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.

Experiencing Totality Totally Worth the Time and Effort

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

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

An essential to watching the solar eclipse, protective glasses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expressing My Personal Perspective through Wedding Photographs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fourths Full of Fireworks, Family and Friends

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

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

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

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

A fireworks show on the front yard of our house.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Firing off the Roman candles from the dock.

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

A festive pie for the Fourth of July.

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas Card Photos Create Future Memories of Past Holidays

I had not planned to write a Christmas piece. But when I came across this photograph while working on my own Christmas cards earlier this week, I changed my mind. I intended to insert the photo into one of my brother’s Christmas cards but missed it in my haste to mail the cards.

Memories came rushing back as I was looking at this photo the other evening after discovering that I had failed to enclose it into the card.  I had just taken a family portrait last week for a client prompting me to think about the importance of our own annual Christmas card photo.  This was an annual event when I was growing up from my very first Christmas.

The annual Chistmas card family photo.
The annual Christmas card family photo.

This photo is more than just my parents’ Christmas card photo that year. Many memories are bound within the borders of this one image.  For instance, the photo was taken in my parents home. That door behind us led to the office of the motel co-owned and operated by my parents with my aunt and uncle.  I spent the first 16 years of my life living in at a motel. I never gave a thought to the fact that other kids didn’t live in a place that had ten guest rooms and a black top courtyard where my brother and I and my best friend from across the street played baseball games, held parades and rode around bikes round and round the evergreen tree that grew in a center planter.

The green satin dress that I’m wearing was made by my Aunt Marie, an excellent seamstress as well as cook.  I wore it in the wedding for a young Japanese couple–Aikio an Sojii–who were exchange students at the local community college and who were married in the Washington Avenue Methodist Church in town. I, along with my friend, Dru, were the candle-lighters.

The older of my two brothers, Richard, standing by my mother, was the ring bearer to Dru’s sister’s flower girl.  The suit and bow tie he wears was what he wore for the wedding too, maybe minus the white socks. This photo also shows how much my brother’s son resembles him. I have seen that similar look in my nephew.

The toddler on my mother’s lap is my younger brother, Brad. On the reverse of the actual photo, my mother had written: “Leon Crooks family – 12/64.” Brad was nine months old. My Dad took him into the studio and made a New Year’s baby picture of him wearing only a big smile a diaper and holding a bell. I am reminded how much my youngest son looked like him when he was that age.  The picture is still one of my favorites and I have a small wallet-sized print of it on display in my home.

My youngest brother is the New Year's baby in this studio portrait made in 1964.
My youngest brother is the New Year’s baby in this studio portrait made in 1964.

That rocking chair my mother is seated in was her Mother’s Day gift.  We had put a big yellow bow and ribbon on it, I remember, and surprised her with it after church that day. But when we came home, we learned that our prize-winning white Persian cat, Prince, who had one blue eye and one brown, had been run over and killed by a car.  It turned out that Prince was deaf, a defect often found in Persian cats with eyes of different color. I will never forget that Mother’s Day. I suspect my Mom didn’t either.

The print hanging on the wall behind my mother is one my Dad took of me sitting in Swope Park in Kansas City when I was four years old.  He entered and earned a merit with it in competition in his professional photographer’s association. I still own that print.

The big television behind us was a popular model at the time made by the now defunct RCA company. Besides the ‘big screen’ television, it housed a stereo turntable on one end with the control panel hidden on the other. No one makes anything like these electronic dinosaurs anymore.

And I couldn’t overlook the fashion statement of my Mom and Dad’s clothing. Although her fashion budget was tight and limited, my Mom always looked stylish.  I can’t see enough detail in the dress she’s wearing here to know for certain, but I bet she had purchased it at either Stephen’s Women’s Wear, the ‘upscale’ women’s clothing store in my hometown at the time, or Lane’s, which occupied a big retail space across the street from my Dad’s studio downtown on Main Street.

