Race Day Brings Excitement, People, Surprises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I said in disbelief.

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

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

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

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

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



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.

A Festival of Flags

Today is Memorial Day here in the U.S.  It’s celebrated with family get togethers, barbeques, concerts, parades, races, car shows, about anything you can think of to bring people together. Originally, it was created to honor those who served in our nation’s military and that’s still the real reason for the holiday, which, over time, has come to mark the start of summer in most of the country. (Summer comes about a month and a half later to the Pacific Northwest.)

But in small towns across America, people still take time to salute those who served and they do it in ways that aren’t the big spectacles you find in places like Washington D.C. or our other large metropolises.  To me, those small town commemorative services seem more genuine and reflect the true heart and soul of this country. Just ordinary people paying tribute to fathers, sons, uncles, aunts, mothers, daughters, brothers, sisters and cousins who gave their lives in military service to this country.

More than 1700 flags line the paths of the cemetery on Memorial Day weekend.

Northwest Washington state, where I live now, is nestled in a corner of the U.S. considered to be progressive politically and not so prone to an overabundance of patriotic fervor even though the state has a fair number of military bases located here.  Yet we have one of the most moving Memorial Day displays I’ve ever seen.

The Festival of Flags is sponsored by the local American Legion post and a local funeral home. It takes place at noon at the Greenacres Memorial Park located in neighboring Ferndale. I only just discovered this ceremony a couple of years ago when a friend of mine mentioned that she was attending. I suspect that many local residents, like myself, still aren’t aware of it.

A quiet bench offers a place for people to reflect.

The three-hour event starts at noon with food and music, this year provided by the barbershop group known as the Mount Baker Toppers. The opening act is followed by a short remembrance speech delivered by a military officer from somewhere in the region. This year’s ceremony will close with the unveiling of a new World War I memorial and the release of a dove, a nod to the peace that never quite seems to last for long in today’s world.

However the true highlight of the event is the more than 1,700 American flags that flap in the wind and line the pathways of the beautiful cemetery grounds throughout the Memorial Day weekend.  I went out to the cemetery two years ago just to have a look.  It was the year after my Dad had died–hard to believe it’s now three years since his passing–and I felt going out to the cemetery, particularly on Memorial Day, was a way I could remember him and pay my respects since I couldn’t visit the little country cemetery in Kansas where he and my mother are buried.

My first glimpse of the Festival of Flags was from the rain spotted window of my car,.

Memorial Day was rainy and dreary that year. But the day brightened for me when I pulled off the road, drove through the cemetery gates and caught my first view of the red, white and blues through the rain spotted window of my car. I sat quietly in my car reflecting on the year before while hoping that the rain would let up.

The gentle breeze kept the flags furling.

Eventually it turned to a light drizzle so I grabbed my camera, hopped out and began to photograph the flags.  Capturing the flags, so to speak, was a challenge. There were so many. A gentle breeze furled and unfurled the Star Spangled banners as a photographed. I pretty well had the cemetery to myself, except for a handful of people who had come early to set up for the ceremony that followed.

I walked through the forest of flags, not having to say a word to anyone, just me, my camera and, I felt, my Dad.  The time was a welcome break from the usual Memorial Day madness and just what I needed to personally honor the day. Whatever you do this day, I hope you’ll find a way to personally give tribute to those you love who may have given their lives or served time in our armed forces.

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.


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.


Easter in Brussels

My heart has been with the people of Brussels this week after the tragic act of terrorism that occurred there on Tuesday.  That beautiful small city of 177,000 will always be special to me because it was the place that introduced me to Europe. I first travelled there in 1987 to visit my friend and colleague Diane from TIME who had moved there to work.

The window of Neuhaus Chocolates was brimming with tempting and tasty treats for Easter.
The window of Neuhaus Chocolates was brimming with tempting and tasty treats for Easter.

I especially think of that first trip this time of year because I spent Easter that year in Brussels. And the memories I have of it are wonderful. Some of the best French food I’ve ever eaten was in Brussels; the chocolate was tastier than any other; the famous ‘gaufres’ or waffles were warm,crisp and yummy and the ‘pommes frites,’served in a paper cone topped with a dollop of mayonnaise still makes my mouth water. Beyond the food, the city itself was bright, delightful, charming, rich in history and architecture and very manageable for a first time visitor to Europe.

