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 .

 

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.