Race Day Brings Excitement, People, Surprises

Today is unquestionably the biggest day of the year in Bellingham.  An estimated 35,000 people come to watch or participate in the Ski to Sea race.  It’s a seven-leg 93-mile relay race that starts at the top of the 10,000 foot Mount Baker and finishes in Bellingham Bay at Marine Park.  During the course of it, competitors ski, bike, canoe, run and kayak.  It’s likely to be one of most demanding and grueling competitive races in the country.

The race began more than one hundred years ago in 1911 as the Mount Baker Marathon organized by the Mount Baker Club as a way to call attention to the area’s spectacular scenery.  But it was suspended when a racer fell into one of the mountain’s crevasses.  Then, in 1973, it was resurrected by Bellingham’s Chamber of Commerce with 177 people competing on 50 different teams. This year, there are 414 teams entered in the race of eight people  each.

A few years ago, I was one of those.  My team, the Angst-Ridden Mamas, made its first appearance in the big race in 2004.  I had decided that to be fully considered as a Bellinghamster, I needed to do the race at least once.  So I signed up a few of my most active friends, paid our entry fee and started to train.  This is a race that attract not only local and amateur athletes but professionals and Olympians who come to be on teams sponsored by local business.  Ours wasn’t one of those.

Team member Terri early on the morning of the race about to head up with other team members to the mountain where the race begins.

There are several different categories under which a team can enter.  We chose to skirt the ultra-competitve professional categories and opted instead to put ourselves into the Whatcom County Women’s Recreational division.  Not only did we think this gave us our best shot at not coming in last, we thought it best fit the skill level and activity of our team members, who like myself were all mom’s with school-aged kids.

That didn’t mean, however, that we didn’t taken ourselves seriously as competitors.  Each of us were signed up for a leg in the sport that we competed or participated in regularly.  As a kayaker who frequently paddled in Bellingham Bay, I took that, the final leg of the race.  Mine was a five-mile course that started at Bellingham’s marina and ended at Marine Park across the water in the historic section of town known as Fairhaven.   In some ways, I felt I had one of the lighter legs in the race compared to the 8-mile run down Mount Baker or the 18.5 mile canoe paddle on the Nooksack River.

The reality is, that each of the seven legs presents its own set of challenges so that none are a ‘piece of cake’ when it comes down to it.

Connie, on her cross country skis, got us started at 8 a.m. on Mount Baker.

My paddling partner, Pat, who also entered on another team that same year, and I increased the frequency of our kayaking practices out in the Bay and lengthened the amount of time that we were in the water as the weeks leading up to race day drew closer.  We tried to improve our stroke technique and build up the distance we could get on each one.  We usually put in our boats early in the a.m. or late in the day when the water conditions are most optimal and the wind less likely to be a major factor.

On race day, however, you don’t have the luxury of choosing your time and the conditions can be considerably treacherous with wind, waves and currents.  While the first professional and Olympian-level teams often enter the water about 1 p.m., we were left sitting by our kayaks, waiting for our mountain biker to arrive well into the afternoon.  I don’t believe I got the hand-off from Carolyn, my mountain biker that first year, until after 4 p.m.

Waiting to go out on race day is one of the hardest parts of the race

The water was choppy but thankfully without white caps. I must note here that no one is allowed in the water without wearing a certified life vest.  You’re also supposed to verify that you know how to get back on or into your boat should you capsize.  I had both qualifications, as did my co-competitor Pat.  Even with all the official chase and spectator motor boats along the course, there was a possibility that you’d need to be prepared to be in the water.  The first turn around the buoy way out in the bay was especially difficult when the wind, coming from the west this particular year, kept pushing you off-course.

I rounded that buoy giving the other nearby paddler plenty of room.  My heart was thumping pretty hard as I did so.  Just as I completed my turn, one of the racers ahead of me dumped out.   Kayakers are also required to stop and assist if another racer needs help but as one of the observation boats was already headed towards that paddler, I kept on course.