My Dad, of course, is wearing one of his signature bow ties.  My brother’s bow tie is undoubtedly a clip on, but my Dad wore nothing but the real deal.  When he passed away two years ago, those of us from the family attending his funeral, including myself, decided to each wear one of his bow ties as a nod to his trademark. Unfortunately, he had never taught any of us how to tie a bow tie. We had to find someone to show us how to execute the bow tie knot just hours before his service. Fortunately, one of my family’s lifelong friends, Pete Hughes, came to our rescue. I now can tie one on with the best of them. Also note the handkerchief nicely folded and peeking from his coat pocket. How often do you see that today?

Finally, since my Dad is in the photo, he obviously wasn’t the one tripping the shutter for this picture. I am certain that he had placed the camera on a tripod and had asked my aunt Marie, a pretty good amateur photographer, to press the shutter for him. Marie was often recruited for this task.

Your annual Christmas card photo may appear to be merely an image, but the picture truly is, to coin an old, time-worn phrase, ‘worth a thousand words.’ I’ve written nearly a thousand words here inspired by this singular photo when I had not planned to write anything this Christmas holiday. The photo unexpectedly stirred memories of wonderful times with my family.  And that, is a gift in itself. My wish for you is that you too will create future memories with a family photo of your own this holiday season.

 

Going to the Chapel…

My husband and I were married 40 years ago today in what was once the First Baptist Church in Phoenix, Az. Today, the former church is listed on the National Register of  Historic Places.  I like to think that it’s because we were married there that it ended up on the registry.

We chose (mostly I did), to say our vows there because it was where my parents had been married in the same church.  Although many couples are often wed in the same church as their parents, especially if they live in the same town, neither my parents nor I was from Phoenix.  At the time of our weddings, we just happened to find ourselves in that city.

My mother and father oustide the church in Phoenix after their wedding.
My mother and father outside the church in Phoenix after their wedding.

In my parents case, my Dad, who had recently returned from World War II, was on the road with a trailer full of greyhound dogs. His oldest sister and brother-in-law raced greyhounds and travelled the country going from dog track to dog track. When my Dad came home, he was “in pretty bad shape,” as he said.  My aunt Nola and uncle Paul gave him a job as a trainer to help him put his life back together.  It meant hauling their greyhounds around the country to wherever the season was open. But before leaving his hometown of Parsons, Ks., one of my Dad’s other sisters, Gail introduced him to a girl with whom she worked with at the First Federal Savings and Loan and who she thought was “just right” for my Dad.  Her intuition was good and, as my Dad liked to put it:  “I knew she was the girl for me.”  In fact, just two weeks after they met, my Dad told his new girlfriend that if she didn’t marry him he’d rejoin the Army. Then he left with the dogs.

On their wedding day in Phoenix, my parents were pictured here, so in in love, in Phoenix' beautiful Encanto Park.
On their wedding day in Phoenix, my parents were pictured here, so in love, in Phoenix’ beautiful Encanto Park.

When he got to Phoenix, where there was a big greyhound dog track, he asked his sweetheart to come marry him there.  What a big decision for my Mom. Not only had she never traveled much further than Parsons from her tiny hometown of  Verona, Mo., but she barely knew my Dad.  She must have known he was the one for her too as she, then 25, and her oldest sister, Oleta, drove together to Phoenix. Soon after they arrived, the young couple was married in the chapel of the First Baptist Church in downtown Phoenix that stood at the corner of Monroe and Third Avenue.  They were married 65 years, until my Mother died in 2012.

Twenty-nine years later, Michael and I stood in the same church before a small group of friends and family to exchange our vows. I was working in Phoenix as a journalist, first as an intern for the Arizona Republic, then as an arts editor for the Scottsdale newspaper where my husband, Michael, also a journalist, and I met.

Michael and I exchange vows during our wedding in the santuary of the former First Baptist Church in Phoenix. The string quartet sits behind the candleabra on the left.
Michael and I exchange vows during our wedding in the sanctuary of the former First Baptist Church in Phoenix. The string quartet sits behind the candelabra on the left. My brother, Richard, then a professional photographer, captured our wedding on film for us.