I keep journals whenever I travel and thought I’d share with you the page I wrote about that Easter in Brussels.  Hope you enjoy it.

The Guild Houses lining Brussel's Grand Place gleam in the night lights.
The Guild Houses lining Brussel’s Grand Place gleam in the night lights.

“Easter. What a way to spend the holiday–sightseeing in Brussels. First we’re off to the Grand Place to see the Sunday morning bird fair. Little birds of all sorts in cages being sold to the people right there in the square. Some of the birds were beautiful canaries of beautiful peach and white, or yellow and red.

Vendors brought their little birds to the Bird Market in the Grand Place.
Vendors brought their little birds to the Bird Market in the Grand Place.

When it began to rain, we took cover in a nearby cafe where we had Belgian waffles covered with strawberries. They were like the kind that I remembered eating at the World’s Fair in New York in 1964.

Afterwards, we strolled back to the Grand Place and I rubbed the leg of the statue of Everard t Serclaes, a local hero. Everyone rubs the statue for good luck so his leg and arm are well polished and shiny.

We then went to see the antique fair at the Grand Sablon. By the time we arrived, about noon, the dealers were starting to fold away their tents. We walked through but most of the things were too expensive for me to buy.

Candles lit by the faithful on Easter cast a glow on the statue of the Virgin Mary in the Church of Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon.
Candles lit by the faithful on Easter cast a glow on the statue of the Virgin Mary in the Church of Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon.

We left the market and went inside a church there in the Grand Sablon the Eglise Notre-Dame du Grand Sablon. This ‘chapel’ was built by the archers who practiced in this area when it was a sandy marsh. The stained glass was so beautiful and rich in color. The ceilings were vaulted and so high.  Buried in the church is the Taxis family–the family who founded the first private postal system and about whom Diane had read in the Thomas Pynchon book, “The Crying Lot of 49.” 

From the church, we crossed the street and walked through the Petite Sablon, a small but pretty park surround by a fence with statuary of the different Guilds placed all along the top. The tulips were just beginning to bloom here.

Walking around Brussels on Easter, I came upon these two young girls with their chocolate Easter eggs.
Walking around Brussels on Easter, I came upon these two young girls with their chocolate Easter eggs.

We walked up the steps and down the street from the Petite Sablon to the Palais de Justice–the favorite Belgian building of Freud and Hitler. There’s a good view of Brussels from the Palais de Justice. You can even see the Atomium that lies just outside the city. On the way, I spotted a family out for Easter. The two girls were carrying two large chocolate Easter eggs. Bigger eggs than I’ve ever seen so I took a picture of them.

The tulips in the park of the Petite Sablon were just blooming when I first visited Brussels.
The tulips in the park of the Petite Sablon were just blooming when I first visited Brussels.

Before heading back to the apartment, we stopped at a cafe on Avenue Louise and had a cafe and chocolate chaud. The restaurants always give you a little piece of chocolate with every cup of caffe or tea and it’s usually very good. They also put on the saucer two little cubes of ‘sucre.’

We rode the tram back to Diane’s. I went in and took a nap. It had been a wonderful Easter.”

Maybe my European Easter memoir will bring a memories of your own to mind and that one day, you have the chance, as I did, to visit this beautiful Belgian city. If you do, take a moment to remember those who innocently died in the attacks last week.

In keeping with local tradition, I rub the arm and leg of the monument of Everard t Serclaes in Brussel's Grand Place for good luck.
In keeping with local tradition, I rub the arm and leg of the monument of Everard t Serclaes in Brussel’s Grand Place for good luck.

The Last Supper

Everyone who celebrates Easter has their own holiday memories. It may be waking up early to attend a sunrise service at their church. Or hopping out of bed to find the multi-colored candy eggs that the Easter bunny has hidden. Or smelling the sweet fragrance of an Easter lily and winding up with a bright yellow nose from the plant’s powdery stamens. (Studies tell us that smells are our strongest memory associations).  As a child, my family did all of these things to celebrate Easter. But for me, some of my happiest and most vivid memories of the holiday were the family ‘suppers’ that we all sat down to after the morning church service.