The wind was the biggest factor on the second of the three legs of my course.  It seemed to pick up and kept shoving the bow of my boat back and forth .  My rudder was almost ineffective at countering the force as my boat bounced up and down over the waves like a bucking bronc trying to toss its rider.  One thing I knew was that I didn’t want to wind up in the water.  I wasn’t concerned about passing other paddlers, I just wanted to get to that second buoy, safely go around it and start down the final leg which I thought might be calmer water since it was more protected.

Valerie, our team’s road cycler, after finishing up her 40-mile ride.

I managed to do just that and though the water was still choppy, I no longer was battling the wind as much and could actually start to make some headway towards the final buoy and the stretch to the beach in the park.  I could hear voices from the shore cheering on those of us in the water. I even heard someone who recognized my yellow kayak and me call out my name.

With the hardest part of the race behind me now, I felt a surge of adrenaline in my tiring arms and lateral muscles, from where a kayaker really generates their power.  I could make it.  My team might not place but I we wouldn’t be the last ones in either.  I expected that we would end up about in the middle of pack in our division.  I had passed one other woman who I knew was also in that division.  My friend Pat, was somewhere behind me.

As I neared the last buoy and I could now see and hear the crowd that had collected on the beach to watch the finishing leg.  I pushed harder, grabbed the sides of my kayak with my thighs and put everything I had left into the homestretch.  I wasn’t likely to make up much time on this last approach but I was determined not to lose any more either.

Our team’s canoers Sue and Joanne bring their boat up to the finish line of the canoe leg with a little help from Carolyn, our mountain biker who took over from there.

With a few final strokes, my kayak rammed into the pebbly beach where Boy Scout volunteers were waiting to grab the bow and help stablize the boat so I could get out.  My legs wobbled and quivered as I lifted myself outside of my cockpit and scarmbled up the sloping bank to the big brass bell waiting for me at the finish line.  I grabbed the cord still swinging from the previous competitor and gave the bell one big clang.  I had made it. And I hadn’t capsized or lost my paddle or come in last.

My teammates waiting for me rushed over to give me a group hug. There was Connie who had started us off at 8 a.m. that morning on the cross country ski leg on the mountain, and Kathy, who took over from her for the downhill ski portion.  Terri, who’s now on the Board of Directors for the race, had run down the mountain.  Valerie gave us a big lead during her road biking leg to put Sue and Joanne in good position when they took off in their canoe.  And Carolyn delivered to me the sweaty orange elastic wristband that we were all required to wear when she rolled across the finish line of the mountain biking leg. And our support crew–Marla and Gaye.

In my kayak, giving it my all to push through the water on race day.

I was weary and dehydrated but felt exhilarated by the race, the camraderie of my team and the sense of having accomplished and completed something I wasn’t entirely certain I’d be able to do.  Now, came the best part–the party!

I carted my boat back to the community storage shed then went home to quickly shower off the salt water and sweat before going to the party.  I put on my yellow competitor’s t-shirt, given to each team member registered in the race, and walked around the corner to Vicki’s house where we were joining two other teams and friends for food, drink and fun The parties are what many regard as the best part of the race!

I had barely stepped in the door when my teammates surprised me with the declaration:  “We won third place!!”

Much to our surprise, the Angst Ridden Mamas took third place in our division in the Ski to Sea race in 2004.

“What?” I said in disbelief.

“Yes, we came in third,” one of them explained.

Then someone slipped the bronze-colored medal attached to the blue ribbon over my head. They weren’t kidding.  We had managed to medal in our first race ever.  None of us were expecting it. We all just wanted to finish.  So when the “Angst-Ridden Mamas” was called out by the race officials to come to the podium and receive our medals, only one of our team members was still there to receive them.

The third-place medals taken by our team in a surprise ending to our first race.

In my wildest dreams I hadn’t thought we’d place in a race of 300 teams with 2,400 competitors!  I was so surprised, as were my teammates, and proud of what we had done together for fun and so that I could feel a full-fledged Bellinghamster.

