After Forty Years, I Wonder—Did He Ever Propose or Not?

There is one issue that I continue to debate with my husband of almost forty years—did he ever ask me to marry him or not? He swears he did, but I don’t remember it. You’d think a girl would remember something like that if it had happened, wouldn’t you? Even if it took place forty years ago.

My engagement ring

I remember that he raised the subject of marriage not long after we began dating in the spring of 1977, but I told him then it was too soon to be talking so seriously. I remember that sometime in July or August we set the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend as our wedding date. And I remember him giving me an engagement ring sometime in October 1977—we were outside on the Stanford Law School campus, when he pulled out the small box and put the ring on my finger—but that was well after we’d made the decision.

So him actually popping the question? I’m not sure that ever happened.

Did I ask him to marry me? I don’t think so. I think we just sort of fell into it.

Oh, well. It doesn’t really matter, I suppose.

Just before the wedding. If you look closely, you can see the sweat on his brow.

In my opinion, today’s practice of making a monumental occasion of getting engaged is silly. Planned spectacular events. Scenic locations. Photographers. Witnesses. Parties. None of it really matters in the long term. In the long term, what matters is the day-to-day. Who empties the dishwasher? Who walks the dogs? Who gets up in the night when a kid vomits?

In the best of marriages, you both do. At least, we have, though there have been tiffs over all these things.

The rings I’ve worn nigh on 40 years

I was going to make this post amusing. Or I was going to tell the story of how my engagement ring—the stone came from my husband’s great-aunt’s engagement ring—was almost lost in the Kansas City Plaza flood of mid-September 1977. (Thankfully, Jaccard Jewelry had the ring at their downtown location that day, rather than at the Plaza store. It was delayed in getting to my fiancé, but it arrived in California unscathed.)

But instead, this post turned serious. As I wrote, I started thinking about what makes a marriage last for forty years.

When people ask me how my husband and I have stayed married so long, I answer facetiously, “Inertia.”

The reality, however, is that it takes more than inertia. It takes work. And forbearance. And getting up at 2:00am with a sick kid. It takes knowing that, however many arguments there are over little things, in the big things of life, you have someone reliable walking beside you and holding you up.

Today my husband of almost forty years celebrates his birthday. He knows which one. I’ve bought him a few presents, but nothing that compensates for the love and support he has provided me for so long, nothing that thanks him adequately for being my mainstay when the seas of life get rough.

Happy birthday, sweetie!

Reflections on Mount Rushmore

My husband and I recently returned from a trip to South Dakota. I’d never been to the state before, and I wanted to see attractions such as Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, and the scenic roads and towns in the Black Hills.

My daughter scoffed when I told her we were going to Mount Rushmore. “I spent twenty minutes there,” she said. “That’s all you’ll need.”

But it took my husband and me two days to see it. Well, portions of two days. And we enjoyed every minute of the three or four hours total it took us to view the exhibits and memorial.

The first day we went, it was so overcast we could not see anything from the main observation deck. Not even George Washington’s prominent nose.

I overheard one tourist shout to someone else in her group, “Take my picture. You don’t get a view like this every day!” You certainly don’t—I’m told most days you can see something, but that day all we saw were clouds.

Still, we enjoyed the history of the place. We learned who conceived the monument, why these four presidents were chosen, how the sculptor Gutzon Borglum prepared his models and supervised the construction, how the workers did the blasting and jackhammering and finishing touches to create the presidential visages, and how the monument is preserved today.

The fog and mist persisted that day, through our leisurely exploration of the visitor’s center and even through lunch. So we decided we’d come back later in the week. After all, our parking pass was good for the rest of the year, and we were early in our trip to South Dakota.

The next morning was cool but sunny, so we returned to Mount Rushmore. As we drove back to the memorial, however, clouds rolled in and we couldn’t see the tops of the hills around us. “If we can’t see anything, we’ll move on to Custer State Park,” I said. I was hopeful we’d be able to see the memorial, but the morning grew more and more dismal.