When we decided to marry, we choose to do so in Phoenix where we had friends in common and where my extended family lived.  My parents once again traveled from Kansas to Phoenix for a wedding. By then, the church had vacated the building and had moved to another location. The City of Phoenix now owned it and housed some offices inside . The main sanctuary was no longer in use except for an occasional large meeting. The organ was gone and the altar had been removed. We obtained special permission to hold our ceremony there.

This style of wedding photography, marketed as 'misty's' was basically existing light exposures and popular when we were married. My father took this of us in the church on our wedding day.
This style of wedding photography, marketed as ‘misty’s’ was basically existing light exposures and popular when we were married. My father made this photograph of us in the church on our wedding day.

The sanctuary was thoroughly cleaned before we began decorating the aisles and front with the holly sent to me by my aunt Imogene in Oregon, her gift for my December wedding. The organ was removed when the church left so for music, the arts editor of the Arizona Republic, where Michael was now working, gave us a string quartet for our ceremony.  We hired a minister, someone I had recently interview for an article, and was set.

With my parents on my wedding day in the Phoenix church where we both were married.
With my parents on my wedding day in the Phoenix church where we both were married.

Although I don’t know for certain, ours was probably the last wedding to take place in that church.  The city continued to use it for offices for while after, but in 1984, a massive fire took the roof and gutted the interior. It remained structurally sound but threatened with demolition, a non-profit organization, headed by Terry Goddard a former Phoenix major and state attorney general, bought and saved it in 1992. Twenty-two years later, they had the money necessary to restore it.   Now, with the rehab just completed this September, it is being marketed to businesses for commercial use.

The church is now called the “Monroe Abbey” and is an imposing structure in downtown Phoenix. Built in 1929, its Italian Gothic style, designed by George Merrill, is architecturally significant in a city otherwise dominated by Spanish style architecture. “There’s no other building like it in the Valley,” Dan Klocke, vice president of development at Downtown Phoenix Inc. has said. “Because of its scale and its uniqueness, it could potentially attract a lot of visitors to downtown.”

Just married, we leave the church through the front doors, running through a shower of rice.
Just married, we leave the church through the front doors, running through a shower of rice.

A tenant already occupies the hallowed halls of a smaller adjacent church dubbed Grace Chapel, which is connected to Monroe Abbey but wasn’t structurally damaged in the fire. Others have leased space elsewhere within the huge 40,000 square foot interior.

For those closest to the project, the resurrection of the building represents more than just saving an old church, according to Downtown Phoenix Inc.“There’s a tremendous amount of flavor and place making and just a sense of who we are, where we’ve come from that is embodied in these buildings,” Goddard has said. “I think it’s tragic when they’re lost and I think whenever we can hold onto one of the monuments of the past – that’s something we should do.”

The First Baptist Church, known now as the Monroe Abbey, is one of Phoenix' historic architectural structures, shown here in this photo from the Poenix Business Journal.
The First Baptist Church, known now as the Monroe Abbey, is one of Phoenix’ historic architectural structures, shown here in this photo from the Phoenix Business Journal.

As advocates ourselves for the preservation of historic structures, we couldn’t be more delighted that the place where we and my parents were wedded has been given new life.  It reopened this year and it’s the best 40th anniversary gift we could receive.

 

 

A Recipe to Remember Made with Pecans and Love

Americans celebrate Thanksgiving holiday this week by gathering with family and friends around tables set for a meal full of family favorites and traditional foods. The menu typically includes a turkey, cranberries and pie. The pie, considered to be the most traditional American dessert,  is usually pumpkin, apple or pecan.

My mother was the principal pie maker at our house: banana cream, lemon meringue, cherry, apple, rhubarb, pecan and, of course, pumpkin at Thanksgiving. When my mother’s dementia became so advanced that she could no longer live at home with my father, she moved to a care home. That left my father at home alone and without her there, he became the pie maker.  I remembered this the other day when I pulled out a package of pecans to chop and add to a batch of pumpkin pancakes.