Our team competed in the race the following three years. While we didn’t repeat the glory of our inaugural appearance, we had a lot of fun and pride in participating and giving it our best on this one big day.  As I watch racers come in today, I’ll be thinking of how it felt, how hard it was and what a great time I and my team had being part of a very memorable Memorial Day weekend!

 

 

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.

Culinary Matriarch Commanded Legendary NOLA Restaurant

Ella Brennan was a  giant among restaurateurs in New Orleans as was her reputation for establishing and running one of this country’s most renowned culinary institutions, Commander’s PalaceShe died this past week at age 92 leaving her daughter, Ti, and niece, Lally, to carry on the reputation of operating  the prestigious restaurant located on the corner of Washington and Coliseum in the  Garden District of New Orleans.

Whether you arrive by carriage or car, Commander’s Palace is ready to serve you.

Indeed, Commander’s has become part of my own tradition since my husband and I  started going to New Orleans 17 years ago.  We originally went to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary.  We’ve returned year after year for a winter-break.  Usually, we only stay a week, but it’s been enough time for us to become very familiar with the city and its outlying area, to make some very good friends and to sample lots of good food all over the city in its too many to mention restaurants.

The mosaic seal in the lobby at Commander’s Palace notes the year it was established.

Every year, however, Commander’s is at the top of our list as the way we start our visit.  It has become our personal tradition to make the Garden District restaurant our first stop for Sunday jazz brunch.  Without brunch at Commander’s I honestly don’t know how to begin our trip.  There have been a couple of years when I failed to phone early enough (a month in advance is advised) to book our table and no reservation was available.  Fortunately, Jimmy, the reservation agent who I’ve come to know over the years, told me to call back a few days before our given Sunday because often there will be an opening.  When I did, as I had to do this year, we’ve managed to get in.  I have been so thankful for this accommodation on these times that I now take a little box of chocolates for Jimmy in gratitude.

Ti Martin, one of the restaurant owners, right, in a photo with me during one of my visits.

What makes Commander’s so special is not only the delicious Creole-style food served on its menu (recently updated by current executive chef Tory McPhail who hails from nearby Ferndale, WA.), but its impeccable service, lovely surroundings, fun, relaxing atmosphere, the jazz music played while you eat and Southern hospitality shown by its owners, Ella, her sister Dottie, and the aforementioned Ti and Lally.  Whenever Ti and Lally are in-house, they tend to alternate shifts, they make it a point to walk through their dining rooms to greet and check on their customers, whether or not they know them.

Birthdays celebrants at Commander’s are presented with a chef’s hat along with your dessert, like this bread pudding soufflé.

I’ve had wonderful conversations with them both over the years, had the chance to introduce them to friends who’ve joined us for the meal and to tell them time and again how much I love their restaurant.  I have celebrated anniversaries, birthdays and Carnival with friends and family there, just as many New Orleanians do.  I’ve seen parties of grandmothers, mothers and daughters who’ve come in after church, all wearing a single strand of pearls, to celebrate a special occasion.  I’ve enjoyed overhearing excited chats by tables of tourists experiencing Commanders for the first time.  And I’ve had the immense pleasure of taking my own friends and family their for their first meal.

Ella Brennan’s restaurant is more than just a place to eat fine food, it’s a place where these sort of traditions are established and carried on by generations of patrons, for whom, like myself, life or a visit in New Orleans is unheard of without Commander’s.

Reopening after Hurricane Katrina, Commander’s hung out its ‘Now Hiring’ sign. My friend, Mary Lou and I were among the first diners that year.

After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, leaving considerable damage to Commander’s as well as the rest of the Garden District, largely due to the high force winds, people wondered if Commander’s would re-open.  For the Brennan ladies in charge, there apparently was no question.  They took the disaster as an opportunity to rebuild and renovate. It took them more than a year.

I walked by the winter after the storm to find it all boarded up.  But then I returned the following year when it was back in business, listened to Lally as she described to me the full extent of the restoration and relished in the fact that it, like New Orleans, was resilient and determined to get back on its feet, despite a lack of support from some in government.  That was the year that I talked with the group of women sitting at the table next to me, heard their ‘storm stories’ and learned that their Episcopal church had been the recipient of recovery funds from the Episcopalian diocese in Washington state.  Their gratitude was touching.