We approached the parking area. “There!” I shouted, pointing at the four presidents’ faces. Though there was gray sky behind the memorial, the sculpture was clearly visible. My husband pulled into the line of cars waiting to park.

Approaching the observation deck, while the sky was still gray

Since we’d already seen the museum, we went straight to the observation deck, where we oohed and aahed and took pictures with all the other tourists.

View from the Presidents’ Trail, now the sky is blue

Then we walked the Presidential Trail under the memorial to the Sculptor’s Studio. Lots of stairs, but also lots of opportunities for pictures. As we walked, the sky cleared even more. The day remained cool, but we could see the memorial from many vantage points, blue sky behind it, as I’m sure Borglum envisioned.

Me at the Sculptor’s Studio, with Mount Rushmore in the background

I was impressed by the artistry of the sculpture and the monumental (pun intended) nature of the project. These four presidents were worthy of commemoration—George Washington as the father of our nation, Thomas Jefferson as a prime drafter of our core documents and architect of the Louisiana Purchase, Theodore Roosevelt as protector of the nation’s wilderness, and Abraham Lincoln as the leader who held the nation together through its darkest hours.

Borglum’s model, at the Sculptor’s Studio

Nevertheless, as I pondered the history of our nation and the difficulties of creating the memorial on Mount Rushmore, I wondered whether carving up a mountainside was the appropriate way to recognize these individuals. Why destroy a lovely granite cliff that nature etched over eons? Is human handiwork—even as majestic a project as these four figures—worthy of displacing what it took earth and wind and water millennia to form?

I don’t know the answer.

At some point, earth and wind and water will eat away this masterpiece of human artistic chutzpah. The National Park Service fills the cracks that develop today. But eventually they will lose the battle. It may take several more millennia, but over time our memorial to these four men will come to mean no more than the Great Pyramids of Egypt or Machu Picchu or the heads on Easter Island mean today. The significance of the memorial will fade with time.

Until then, however, tourists will ooh and aah and take their pictures with these four great men.

Weather permitting.

What National Park treasures do you like best?

P.S. Later we saw Mount Rushmore from a distance. The perspective changes—the memorial seems impressive, but no more so than the granite cliffs and forest.

Mount Rushmore, from Needles Highway

The Long-Term Effects of Birth Order

Today is my sister’s birthday. Regular readers of this blog can figure out which one, but this post isn’t really about age. It’s about birth order and growing up and distance and—well, maybe it’s a little bit about age.

My sister is eight and a half years younger than I am. In some ways, we grew up in two different families. There was me—the oldest—and a brother just seventeen months younger than me. Then there was a gap of seven years before my sister came, and three more years before our youngest brother.

We first two children had different early experiences than the younger two. I was born just nine months and ten days after my parents were married, and their second child came along before they’d been married three years. Our father went back to graduate school, first to get a Master’s degree, and then his Ph.D., all of which happened by the time I was in the first grade. While he was in graduate school, Dad held several part-time jobs because he refused to have his wife work. Money was tight, and I knew it as a young kid. We weren’t poor, but the extras we had came from doting grandparents. During my early years, we lived in five different houses, plus had a stint with grandparents. I didn’t live in a long-term home until shortly after I entered second grade.

By the time my sister was born, our father had earned his Ph.D. and had been promoted into managerial positions. My parents bought a nice house in a new part of town. It was a long way from our school and there weren’t any other kids in the neighborhood, so my brother and I played by ourselves. We got a second car so my mother could drive us around during the day.

Then there was this new baby in the family. She was a happy infant but became an opinionated toddler. One of her opinions was that babysitters were evil. The only babysitter she tolerated was me. It became my job to watch her whenever our mother was busy. At ten years old, I didn’t enjoy that responsibility. When my parents went out for the evening, they hired a babysitter, but I did everything my sister needed except change the diapers. (I wasn’t getting paid, after all.)

When I turned eleven, my parents quit hiring a babysitter, and I was in charge. When our brother was born later that year, my parents hired a sitter again for a few months for the newborn, but by the time I was twelve, I was in charge again. (By then I was getting paid 50 cents an hour, and I even changed diapers.)