Still in our pajamas, my brothers and I look through the goodies in our baskets on Easter morning.
Still in our pajamas, my brothers and I look through the goodies in our baskets on Easter morning.

For my mother, or my aunt, who took generally took turns preparing the big noon-time holiday meal, Easter started early. Before heading off to church, which began at 9 a.m., they would be in the kitchen, putting the ham into the oven so that it would be cooked by the time we returned.  The new potatoes that would be stirred into the pot with the creamy white sauce and added to the early spring peas, would be boiled.

My father shows off the new potatoes he just dug up  in his garden.
My father shows off the new potatoes he just dug up in his garden.

The packaged ‘brown and serve’ dinner rolls would be placed into a shallow baking dish and covered so that they could be popped into the oven for  a few minutes just before supper.  Some of the eggs that we had dyed a day or two before would be peeled, sliced in half and made into the deliciously simple deviled eggs that always seemed to vanish almost before we sat down at the table. And the table, that had been covered with the soft green-colored damask tablecloth with the protective pads beneath, would be set with my mother’s best china, sterling silver and often the dark green water goblets.  Sometime the entire setting would be accented with a centerpiece of whatever was flowering in the garden, usually daffodils. I would contribute by decorating white paper napkins with Easter bunnies and eggs drawn in crayons.

There were usually eight of us at the table, including my parents, my brothers, and my two aunts and uncles.  I later learned from one of other aunts that this coming together for a meal after church had long been a tradition carried out by my mother’s family.  

My mother, holding guitar, with her parents and sisters and brothers pose for photo on their porch.
My mother, holding guitar, with her parents and sisters and brothers pose for photo on their porch.

My mother came from a large family, as did my father, and, like my father, grew up on a farm during the Depression. I had always imagined her family as struggling to survive, like so many during the era. I later learned from my aunt that despite the hard times, there was always plenty of food on Sundays.  I was surprised to hear that my Grandmother, who lived with her husband and, at the time, with her seven children and her mother- and father-in-law, would often invite people from their church to supper afterwards. Indeed, they had difficulties, but they had chickens and cows and fruit and nut trees, vegetables in the garden and wild plants from the woods that they could eat. I guess that my Grandmother thought they were more fortunate than other families so on Sundays, she would set as many as 12 extra places at the table for supper. I think they must have had a very large table, or perhaps the children ate elsewhere.  But according to my aunt, there was plenty of food to go share.  It was a happy memory that my aunt carried with her all the 90 years of her life and fortunately, passed along to me.

With my aunts and uncles, my family sit down together for a Sunday dinner.
With my aunts and uncles, my family sit down together for a Sunday dinner.

I don’t know whether my mother enjoyed making those large Easter dinners, or getting up early so that the meal would be ready by the time everyone assembled around the table, but I know that she enjoyed our sitting down together to share the holiday meal. The meal wouldn’t begin until someone had said the blessing, usually my father or my Uncle Joe who was particularly eloquent. I remember the first thing that I would reach for was one of those deviled eggs. Our plates would be carefully handed to whomever sat closest to the sliced ham, now steaming warm,  so that it could be lifted off the platter with the big sterling silver fork. I smeared my hot roll (the second thing that I reached for) with butter and grape jelly before biting into the soft, white bread.

The conversation would be grown-up and continuous. My younger brother (I only had one at the time)and I could contribute but we were too busy eating. I can’t remember what they talked about, but the symphony of their loving voices–my uncle’s deep bass, my aunt’s Swedish lilt, my other uncle’s mumble and my other aunt’s melodic alto–was music to me. I forgot that my new frilly, fancy dress or black patent leather shoes that my mother insisted I wear to church scratched my legs or pinched my feet. I was surrounded by those I loved and who loved me all partaking together a simple, but sumptuous meal, that would finish with the wonderful pineapple upside down cake made from scratch by one of my two aunts.  Ah, what could be better.

Last Easter, my family gathered once more for a final holiday meal at my parents' home.
Last Easter, my family gathered once more for a final holiday meal at my parents’ home.