Typically, I ask for a table in the dining area overlooking Commander’s tree-covered courtyard because I feel more like a ‘local’ there and enjoy sitting at eye-level with the big, gnarly branches of the Southern oak that stretches over it.  The chairs are cushioned and tables are arranged with plenty of room between for the jazz trios that play during brunch (one usually cruises downstairs while a second plays upstairs) to maneuver their instruments, including a stand-up bass, between to play requests. Every now and then, diners are coaxed into a joining a ‘second line’to wave their napkins as they wind through the dining room.

Brunch guests join the restaurant’s jazz trio in an impromptu second line parade through the dining room.

The menu is extensive and all of it tasty.  I tend to order the breakfast entrees, rather than the luncheon selections, whenever we go but had the pecan-crusted gulf fish this year instead of my favorite Cochon de Lait Eggs Benedict.  Of course you must order a ‘starter’ to begin–the turtle soup is always popular as is the gumbo but I usually opt for a seasonal salad, quite often topped with fresh, local strawberries.  I always save room for dessert because Commander’s creole bread pudding soufflé with whiskey cream sauce is not to be missed!  It’s a once a year splurge that I’m not willing to pass up.  And to drink, a Bloody Mary or Mimosa followed by chicory coffee for those, unlike me, who consume coffee.

Commander’s courtyard and the trumpet on break during a Sunday brunch.

While the food is wonderful, it’s the little touches that make the meal even more memorable–fresh, crusty French bread laid on the table in a wrapped white linen napkin nearly as soon as you sit down; bus boys and girls who refill your water the instant the level drops much below two-thirds of a glass; the simultaneous serving of each course by the black and white attired wait staff; the cheery, welcome by the maitre d’ the minute you step in the door and of course the personal table visits by the owners.

After eating, I enjoy strolling through the rest of the restaurant, including a stop in the spacious and sparkling clean kitchen (the swinging doors leading into it are labeled “Yes” and “No”) where you can watch the amazing cook staff in action.  There is even a table in the kitchen where diners can sit and watch the show if you reserve it.

Diners are welcome and can even eat in the kitchen where you can watch the cook staff in action.

If it’s Carnival season, as it was this year when I was in town, you’re invited to go watch the parades moving along St. Charles Street just a few blocks away and welcome to return to Commander’s for the toilet should the need arise.  Or, if not, we wander through the historic neighborhood, admiring the elegant, old homes there, which include Miss Brennan’s herself located right next door to the restaurant.  If someone is with us who has never visited the city before, we walk through the Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, across the street, the oldest city-operated cemetery where the tombs are above-ground and the statuary and inscriptions represent New Orleans’ rich history.

The elegant dining room on the main floor of Commander’s Palace as viewed through the glass window in the restaurant’s lobby.

For me, Commander’s is the consummate culinary experience with outstanding food, unsurpassed service and Southern hospitality at its finest. These are the qualities that Ella Brennan insisted be carried out in her beloved restaurant. They are standards to which other eating establishments throughout the U.S. have aspired to achieve as a result. Whether or not you’ve ever been to Commander’s it’s possible that you’ve eaten somewhere that has been influenced by her example.

If you’ve not yet been to the New Orleans restaurant, I hope you’ll consider making it part of your visit when you go.  But be forewarned, it still maintains a dress code that is enforced although it’s been relaxed some in recent years.  I guarantee it will be a culinary experience you’ll not forget and it might become, as it has for us, a new tradition.

 

 

Totem Memorializes Local Tragedy

On this weekend in the U.S., people are honoring the memories of the country’s military  who died in action. But another memorial is on my mind today prompted by an article that appeared the other day in the local newspaper.  That is the beautiful totem pole memorial that stood along the trail of Whatcom Creek on the edgeof Whatcom Falls Park in our city.

The healing totem was especially beautiful in the spring when the trees surrounding it flowered.

