duck’s cape lasted longer but it too eventually disappeared.  I’m not completely certain but that pumpkin outfit may still be folded in the bottom of the ‘costume’ box waiting for another Halloween opportunity.

One of the few Halloween costumes that we purchased was the buckskins and coonskin hat for Matthew’s Meriwether Lewis outfit.

Certainly, there were Halloweens when we paid for costumes, the year they went as the Ghost Busters for example, or when Matthew required buckskins and a coonskin cap to become Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis & Clark).  For most Halloween holidays it took a trip to the fabric store or rummaging through our own closets to come up with what I regard as their most memorable masquerade outfits.

I hope Julio’s mother finishes his Mickey Mouse costume in time for trick or treating this upcoming Tuesday night. If she does, I’ll bet that’s the one both she and her son will remember when Halloween comes around in the years ahead.

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.

 

Battling It Out on the Court

A new movie comes out this week based on the 1973 tennis match between women’s tennis legend Billie Jean King and former men’s pro player, Bobby Riggs.  Both the movie and the now historic match is known as the “Battle of the Sexes” that pitted the athletic talents and skill of a woman, Billie Jean, against those of her male competitor.

Billie Jean King at Virginia Slims Tennis Tournament, 1975

But before Billie Jean and Bobby played took to the court on Sept. 20, 1973 for their televised match before 30,000 live spectators, there had been a far lesser known, less viewed such match in my small Kansas hometown.  I know because I was one of the two on the court facing across the net my high school’s boy’s tennis champ, John Hoffman.  John probably doesn’t even remember this less publicized event. Neither did I until I heard an interview on television’s CBS Sunday Morning with King.

I started playing tennis in junior high school, learning to swing a racquet and hit a ball by batting it against the concrete block wall of the gas station next door to my parent’s motel with a chalk mark indicating the height of the net.  To practice my serves, I’d go to the high school tennis courts and hit ball after ball over the net into the service court on the opposite side. On one of these occasions, I noticed an older, thin, almost gaunt gray-haired man, leaning against a black Cougar car with hounds-tooth checked rag top, watching me practice.

One of the few photos of me competing on the court was taken during a tournament in Scottsdale, Az. in 1974.

The man introduced himself as Jimmy Dodds. And Jimmy, formerly a tennis pro and coach in Los Angeles (Beverly Hills to be specific), took me on as one of his protégés. I will write another future blog post about him.

Under Jimmy’s tutelage and inspired by women tennis stars of the day, especially Billie Jean, I became a better and better player until I was competing in and winning local tournaments. I would have been on the high school girls’ tennis team but there were no girls sports teams then in that pre-Title IX era. Instead, I had to play for the local community college whenever I could or play against the boys, which I often did.

Women were making their voices heard about wanting the same recognition and opportunities men received in the workplace as well as everywhere else. And none of them were stronger on the tennis court than Billie Jean King. Billie Jean campaigned for equal prize money for women in the pro tournaments and led the efforts to establish a women’s pro tour.  She became the first President of the women player’s tennis union when it was founded in 1973.  And, with her then husband Larry King, created the Women’s Sports Foundation and launched the magazine, womenSports, for which I would later submit and write a feature or two.

Billie Jean King and Margaret Court head back to the court after a brief court side breather between games at a Virginia Slims Tennis Tournament, 1975 in Phoenix.

So it was against this early 1970s background that I stepped onto the court with my Wilson aluminum frame racquet to play a match against John.  The challenge came as the result of a friendly feud between the high school’s two gym teachers, Coach Martin and Ms. Stokes.  Ms. Stokes had compete confidence in my tennis talents and I don’t think cared much for Coach Martin. The exact details now escape me but at some juncture, Ms. Stokes told Coach Martin that she thought I could beat John on the court. Martin, being a bit of a sexist himself, of course scoffed at the idea. But when it was suggested that the two of us duel in a tennis match, Coach Martin accepted. I don’t remember that John and I had much to say about it except to agree to participate. I had, after all, played a lot with and against John at the City Park tournaments and open court nights.

The match took place one afternoon after school, I remember. Few, if anyone was there to watch except Janine and Coach Martin. John had a strong, fast serve and I always felt fortunate to be able to return it, let alone place the return shot somewhere strategically on the court.  He had a lanky body that disguised his muscle strength but was perfectly suited for tennis, and golf, the other sport he enjoyed.  Plus he was smart, (he was one of our two class valedictorians) and understood game strategy so that his was not just a game of power.

Billie Jean King returns a shot at the Virginia Slims Tennis Tournament which I covered as a young reporter in 1975.

We both played hard.  I honestly don’t remember much about the game itself except that it was hot.  I lost. I don’t recall the game score or whether we went three sets or not. There was no press coverage, no cheering crowd, no book deals afterwards. Women’s lib gained no victory that afternoon. I’m sure Coach Martin gloated but I didn’t feel that I had let anyone down. I had played my best although when it came to tennis, I was pretty hard on myself when defeated.