The eight-and-a-half-year gap between my sister and me was never enough to endow me with authority in her mind. I could sometimes bribe her into doing what I wanted, but I often resorted to bullying. (I was not the Good Big Sister of family myth.) So we didn’t get along well. And we were never close.

The only formal portrait of my birth family; I was 19 here.

Fast forward a number of years. I went to law school and married a law school classmate. Then, the younger two kids in the family had some upheavals during their high-school years, when my parents moved across the state. That was only the second home they’d known, but it may be harder to move during high school than preschool. By that time, I was married, so that move didn’t impact me.

Several years later, my sister also went to law school and married a classmate. Then our lives became more parallel. We both had stressful jobs as attorneys. We both had two kids. We developed a lot in common, but through all this time—and she has now been married 29 years—we only saw each other about once a year, for a day or two during my approximately annual visits to our parents. We rarely spent extended times together.

Still, as long as our parents were alive, we knew what was going on in each other’s lives, because we each heard from our parents what the other was doing. When Mother got ill and Dad became her caregiver, we emailed each other to report how we thought our parents were doing.

After our parents died, I stayed at my sister’s house on several trips to the Seattle area to manage their estates. I probably got to know her as well as I ever did.

Now the estate issues are behind us. There are fewer reasons to stay in touch. My sister still works and has little time for herself, let alone for a distant older sister. My life in Kansas City is busy, and I have obligations here that keep me from frequent trips to see her and my youngest brother.

The three siblings who are left, after our father’s funeral

And yet there are also important reasons to stay in touch. Because there is no one else. That brother right behind me has no contact with the rest of us. My sister and youngest brother are the closest family I have left. Even though they have no memories of my childhood years, they go back in time with me longer than anyone else I know. We are each other’s history.

Perhaps we’ll become closer in the years ahead. We have the example of my father and his sister, who rebuilt their relationship in their seventies. That is my hope. If we’re lucky, it won’t take us until our seventies. (Or, as our youngest brother would gladly point out, when I’m seventy, our sister will be in her sixties, and he’ll still be in his fifties.)

Which family relationships would you like to foster?

Jade Earrings and Other Bequests

My husband’s maternal grandmother put tags and notes on many of her possessions, stating who she wanted to get what after her death. Most of her notes bequeathed her property to her daughters or to her four grandchildren, but there were a few things that had my name on them. She lived for several years after my husband and I were married, and we had visited them in Southern California at their lovely home near the beach.

Among the items with my name on them were her Catholic paraphernalia—prayer books and the like. I don’t know why she even owned these. She wasn’t Catholic, and as far as I know, she never attended a Catholic school. But as the only Catholic affiliated with the family at the time of her death, I suppose she thought I would appreciate them. So I took them and put them aside. They were all pre-Vatican II, and of little relevance to a modern Catholic.

Jade earrings from my husband’s grandmother

She also bequeathed me a pair of jade earrings. Once when I visited her home, I think I admired a little jade Buddha figure. From my stray comment, perhaps she deduced that I like jade.

Two pairs of my older jade earrings

I do like jade. In fact, by the time his grandmother died, my husband had given me at least three pairs of jade earrings, and I wore all of them often during my working days.

After his grandmother’s death, I had four pairs.

The earrings she left me are beautiful. I think she acquired them during her travels in Asia. They’re a brighter green than most jade made into jewelry, almost a kelly green. I knew jade could range widely in color, from the traditional dark green to white and black and even lavender and red. Still, this green surprised me when I first saw the earrings—more suitable for St. Patrick’s Day than most jade. (And, indeed, I’ve worn them on many a St. Patrick’s Day.)

The earrings when I received them were clip-ons, because his grandmother did not have pierced ears. I did have pierced ears, and they hurt, so I didn’t wear them. A couple of years later, my husband had them converted into pierced earrings, so I could wear them.

Since then, I have worn them often, when the brighter green suits my clothing more than darker jade would.