My Dad didn't know I'd caught him taking a taste of the filling he'd just stirred up.
My Dad didn’t know I’d caught him taking a taste of the filling he’d just stirred up.

My Dad loved to stop on the drive between my hometown and a neighboring town to pick up bags of pecans, freshly picked from the nearby grove. He’d freeze the shelled nuts in plastic storage bags for later keeping out just enough for the pies that he planned to make for Thanksgiving.  I was home one year when he was baking his pecan pies for the upcoming holiday dinner.

“You don’t know how to make a pecan pie?” he said surprised when I admitted that I had never made one.  “Oh, it’s easy,” he said confidently.

He assembled his ingredients from the shelves in my parents small kitchen–corn syrup, sugar, vanilla, eggs, and of course the pecans. One by one he poured each amount into plastic measuring cups then stirred the filling together in the large green Pyrex mixing bowl. He took the two pie shells that I had bought at the store earlier out of their packages and set them next to the bowl of filling.

With a pile of pecans handy, my Dad begins the process of placing the nuts atop the uncooked pie.
With a pile of pecans handy, my Dad begins the process of placing the nuts atop the uncooked pie.

My mother always made her crusts from scratch. She wouldn’t have approved of the pre-made crusts. Her crusts were light and flaky because, as she explained, she avoided handling the dough as much as possible. As a kid, I watched many times as she gathered the crumbly flour and shortening mixture into a small ball wetting it lightly with tablespoons of water so that it would adhere. She’d lift it carefully onto the big wooden cutting board and gently pass her red-handled rolling-pin over and over it until she had flattened it into a circle. Then again, ever so gingerly, she eased it into the waiting glass pie pan that had been greased so it wouldn’t stick when baked.pie-man015

For my Dad, the store-bought crusts were fine. Easier and less mess, he thought. And they came with their own aluminum foil pans which my Dad thought were great.  I found this was funny given how much he took pride in his pies.

After scooping the soupy butterscotch-colored filling into the pie crusts he began putting on the final touches.  One by one, my Dad delicately laid pecan after pecan around the perimeter of the pie top with his thick, aged fingers, until the entire pie was covered with floating pecans. He placed each piece precisely and with love. Now to transfer the unbaked pies onto the cookie sheets, being careful not to slop any of the contents in the process. Mindfully, my Dad slid each sheet into the heated oven.

The last step--transferring the pies from the countertop to the oven.
The last step–transferring the pies from the countertop to the oven.

“See, simple,” my Dad said once the pies were safely on the oven rack.  It was a pie-baking lesson I’ve never forgotten. This was more than simple; this was precious time spent with my Dad, in the last years of his life, creating a fond memory that I now think of gratefully especially as Thanksgiving approaches.

I hope that as you sit down with your family and friends that you too will recall memories like my own to bring you joy, laughter, tears, love and most of all gratitude.

My Dad's pecan pies sit ready to bake in the hot oven. Each one was made with love.
My Dad’s pecan pies sit ready to bake in the hot oven. Each one was handmade with love.

 

Going Back to Gotland

Relatively few Americans can trace their family’s history, even though the U.S. is a nation of immigrants. Even fewer know exactly the place where their ancestors lived before leaving for this country. And, I’ll wager, even fewer have ever been to visit that spot.  I’m one of the fortunate who have.

Even within my own family, only three of us (so far) on my mother’s side, have made the journey “home;”  myself, my mother and my aunt Hazel.  And we know our family from my great-grandfather’s side who remain in the ‘old country’ although we were lucky to find them.

My aunt points to my great grandfather's name written in the registry at the House of Emigrants in Sweden.
My aunt points to my great grandfather’s name written in the registry at the House of Emigrants in Sweden.

Until 1970, we had no idea that my mother’s family still had relatives living in Sweden. We only learned this after considerable sleuthing by Bo (see last week’s blog post), who helped us track down my mother’s Swedish family history. We knew from Bo who located the records of embarkation stored in Växjo, Smaland at the Utvandranus Hus (House of Emigrants) that my great-grandfather, Johannes Frederick, had come from Anga on the Swedish island of Gotland.  There he had been a ‘crofter’ or someone who had worked the land for the farm owner.