Last Easter we repeated this tradition at my father’s home one last time. My father had passed away the week prior.  His funeral took place on Good Friday. I was staying, with my sons and my husband, in his home still surrounded by his things he and my mother had so lovingly collected together over the years. Our family portraits still hung on the wall, including the one of me taken in the studio many Easters ago when I was child. (You can read about that in my Easter post from March 2013: https://cherylcrooksphotography.wordpress.com/2013/03/30/in-my-easter-bonnet/) Despite the sad events of the previous few days, I felt we must have one last supper to celebrate Easter in my father’s house, if nothing else but to honor the memory of both my parents and the families from which they came. Not everyone from the family who attended my Dad’s service was still in town. Two of my sons had to leave shortly after his funeral and my brothers couldn’t be there. But my husband, my cousins, nephews and nieces that were present was enough for me.  It was family, gathered once more around the table. I had set it for one final time, with my mother’s good china on top of one of her beautiful tablecloths and placed flowers and candles in the center.

We didn’t have the ham, nor the creamed peas or even the pineapple upside down cake. In fact, the menu leaned more towards the brunch. But it didn’t matter. What mattered was that we were surrounded once again by family who shared a common history and love for those who had come before us and whose memory would live on long after us. While it was an Easter saddened by the recent passing of my father–the last of his generation– it was also a beautiful Easter.



Giving Thanks for the Family Photo

A commercial currently airing on television here tells you, the viewer, several things you need to do to in life.  Among the list, the woman announcer says: “Take pictures.  Lots of them.  In 20 years you’ll be glad you did.”

I couldn’t agree more.  In fact, one of the pictures I’m glad now I have is one that we took not 20 years ago but only five years back on Thanksgiving Day.  It was the last big Thanksgiving that I and my family spent with my relatives in my hometown.  Like many Americans, on that day, we made the journey home, halfway across the county, to be with them all for just a few days.  (The Thanksgiving holiday is the busiest travel time in the United States, both on the ground and in the air.  If you don’t believe me, just drop in at any airport a day or two before.)

The first of the family heed the call to come for a picture.
The first of the family heed the call to come for a picture.

Remember the old song “Over the River and Through the Wood“?  Written in 1844, the words were taken from a Thanksgiving Day poem penned by Lydia Maria Child.  Later, it was set to music by an unknown composer and has since become an American holiday classic tune that schoolchildren still learn.  Amazingly, her words still describe the feeling of anticipation as well as the travails of travelling to Grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving Day dinner. Even the last line: ‘Hurra, for the pumpkin pie!” remains astonishingly accurate as pumpkin pie is a staple on the holiday dinner menu.

In our case, the trip to Grandmother’s house was not made via horse-drawn sleigh, as Child wrote.  Our update version involved a 90-minute drive to the airport, a three-hour flight with a 90 minute to two-hour lay-over, followed by another 90-minute drive once we landed at our destination.  But “we seem(ed) to go, extremely slow,” as one of poem’s stanzas read. Despite the hassles of modern-day air travel, it was a trek I would repeat, and did repeat for many years, just like millions of other Americans.

Family members help with chairs to seat my parents and my uncle.
Family members help with chairs to seat my parents and my uncle.

What made this particular Thanksgiving Day so special from others was that it came just after my father’s 90th birthday, which we also celebrated then.  We would later learn that it also would be the last Thanksgiving at which both of my parents and my Dad’s youngest brother, Jiggs, would have with all of us who came that day. Not all of the members of our extensive family were able to attend the day’s dinner, but those of us who did would agree that it was a Thanksgiving they will long remember.

The day was bright and brisk. Most of the leaves had fallen and the grass was starting to turn brown. But winter had not yet arrived.  It was that awkward in-between seasons time that makes packing difficult because you never know exactly what you might need.  On this Thanksgiving, sweaters and jackets were a good idea whenever you went outdoors. With the favorable weather, someone–probably me but I don’t remember–suggested that we take a family picture before dinner.

At least the oldest generation of the family is finally in place. Now, to just get everyone else lined up.
At least the oldest generation of the family is finally in place. Now, to just get everyone else lined up.