Butterfly pins from my husband’s grandmother

In addition to the jade earrings, my husband’s grandmother also left me two butterfly pins of the same color. They are some sort of lacquer on gold, I think; I don’t believe they are jade.

I wish I knew the story behind how she came to acquire these pins. I mean, who wears butterfly pins? Even in the 1950s, who wore butterfly pins? And even if for some reason you wore one pin, why would you ever wear two?

The earrings and pins together

I have only had a couple of occasions when I thought it appropriate to wear these pins. Once I put them on a white dress. And the other time was to a Girl Scout fundraiser, where the invitation said to wear “camping chic.” I wore hiking pants and boots, a sweater set, and my jade earrings and butterflies. No one made any comment, whether out of polite circumspection or disinterest, I couldn’t say.

Someday, I’ll leave all this jewelry to my daughter, who was named after my husband’s grandmother. Then she can wonder when it is appropriate to wear butterfly pins. At least the earrings have already been converted for her to wear with pierced ears.

Do you have items you’ve inherited that you wonder about?

My Great-Grandmother Della Phillips Jones

The great-grandmother I know the least about is my father’s maternal grandmother, Della Phillips Jones. All I ever knew about her growing up was that she had been married before she married my great-grandfather, and her daughter (my grandmother) had a half-sister from Della’s first marriage who was quite a bit older than she was. I had the sense there was some scandal associated with Della, but whether it was simply that she’d been divorced or whether there was more to the story, I never heard.

Della died before I was born, so I never had the opportunity to meet her, or her husband (my great-grandfather) Tucker Jones, who also died before I was born.

I knew that Tucker Jones owned a store in Arnold, Nebraska, during the Depression. My father talked about how Grandpa Tucker gave credit to people who were down on their luck in those years, which caused him his own financial troubles.

My father must have known his grandmother Della, but he didn’t tell me any stories about her. I had the impression he liked Tucker, but might not have liked Della.

My grandmother never told stories about her parents either. I wondered whether she got her musical talent from Della or from Tucker.

I later met my grandmother’s sister, my half-great-aunt Ethel, who lived with her husband in Idaho, not too far from my parents’ vacation home in Coeur d’Alene, when I was in high school. We had a couple of lunches with them. Ethel was quite old when I met her, and she did not tell any stories about her parents. I think Ethel died just a few years after I met her.

And that’s all I knew about this branch of the family. I should have asked my father more about his mother’s parents.

So recently I went searching for what else I could find out about Della. “Jones” is not an easy name to research. But between family genealogy records and what I found online, I’ve pieced together the following:

Della was born on January 25, 1877, to James Martin Phillips and Martha Josephine Stevenson. I could trace Della’s father’s family back through several generations. They had come from Indiana, and from Virginia in generations before that. Her father’s ancestors came to America well before the Revolutionary War—one of her great-great-great-grandfathers, a Joseph Phillips (one of several Josephs) was born in Orange, Virginia, on July 16, 1706. I’d known I had pre-Revolutionary War relatives on my mother’s side (the Hooker family), but I hadn’t known my dad had such long roots in the New World until I researched Della.

Della’s mother, Martha Josephine Stevenson, was also from Indiana. She had six children and died in May 6, 1922, in Chicago.

Della’s first marriage license says she was born in Indiana, but her obituary says she was born in Nebraska. Her first marriage was to Glenn Johnson on April 12, 1898. Glenn was born in Iowa. He was twenty-six, and she was only seventeen. Their daughter Ethel was born in about 1900.

After my father died, I found a copy of Della’s divorce papers from her first marriage. Why my father had them, I have no idea. I don’t know whether his mother gave them to him, or whether they came with some genealogy records that his sister gave him. The papers made it sound like Della had been abused during her first marriage, but I don’t know if that was the truth—from my law school days, I know it was common to make such allegations to provide the cause necessary to get a divorce decree, in the days before no-fault divorces. I didn’t keep the divorce papers, so I don’t remember the date of their divorce.