With this information, Bo set out to find the family on Gotland. He eventually found the farm in Anga where my great-grandfather had lived through a death registry at the ‘county’ archives in Visby. There was listed someone with my family name who had had a brother living in the U.S.  He then turned to a record book with the names of those who had owned farms in the area.  This led him to the farm in Anga. But finding the rest of the family wasn’t as easy.

My parents visited the farm in Anga during their trip to Gotland and met the farmer and his wife who lived there. My mother's cousin Bengt, left on steps and his son, Sivert, seated, joined them.
My parents visited the farm in Anga during their trip to Gotland and met the farmer and his wife who lived there. My mother stands opposite her cousin Bengt, left on steps and his son, Sivert, seated, joined them with the couple who own the farm at the top.

Somewhere along the way, my great-grandfather’s brother’s family (following?) had changed their last name. The reasons for this, so the story goes, is either because they were embarrassed by a family member who had been a Lutheran priest in Dalhem, Gotland, and who was known to imbibe a bit too much of the communion wine or, depending upon who you believe, a family member, Johannes Frederick’s brother perhaps, got into a little trouble with the law (possibly during the prohibition era in the United States). We’re a little hazy on the details. But the end result was that Johannes Frederick’s brother changed his last name. It wasn’t until Bo discovered this that he located the other side of my family still living right there in Gotland!

My mother and her cousin, Dorothy, who was, at the time, researching the family history were ‘thrilled’ that Bo had found our relatives.  As my mother wrote to Bo in 1970: “We realize that we are fortunate in having you do our research as I don’t think anyone else would have been able to find them. I have a sister living in Arizona who is planning a trip to Sweden next year so she is more than happy to receive all the information as she will, no doubt, visit them.”

My aunt Hazel, left, meets her Swedish cousin Bengt for the first time as Bengt's son, Sivert, translates for them.
My aunt Hazel, left, meets her Swedish cousin Bengt for the first time as Bengt’s son, Sivert, translates for them.

As it turned out, my aunt Hazel, to whom my mother referred, wasn’t able to go on the trip in 1971 with her cousin Dorothy. So it was Dorothy who was the first to meet her cousin, Bengt, and his son, Sivert.  Hazel finally met the family 1991 when she and I went together on our first visit to Sweden. (Click the link here for that story.)

Meeting the family in Gotland was something I’ll never forget.  Sivert and Bengt greeted us at the airport, then we drove us to his father’s home where we met his wife.  My aunt sat next to Bengt on the sofa, who sat next to Sivert who was translating as Bengt spoke limited English as neither of us spoke any Swedish at the time. (I have since learned the language.) Chills shot up back as Bengt began to speak. I couldn’t believe it.  I recognized that voice. I had heard it before even though I had never met Bengt. Bengt’s tone was the same as that of my own grandfather, who had died when I was only three but who had lived the last days of his life with my parents. His voice had obviously stuck with me and now, more than 30 years later, was giving rise to a memory long forgotten.

This summer, Sivert and I returned to the farm in Anga where we took a photo beside the cottage where my great grandfather had lived.
This summer, Sivert and I returned to the farm in Anga where we took a photo beside the cottage where my great grandfather had lived.

Since that first meeting, I have returned to Gotland three times. I have visited the farm where my great grandfather lived and worked before leaving for the U.S. and met the farmer and his wife who now own it. My parents too travelled there in 1993 and also drove from Visby, where my cousin Sivert lives, to Anga.  One of my three sons has also visited Gotland with me and stood beside the cottage where my great grandfather had lived. Most recently, my husband accompanied me on a trip there. Going to Gotland feels like going home. I guess, in a way, because it is.

My cousin Sivert's daughter and I cool off in the Baltic Sea. Connecting our children, the next generation, is important to both Sivert and myself.
My cousin Sivert’s daughter and I cool off in the Baltic Sea. Connecting our children, the next generation, is important to both Sivert and myself.