John and I remained friends. He went on to become an attorney.  I became a journalist and worked for a couple of metropolitan newspapers in Phoenix.  Phoenix is and was a mecca for tennis. I continued to play while living there. Occasionally, I covered women’s tennis for the suburban daily that I was writing for at the time. One day, the Virginia Slims women’s pro tennis tour came to town with, you guessed it, Billie Jean King. I was sitting court side to report on the action. Billie Jean had already played and won her big match against Bobby Riggs.  Women’s tennis was taking off at lightening speed.  After her match against Margaret Court, I snagged an interview for the paper with Billie Jean.

Billie Jean King and Margaret Court Smith shake hands following their match at the Virginia Slims Tennis Tournament in Phoenix in 1975.

Even before The Battle of the Sexes, Billie Jean was winning as many battles in women’s tennis as she was trophies. Her willingness and courage to demand that women be treated equal to men in the sport encouraged others of us facing similar challenges in our own careers. So while the movie about her famous match and endeavors off the court is just now coming out, her story inspired a generation of women, young women then, to stand up and speak out on and off the tennis court.

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.

Expressing My Personal Perspective through Wedding Photographs

Summer is the season for weddings. They start in May and for every weekend through the end of September, caterers, photographers, florists, musicians, DJs, and planners are booked solid. Two weekends ago, I attended, for instance, to my cousin’s daughter’s wedding and two weekends before that I went to the wedding of the daughter of a close friend.

Sometimes it’s hard to get an image of the wedding couple sharing what seems to be an intimate and private moment. They were between photos with the ‘official’ photographer, when I saw them caught up in laughter and snapped this image.

As a the daughter of a professional photographer, I spent countless weekends at weddings assisting my Dad behind the camera. (This was a big help when it came to planning my own wedding years later because by that time, I had been to and seen so many weddings that I knew exactly what I wanted to do for our own.) The routine was a bit different then. We could shoot three weddings in one day–morning, afternoon and evening– with either myself or one of my brothers finishing up at one wedding while my Dad went to start the next.

My cousin beamed with pride when he had his Father-Daughter dance at his daughter’s wedding. I had my Nikon pro camera with me that evening and good lens so I managed to snag this image of him when he turned on the dance floor with his daughter, the bride. Sometimes, it’s not all about the bride.

That era ended with photographer Dennis Reggie in 1980, who Ethel Kennedy had hired to ‘cover’ her daughter’s wedding. Reggie, a photojournalist, took the assignment and then hit the professional photography speaking circuit to show and tell professional photographers all over the country how he did it.  I attended one of these sessions and knew then that the art of wedding photography, as I had learned it from my Dad, was changing.

The mother of the groom is usually much more relaxed and available during any wedding but is sometimes overlooked n the ‘official’ documentation. I caught Sheila at a moment when no one else did.

When digital cameras were introduced, it changed yet again because photographers could capture literally thousands of images at the ceremony. They soon discovered that this wasn’t such a great idea because clients were overwhelmed by that many images. Too much of a good thing, you might say.

Wedding photographers have since trimmed it back to a more reasonable delivery but some still present as many as 1,500 images. Think of the editing process entailed in cropping, adjusting color, retouching, adding special effects and eliminating  all those images. The post-production often takes longer than the 12 hours wedding photographers now typically spend photographing the event. I’m not sure even National Geographic magazine photographers turn in that many images to their editors.

Toasting the Bride and Groom
Taken with my pocket point and shoot, I raised a glass to toast Yuliya and Yama at their wedding and took this image while I did,

While I rarely accept wedding assignments these days as a professional photographer (except for special clients and smaller ceremonies), I almost always take one of my cameras with me whenever I go to a wedding because I, like you, enjoy having a visual memory of that day, particularly when family is involved.  Usually I take my pocket point and shoot, or my bigger but compact trusty Canon (yes, I do own one Canon), instead of one of my professional Nikons. I seldom use my mobile phone to take the pictures even though some phones images are terrific. But when it comes to preserving those images in the form of prints (which I still make and encourage you to do) or printed albums or books, cameras produce the higher quality high-resolution images you need.

My friend the mother of the bride, was way to busy the day of her daughter’s wedding to stop for many photos, but I managed to get her beside the ‘cookie instead of cake’ table during the reception.

For me, the images I capture on that day are personal and often are not the same as those the ‘official’ photographer is shooting.  That’s because while the hired gun is busily photographing every moment of the bride and groom and the wedding party, I’m focusing on my family and friends who are there, and the moments that capture my eye from my point of view as a guest. It’s something you can do too but you must be mindful to respect the working pro so as not to get their way as they attempt to capture the ‘perfect’ photo of ceremonial kiss,  the cake cutting, send off or formal portrait of the bride and groom.

From my seat. I was able to get the groom, Matt, and one of the bridesmaids boogeying during the processional. Note the photographer in the background, Matt s brother, the officiant, and the mother of the bride enjoying the moment on the left. I love this scene because of its spontaneity.

There are ways to get those same images, from your own vantage point. I like to find a seat on the end of a row where, if I want to stand during the ceremony to grab a quick shot, I won’t block anyone’s view. And while the official photographer is off shooting the bride and groom immediately after the ceremony, you can zero in on the family, the cake table, the altar decorations, whatever it is that attracts your eye and you want to remember.