Della’s second marriage in 1908 to Tucker Lon Jones, produced my grandmother, Kathryn Delores Jones Claudson, born February 12, 1911. Della and Tucker had no other children, though Ethel lived with them until she grew up, according to census records.

I know Tucker was born on June 6, 1881, in Grand Pass, Missouri, in Saline County—the same county my husband’s family is from, though I don’t think my in-laws knew of Tucker or his family at all. Tucker was four years younger than Della—possibly another reason for scandal in those days—he married an older divorcee.

Inside the T.L. Jones Mercantile store in 1914, Arnold, Nebraska

I don’t know how Tucker and Della got to Arnold, Nebraska. They may have moved there when they bought into a mercantile store in 1912. An article I found said that Tucker and Della operated the store in Arnold for twenty-eight years, starting in 1912, when they opened it with two other men. They bought out their partners in 1925 and renamed it the T.L. Jones Mercantile Co. According to the article, the store stopped selling clothing in 1928 and thereafter only sold groceries. At some point, Tucker and Della sold the store, and it was operated by others until 1944.

Della Phillips Jones in 1914

I have only found one picture of Della. It was taken in 1914 inside the T.L. Jones Mercantile Co. store that she and Tucker owned and operated.

Della was one of the witnesses to my grandparents’ marriage on August 30, 1928, in Grand Island, Nebraska.

Tucker Lon Jones in 1914

Tucker Jones died in 1944 in Arnold Nebraska. Della died on December 17, 1955, in Plattsmouth, Nebraska. Plattsmouth is south of Omaha, right where the Platte River joins the Missouri, across the Missouri River from Iowa—a good distance from Arnold. Della was buried in Arnold with Tucker, so I wondered what she was doing in Plattsmouth. Her death certificate answered that question—she was living in the Masonic Home in Plattsmouth at the time of her death. The doctor who signed her death certificate stated he had attended her since 1947, so it appears she moved to Plattsmouth, possibly to the Masonic home, a few years after Tucker’s death.

And those are the only facts I’ve learned about her life and death. I still wish I knew more.

What do you wish you knew about your ancestors?

Recipe: Steak Soup

Shortly after I married my husband, his mother wrote out her recipe for steak soup for me. My husband had made this soup for me already, and I knew he loved it. I liked the steak soup also, but I was very ill one evening after eating it, and I lost my taste for it.

It wasn’t the soup that made me ill, I knew, but memories of that evening kept me from eating steak soup for years. I wouldn’t order it at restaurants and only rarely bought it at the cafeteria at work, no matter how hearty and delectable it smelled. My memories of it coming back up were too vile.

I’ve slowly overcome my distaste for steak soup. Over the years we—usually my husband—made it often enough that the handwritten recipe card is spattered and stained. I made steak soup for my husband a couple of months ago using my mother-in-law’s recipe.

Well, sort of using her recipe. As I’ve written before, I often regard recipes as mere suggestions. It’s more about getting the proportions right than exactitude.

So here is my mother-in-law’s recipe:

Melt a stick of oleo, stir in 1 cup flour to make a smooth paste. Stir in 8 cups cold water slowly. Saute 1 lb hamburger, drain off grease, add to above. Parboil (10 minutes) 1 cup each sliced onions, carrots, celery, and add. Add 2 cups frozen mixed vegetables, 1 can tomatoes, 1 Tbsp Accent, 1 tsp pepper, 6 beef bouillon cubes. Bring to boil, simmer about 30 minutes.

And here is what I did:

Browned 1 lb hamburger with a diced onion, then drained it and dumped it in a crock pot. Added a package of frozen corn, another package of frozen green beans, a can of diced tomatoes, and 5 smallish red potatoes (diced). I didn’t have any Accent, so I used 2 Tbsp Montreal Steak Seasoning. And added 6 beef bouillon cubes. Covered it with 8 cups water. And cooked it in the crock pot on High for 5-6 hours.

With bread and a salad, dinner was ready.

My husband was curiously silent as we ate. Finally I asked, “Don’t you like the soup?”