Although the Crooks family is better than most when it comes to cooperating for family photographs, rounding everyone up was a bit of a challenge. Some of our group was at my brother’s home still cleaning up from the brunch we had earlier in the day. Some had already walked down to my cousin’s house, on the corner a block away, to start dinner or to check on the turkey that had already been seasoned and placed in the oven. My uncle had gone back to his own house around the block to watch the football games that had already begun on television. And my nephew, who had to split his holiday between his Dad’s house and his Mother’s home 60 miles away, had to leave.

The timing wasn’t the best for a family portrait. Light-wise it was terrible as it was nearly noon. Much too bright and early for a good quality portrait with light that would flatter everyone. But it was Thanksgiving.

One final check to make sure that everyone is present and ready.
One Final Check

We directed everyone to assemble on the front steps of my brother’s home. After few adjustments of getting everyone arranged, we were ready. Rather than setting a timer and running and jumping into place, my cousin-in-law’s father, who had joined us that day, was to be the trigger release man. I gave him some quick instructions, showed him the button to push without moving the camera, and hoped for the best.  The results were what you see here. It’s just a ‘snapshot’ but it’s full of family dynamics.

There’s my mother sitting front and center trying to look her best. The dementia hadn’t yet taken her completely away. It would be the last photo we’d have like this before she had to move into the assisted care facility after my father broke his hip the following New Year’s Eve.  My Uncle Jiggs, my Dad’s youngest brother is seated there to her right. Always the jokester of the family, he’s got that big grin on his face. You just know he’s up to no good. Sitting on the other side of my Mom is my Dad. He’s still very vital in this photo. His feet and hands placed just as he would have directed a subject if he had been taking one of his professional family group portraits. My Dad always smiled whenever someone took his picture. I think he believed that that’s how he wanted to be remembered, with a smile on his face.

The final result of our effort--a family gathered together for one last picture.
The final result of our effort–a family gathered together for one last picture.

The rest of our motley crew pictured here are cousins and their children, all nearly the same age. When my three young sons were growing up, I made it a point to haul them back to Kansas with me as often as I could so that they would know their cousins who lived there. It paid off. Today, this third generation, not all of whom are pictured here by any means, remain ‘relatively’ close and stay in touch with each other.  Of course, social media outlets have helped make that easier and even more possible.

True, we’re missing family members from this photo but it remains priceless because of the wonderful memories it brings back for me of that day and of the fun of all being together. Those days are rare and have become even more rare over time. Sometimes, there are no second chances, as is the case with this Thanksgiving family picture. This was the last time we would get a photo with all of us and the three of them. Within the next four short years, they all would be gone. Even my cousin’s father who clicked the shutter for me just passed away this month.

We all play it up for one last picture.  A true classic.
We all play it up for one last picture. A true classic.

With both my parents and my uncle now gone, the picture is impossible to duplicate. It is exactly why photographs l become so precious over time. It is why, as the television commercial puts it: “In 20 years, you’ll be glad you did.” It’s only been five years since we made this family photo, and I think all of us in it are very glad we did.

If your family is together for Thanksgiving dinner this year, take time out, above the any protests of some less photo-enthusiastic relatives, to record the occasion with a group photo. Whether you’ve engaged a professional photographer like myself or not, that photograph will, in 20 years or less, become a priceless visual memory of your single day together.


Small Town Salutes American Vets

In small towns all across the United States, Americans will be celebrating our Veterans’ Day holiday on Tuesday, November 11.  For schoolchildren, it will be mean a day off from classes. For federal employees it will be day off from work.  Mail doesn’t move. Banks are closed but the stock markets are open. And sadly, major retailers have turned the day into one of the major shopping sale days of the year. I think that’s hardly what President Woodrow Wilson, who first proclaimed November 11 as Armistice Day, or President Dwight Eisenhower who, in 1954, expanded the holiday as a day to honor all military veterans, had in mind when they made the holiday an official American observance.

American flags wave proudly outside the Parsons VFW post.
American flags wave proudly outside the Parsons VFW post.