Sadly, the totem was recently removed, I read in the Bellingham Herald after someone vandalized and ‘tagged’ the pole with graffiti.  Not long ago, a friend of mine had told me that the box that sat atop the pole, was missing and wondered why.  Now the entire pole and the two carved wooden benches that sat beside it are gone after city workers removed them and placed them in protective storage until they can be restored.

While the city’s action is commendable, that of the vandals was disrespectful and, frankly, inexcusable.  I am giving those individuals the benefit of the doubt that they apparently are unaware of that they not only did they deface a significant Native artwork, but in so doing they insulted the artist, the Lummi Nation and the families of those killed in the 1999 Bellingham pipeline explosion for whom the pole was intended to memorialize.

The vibrant, bold colors of the totem can be seen in this detail of a salmon.

The 15-foot cedar log pole was created by the Lummi House of Tears carvers under the direction of Lummi Nation’s master carver Jewell James. Its bright, bold and beautiful paint was applied under the supervision of head painter Ramona James.  The pole took months to carve and paint before finally being erected and dedicated during an Earth Day ceremony in 2007.   “The pole is to restore the stream and its habitat and to remember the three boys who lost their lives,” carver James told American Profile reporter Heather Larson.

James referred to the three boys–Liam Wood, 18, Wade King and Stephen Tsiovras, both 10, who were killed when the Olympic pipeline (now owned by British Petroleum) carrying gasoline exploded dumping an estimated 277,000 gallons into the creek that runs through Whatcom Falls Park, located in the middle of Bellingham.  Liam was fishing after having just graduated from high school; Wade and Stephen were playing, as they often did together, further down creek.  It was a day that darkened the sky over Bellingham as the black cloud billowed above the park.  The explosion literally stopped life in town as everyone, myself included, wondered what had happened and emergency first responders rushed to the site.

Lummi Nation master carver Jewell James speaks at the dedication ceremony.

The explosion made national news, changed national pipeline regulation (although the families of those who died will tell you not enough) and some believe awoke Bellingham to the dangers that unregulated and aging pipelines pose for not only our city, but others like it throughout the country.

Lummi Nation tribal members as well as family and Bellingham community members gathered on April 20, 2007 to dedicate the healing totem.

I was present, along with a few others, on the day of Lummi Nation gave and dedicated the totem and benches to the city. The ceremony was emotional and moving with other Pacific Northwest Native Nations witnessing the event in order to pass the story along to the next generation. Those gathered listened solemnly as carver James spoke eloquently about the need to promote healing for all those impacted by the explosions, wildlife as well as human life, and about the importance of being good stewards of the environment.  Members of the Lummi Nation, also delivered a heartfelt messages for the family members attending. Lummi drummers and flutists played.  Blankets were draped around the shoulders of the deceased boys’ young friends, now high school students, participating in the unveiling during the ceremony.

The parents of Wade King, Frank and Mary, watch as their son’s personal belongings are placed into the memorial box on the totem.

Then, James asked the family members of the victims to bring forward the items that they had brought to be placed into the memorial box positioned atop the totem.  One by one the personal belongings of Stephen and Wade were handed up the tall ladder to the tribal member who carefully laid them inside.  A teddy bear, a baseball card and cap were among the things. The lid was fitted tightly and sealed.  Tears streamed down the faces of not only the family members but others who were that day.

And, as the ceremony was ending, two solitary eagles soared and glided over head, just as James had told Wade’s mother, Mary, earlier that day that they would.

As if on cue, two majestic eagles appeared, silhouetted in the sky, as the totem’s dedication ceremony concluded.

It was a day I’ll never forget.  When I read about the vandalism of the totem and its removal, my heart ached.  The city is apparently intent on repairing and restoring the totems and benches but in the meantime, there is a huge emptiness where they stood in the opening by the creek. The runners, walkers and visitors who pass by it will miss it.  The totem served as a somber, dignified reminder, as well as a memorial, to those who tragically died on that early June day in Bellingham.  That’s what’s on my mind this Memorial Day.

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 .