My cousin and I have become, well, cousins. We keep in touch. We know each other’s families (he has visited the U.S. twice), exchange Christmas cards, shared the loss when both our parents, Hazel, cousin Dorothy and other members of our family died just as we will share the happiness when his daughter, Natalie, soon marries. As Sivert says, we both want our sons and daughter to know one another; to know that they have family who, although separate by a great distance, aren’t really that far apart at all.

 

 

Going to the Oscars with Hazel

Last night was Oscar night, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hand out the famous 8 pound golden statuette to the film industry’s chosen few. Hollywood’s biggest party of the year is watched by millions all over the world, including myself. But I can’t watch it without thinking of my Aunt Hazel. You see for many years, when I lived in Phoenix, my aunt and I would sit down and tune in together to the see who would win.

My aunt particularly loved seeing the kings and queens of Hollywood as they arrived and made their way up the red carpet. We didn’t need the fashion commentors because we ran our own commentary, choosing the gowns we thought the most glamorous, laughing at the dresses that looked simply ridiculous and applauding the styles that we thought took ‘best costume’ before the awards even had begun.

My aunt's radiant smile complimented whatever she was wearing.
My aunt’s radiant smile complimented whatever she was wearing.

I am convinced that my aunt could have been a costume designer had her life taken another course. In a sense, she was, as she was the one to whom her dance groups turned when they needed costumes for a new number. Hazel could create costumes from nothing, cutting cloth laid out on the top of her billiards table using neither pattern and pins–she held it down with table knives–then tuck and stitch and embellish the pieces until they became a wearable piece.  She did this for years and years and never received an award for her efforts. And often she never received any thanks from the women who wore them.

My aunt, fourth from right, with one of her dance groups for whom she designed and stitched many costumes.
My aunt, fourth from right, with one of her dance groups for whom she designed and stitched many costumes.

Her own closet was full of beautiful long gowns that she wore to the dinners, conventions, balls and other big events of her Ladies of the Nile organization or my uncle’s Shriner’s unit. Satins, sparkles, chiffons, silks, sequins and taffeta. Something for every occasion. She wore them stunningly. Her beautiful red hair set off the golds, turquoises and emerald greens of the gowns. After she passed away, my aunt’s youngest sister and my cousins went into her closet to sort through her collection. It was a day I’ll never forget. Her dresses dazzled us as we tenderly lifted one after another off their  padded hangers. It was as if we were playing ‘dress-up’ day all over again as we held one after another up to ourselves for a look in the full-length mirror. Aunt Hazel would have enjoyed it, just as she did when she was still with us.

My aunt poses for a photo in her golden gown before heading out for a big night.
My aunt poses for a photo in her golden gown before heading out for a big night.

Over the years, Hazel had given me some of her gowns: a dusty rose Mexican wedding dress with crocheted trim, a sparkling gold top and matching skirt and a silver-sequined marine blue chiffon gown that made even me look like a movie star when I put it on.  I wore the Mexican wedding dress for a big birthday celebration. My cousins and Aunt Phyllis came to the party dressed in other gowns that Hazel had given to them. The gold ensemble is a favorite for New Year’s bashes. And the silver sequined gown came in handy for a special premiere party. I wear them with love and pride knowing that they once belonged to or were designed by my aunt.

For a special birthday, my aunt Phyllis (second from right) and me wore dresses Hazel had given to us for the occasion.
For a special birthday, my aunt Phyllis (second from right) and me wore dresses Hazel had given to us for the occasion.

I’m sure I”ll never get to walk on the red carpet on Academy night, although I used to fantasize that one day I would.  But I know how those who do must feel, thanks to my wonderful aunt, her terrific talent, her creative ability and skills and most of all her love. So when I sit down on Oscar night I sit down with the memories I have of those special nights with my aunt. And when they announce the Oscar for best costume design, I’ll smile, close my eyes for a moment and say sliently to myself “Aunt Hazel.”

My Aunt Hazel ad I enjoyed Oscar night together for many years.
My Aunt Hazel ad I enjoyed Oscar night together for many years.