Ringbearer Brody stands beside the table bearing the Bible and center candle that belonged to my aunt. The table, also my late aunt’s, served as the altar at my cousin Anna’s recent wedding.

Sometimes, it turns out that the images I’ve captured are ones that my family or friends also want because unless the bride and her mother (or whoever plans and directs that day) specifically point out the family member who’s never around, the best friend who traveled across country, the arrangement or setting that has special significance, the official photographer will never know to include it in their shooting list.

My aunt and uncle with my cousin Barry at his wedding reception is a special image. Only 18 months later, my aunt passed away from complications of dementia.

As a guest and/or family member, I have a history and relationship with the people gathered for this memory-making day so I know things others won’t and that is  reflected in my photographs.

I took this of Yuliya and Yama with my compact Canon while the ‘official’ photographer was shooting on the other side. Later, I used Photoshop to improve the exposure, give it a painted appearance and heighten the romantic feel of the image.

I love today’s style of photojour-nalistic wedding photography. I also love being artistically creative with the images I take at these ceremonies. But what I really love is the memories they bring to mind of the people, places and times that are unique and meaningful to me and my family.  And that’s essentially what wedding photography, whether from a hired pro or personal photographer such as myself, should be.

Fourths Full of Fireworks, Family and Friends

This morning was quiet when I awoke.  The stillness wouldn’t be that unusual for a holiday morning except for the fact that this was the Fourth of July, the U.S. day to celebrate its independence. When I was a kid, that meant starting the day off with a bang, literally, as my brother and I hopped out of our bed, threw on some clothes and raced outdoors to light what would be the first of many firecrackers that day.

My son, Marshall, ready to celebrate with his string of Black Cats.

Times have changed as setting off individual fireworks have been banned in many communities, such as my own, leaving it to the pro pyrotechnicians to provide a choreographed aerial night display. For the most part, it’s a good thing although I do miss seeing kids faces light up as they swirl the glowing wands of sparklers. And I loved the ground fountains that burst up with sizzling flares of color.

But the silence of the morning made me think of all those wonderful Fourth of July holidays past here in Bellingham.

A fireworks show on the front yard of our house.

I smiled remembering nights when my own middle-school aged sons gathered up their collection of fireworks, call us all out to the street in front of our home and set them off to their own choreographed show, complete with patriotic music blasted from a boom box that had been turned up to full volume.

Then there was the family barbeques at our friends’ home who lived then on a local lake.

The kids line up for hot dogs right off the grill.

Food was plentiful, with everyone bringing baked beans, deviled eggs, hot dogs and hamburgers, salads, pies, cookies and ice cream, all pretty much considered to be ‘traditional’ American Independence Day favorites.  Moms and Dads would talk and drink beer while we watched the kids leap off the end of the dock into the still chilly lake water. A few others would hop into the kayak and paddle a short distance out from the shore where they would still be within sight of parental eyes.

The kids take a break from swimming and kayaking to eat a Fourth of July picnic.

And then, of course, as night began to fall (nearly 10 p.m. here in the Pacific Northwest), the homemade fireworks show would start with the explosions from Roman candles being directed out over the water.  When it was over, we bundled up the leftovers and our sleepy-eyed kids and headed home.

Firing off the Roman candles from the dock.

Later, when our friends moved to a home on the bay, we did the same thing sitting on the beach, watching the sun sink as he dug into the delicious apple and cherry pies that had been baked especially for the occasion. Of course, we always had a fire going so that we could make s’mores–those wonderfully gooey treat of melted chocolate and toasted marshmallow squeezed between two layers of graham crackers. And the fire also kept us warm because Fourth of Julys here can be chilly, if not rainy.

A festive pie for the Fourth of July.

I recalled the more recent holidays when our sons, now grown, were not home to celebrate or, if they were, preferred to head off with friends to watch fireworks than join the ‘old folks.’ One memorable Fourth was spent out on a boat in the bay enjoying the company of friends from the annual summer music festival and viewing that night’s light show from the water. Quite an experience. Still another found us sitting nearly directly beneath the big blast over the harbor as we sat with another couple on the terrace of a shore side restaurant, savoring the food served up for the special evening while overhead the ‘bombs’ were bursting in air.

The Fourth of July on the boat in the bay gave us a spectacular view of the fireworks show that night.

More recently, we’ve headed over to a friend’s home late in the day for a potluck on their deck.  After dessert, we settle into one of their patio chairs, usually with a blanket close at hand, and wait and watch for the big fireworks spectacle, sponsored here for years by one of our local markets. They have an excellent vantage point from which we can see it all, including the show also being staged in nearby Blaine, just up the coast and the individual efforts from the Lummi Nation across the bay.

Happy Fourth of July. Long may our Star Spangled banner wave.

While the colorful aerial pyrotechnics are fun to watch, it’s mostly the company of the friends and family we are with that really make the evenings fun and memorable. It’s that feeling of fellowship, of sharing a special day with people special to you, some who you may only see on this day once a year. And that’s what I remember most about this holiday. I hope your Fourth of July is equally as memorable and as full of family and friends as it is of fireworks.