“Where’d you get the recipe?”

“From your mother.”

“It doesn’t taste like Mom’s.”

The flavor was a little different than his mother’s soup. I could detect the Montreal Steak Seasoning. But the soup tasted wonderful—full-flavored and savory, with a hint of sweet—and I told him so. He still eyed it suspiciously.

Last helping of steak soup, just before husband dished it up

Rather than make him eat leftovers the next day, I froze a container of the soup, which I pulled out the other night for a quick supper.

“This isn’t so bad,” he said as he dished himself up a second bowl.

What family recipes have you altered? Did you do so intentionally or not?

Random Photos: Going Home Again . . . A Vacation Remembered

My husband and I didn’t take too many summer vacations at my parents’ home when our kids were growing up. We saved our visits for every third Christmas. In addition, my parents visited us once or twice a year in Kansas City, and we sent our kids out to Washington State without us as soon as the airlines would let them fly by themselves.

But I recently pulled out a random envelope of snapshots my father had taken of one summer vacation we did take in Washington State at my parents’ house.

Kids swimming, one with water wings, and the other with attitude

I can’t recall exactly which summer it was. The pictures were taken at the large house my parents had in the Meadow Springs development of Richland, Washington. They owned this home between the summer of 1986 and about 1991. I know this wasn’t our first visit there—we’d visited them at this house over Christmas 1986. My daughter looks to be about three or four in the pictures, with my son about six or seven, so I’m guessing it was the summer of 1988 or 1989, but it could have been 1990.

Nanny Winnie supervising my daughter

The house had a swimming pool, which our kids loved. My daughter couldn’t swim yet, so had to wear water wings. My son could swim, and most likely lorded his wing-less state over his little sister. My mother’s mother, Nanny Winnie, visited that week also, and she loved to swim. She was always happy to supervise afternoons at the pool.

Mitzi doesn’t know whether to bark at my son or the pool skimmer

My parents had a Schnauzer named Mitzi. Mitzi wanted to be a part of the pool parties, particularly when the pool skimmer was operating. The dog could swim, but she couldn’t get herself out of the pool. Later, my younger brother taught Mitzi to paddle to the stairs so she could climb out, but at the time of our visit, she had not yet learned this escape route. One time during our visit that week, I had to dive in after her and pull her to safety. She didn’t seem too grateful, and scrabbled and scratched to get out of my helpful arms.

Husband and son canoeing on the Wenatchee River

On the weekend we were there, when my father wasn’t working, my husband, son, father and I went canoeing on the Wenatchee River. We drove through the lovely mountain town of Leavenworth, Washington, rented canoes from an outfitter, and put in on the river somewhere near Lake Wenatchee. Then we floated downstream through the alpine Wenatchee National Forest for a couple of hours. We stopped for lunch on a gravel bar, then took out where the outfitter had designated and awaited our pick up.

Lunch on the gravel bar

We had two canoes—my husband and son paddled one, and my father and I had the other. This was the first canoe trip I’d been on where I wasn’t in the same boat as my husband. I was used to relying on his skills to get us through any whitewater, but we decided our son needed a strong paddler more than I did. Our son was young enough that his paddling was more for show than power. (As was mine, though I at least had an intellectual understanding of what I should be doing.)

Me with wet shoes, and son

My father was definitely not as competent at paddling as my husband. Still, he and I didn’t have much difficulty until we reached the take-out point. There, even with both Dad and me paddling as hard as we could, we almost didn’t reach shore. I finally had to step out of the boat to pull us out of the current just as we passed the gravel river access road where we were supposed to meet our ride. Dad may have gotten wet also—there is photographic evidence of my wet shoes, but he was taking the pictures, so there’s nothing to verify his actions.

I was happy to find these pictures and to remember that summer vacation back in my birthplace—Washington State, and Richland in particular. In recent years, I’ve only been to Richland for my parents’ funerals in 2014 and 2015. There’s no one left to bury in Richland, and I sometimes wonder if I will ever go home again.

What do you remember of visits to your hometown?