 

 

Years Later, First Day Brings Smiles and Tears

Students at Western Washington University and Whatcom Community College started classes this week for the fall quarter. Those who live in the WWU dorms arrived last weekend and moved in creating the usual traffic jam for the neighborhood as a steady stream of cars pulled into the surrounding campus parking lots. I always enjoy seeing the students return. My studio and home are located right off the WWU campus so I often stroll through the campus to take in the first day excitement. First year students usually show up with their parents, their arms loaded with all the belongings and necessities they’ve brought from home for their dorm room.  They are all smiles as they pull into the parking lots but by the time they say goodbye, there are usually a few tears as their son or daughter stays behind to begin to their college career.

Clutching his lunch bag, my son is ready to leave for his first day of school.
Clutching his lunch bag, my son is ready to leave for his first day of school.

It brings to mind my own experience of seeing our sons off on their first day of school.  And yes, I’ll admit tears sometimes well up in my eyes when I think about those wonderful times.  That happened recently when I was sorting through some of my old snapshots to place them in an album.  In the one of the negative envelopes were the priceless prints of my oldest son, taken on his very first day of kindergarten at Calahan Elementary School in Los Angeles.  He looked so small.  I had forgotten about those pictures but when I came across them was grateful that I had started then the tradition of taking a photograph of my sons on their first day of school.

Outside Calahan Elementary School on my son's first day of kindergarten. He looked so small.
Outside Calahan Elementary School on my son’s first day of kindergarten.

I remember taking his little hand in mind, his other hand clutching his lunch, as we walked through the playground gate towards the open kindergarten door. Other parents and their kids were already inside the classroom, introducing themselves to the attractive, young teacher named Melinda, and helping their kindergartener pick and settle into a place to sit.  There was an air of anticipation as the kids looked tentatively around the room at those who were to be their classmates,not only for kindergarten but for another six years. We knew only one little girl who had been in my son’s Mommy and Me class two years earlier.

My son was looking forward to kindergarten.  He had already attended two years of pre-school and needed new challenges. But I could tell that he wasn’t quite sure, as I bid him good-bye, if he was up to this. And I wasn’t certain that I was either.

My son takes a seat at his kindergarten desk and waits for class to start.
My son takes a seat at his kindergarten desk and waits for class to start.

The first time’s always the hardest, I kept telling myself, as I hugged him good-bye and made myself step out the door. I looked back from across the playground to see him sitting inside the classroom at the desk. The teacher was already attempting to take control of the class and make the kids feel welcome.  My son looked as if he was paying close attention. How I wished I could have stayed as a tiny observer for just that day.

Kindergartners, my son among them, parade out the classroom and across the playground at the end of their first day.
Calahan’s kindergarteners, my son among them, parade out the classroom and across the playground at the end of their first day.

That was a long day for me as I waited for the hours to pass until I could return to the school and pick him up. When I did, I had my camera with me and caught the kids on film as the teacher’s aide led them together out the door, across the kindergarten playground to the gate where parents, like myself, were patiently lined up to retrieve their kindergartener. It was an odd feeling, knowing that this would be the pattern for the next several years. And one, after that first day that I really didn’t think about as much until it came time for my son to leave for college.

The truck almost loaded on the day my son left for college.
The truck almost loaded on the day my son left for college.

Once again, I was saying good-bye but this time, I wouldn’t be the one to go with him as my husband was driving the loaded truck with my son while I stayed behind with our other two sons. And yes, I was teary-eyed as I hugged him when the last box had been put into the truck and the rear door pulled down and locked into place. I stood there at the end of the walk and sadly watched as they slowly drove away from the house. I have pictures from that day too and am glad I do.  Now, as I watch the students and their parents go through this same ritual each fall at the university next door, a smile comes to my face and a tear to my eye. And sometimes, as I did this year, I go home, pull out the photos of my own sons first day at school and remember.

WIth one last pet to our cat and a hug to me, my son headed off to college.
WIth one last pet to our cat and a hug to me, my son headed off to college.