But in small towns all across the United States, the original intention of the holiday–to celebrate and recognize all those who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces–is carried out in parades, ceremonies, flag-flying, grave decorating, speeches, band concerts, patriotic performances and special dinners for veterans.  In my small, hometown of Parsons, KS., (population 10,164), the local Veterans’ of Foreign Wars (VFW) post, hosts a simple, but moving program for anyone who wants to attend.  I happened to be visiting my father, a World War II U.S. Army veteran, on two recent Veterans’ Days–in 2011 and 2013–and accompanied him to the program.  At the time, I didn’t know that the 2013 program would be his last.  Now, the memories and photographs I took on that day, hold even more significance for me.

The program cover from the Parsons VFW Veterans Day ceremony in 2011. Coincidentally the date of this event was 11/11/11. The original Armistice Day was declared to commemorate the World War II armistice signed on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
The program cover from the Parsons VFW Veterans Day ceremony in 2011. Coincidentally the date of this event was 11/11/11. The original Armistice Day was declared to commemorate the World War II armistice signed on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

World War II veterans are dying at a rate of approximately 55 a day.  Of the 16 million who served in World War II, only a little more than a million survive. My Dad was among a handful of them in attendance at the 2013 VFW ceremony. Those who were there that day, proudly rose to their feet when the VFW’s color guard strode in with the American flag.  I was surprised at how touched I was to watch some of these old soldiers and sailors struggle to push themselves up from their chairs to stand and salute the flag.  I could tell that my own father was saddened that he could not join them because he was seated in a wheelchair and not strong enough at the time to stand up.  But he removed his cap and placed his hand over his heart as the flag passed by.  And again, when each branch of the military’s own flag was introduced and carried into the room, the veterans, young and old representing that branch, proudly arose to be recognized by the others in the audience.

Longtime friends as well as World War II veterans, my Dad talks with Pete after the VFW ceremony in 2013. Our World War II vets are vanishing at a rapid rate.
Longtime friends as well as World War II veterans, my Dad talks with Pete after the VFW ceremony in 2011. Our World War II vets are vanishing at a rapid rate.

The program was appropriately patriotic but not war-mongering.  No one among these assembled veterans, I think was a fan of war.  I know my own Dad certainly wasn’t. He felt great concern for the safety of the young troops serving in our country’s current conflicts.  He believed that no one should have to experience what they, as veterans, had to endure. Interestingly, at the reunions I attended with my father for his Army outfit, the young soldiers who came to meet their predecessors expressed the opinion that my Dad’s generation went through much more than they, as modern-day soldiers, have ever had to face, even if deployed overseas.

My Dad, wearing the cap with his battalion emblem on it, stands alongside a restored military jeep at the 2011 VFW Veterans Day ceremony.
My Dad, wearing the cap with his battalion emblem on it, stands alongside a restored military jeep at the 2011 VFW Veterans Day ceremony.

At the Parsons program, the local post commander, dressed in full military uniform introduced the day’s speaker, neither of whom I really remember. Their speeches came nowhere close to being as stirring as sitting and talking and acknowledging the veteran’s who were in the room that day.  The local high school band played a few selections, a little off-pitch, of familiar patriotic music before and during the program.  They struck up Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes” by as everyone filed out to the parking lot outside for the twenty-one gun salute and the playing of the plaintive tune, ‘Taps.’

The Parsons VFW color guard prepares to give the 21-gun salute during the Veterans Day program.
The Parsons VFW color guard prepares to give the 21-gun salute during the Veterans Day program.

On both the Veterans’ Days when I was present, the red, white and blue of the American flags flying on the poles lining the gravel lot, flapped in the wind and stood out dramatically against the bright blue of the sky. Many of the flags flying that day at the post had been donated by local families who had received them upon their own veteran’s death.  I now own one of  those flags.  And while I haven’t yet the heart to part with it, I think that it may one day fly with those flags in a private salute to my Dad who, during his own 92-year lifetime, saluted so many others.

My Dad's favorite cap, with a logo identifying him as a World War II veteran, rests quietly beside the pot of poppies at the 2013 Veterans Day ceremony.
My Dad’s favorite cap, with a logo identifying him as a World War II veteran on the front side, rests quietly beside the pot of poppies at the 2013 Veterans Day ceremony.