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?

Different Forms of Grieving

I did not plan to write this week about losing my parents—that’s a subject I’ve covered many times in this blog (see here and here for examples). But this week is the third anniversary of my mother’s death, and the topic is on my mind. Three years sounds like a long time. I’ve published two novels and drafted a third in those three years. And yet at times it feels like yesterday.

My parents at their wedding, 1955

I am bothered sometimes because I do not grieve my parents in the same way. My father’s death just six months after Mother’s was a raw wound—sudden, at a time when he still had plans for the future. He was an interesting and interested companion and conversationalist until the day he died. His death made me and my siblings orphans, and it thrust me into becoming the executor of both parents’ estates, which at times was overwhelming even for someone with a law degree. My life changed in the middle of the night when I got the call that he had died, and his passing left a gaping hole in my life.

By contrast, my mother had been declining for years as a result of Alzheimer’s. I had lost her piece by piece for several years—at least since her diagnosis in 2010, and in retrospect as far back as 2007 when I first noticed symptoms of her cognitive decline. In many ways, her death was a relief. And yet my feelings of relief provoked guilt, though my rational self told me that they should not. Her quality of life was poor, and she had been suffering physically as well as mentally.

When my maternal grandmother died in 2003, also from Alzheimer’s, I told my mother I was sorry she’d lost her mother and tried to console her. “I’m all right, Theresa,” Mother said to me. “I’ve already done my grieving.”

My parents in 2005 on one of the cruises they took, after 50 years of marriage

I understand now what she meant. I, too, did much of my grieving for my mother before she died. I remember returning home from one visit to see my parents and bursting into tears as I walked into my kitchen after the flight from Seattle to Kansas City. “I don’t have a mother anymore,” I told myself out loud. At that point, she was no longer capable of sharing her wisdom and experience, of mothering me in any meaningful fashion. Instead, when I was with her, I was her caregiver, as she had been mine in my childhood.

So my parents’ deaths affected me differently, and I have grieved them differently. This week, my realization is that grief comes as it comes, in the form that it takes, with each loss meaning something different. And that is all right.

Ecclesiastes 3:4 says there is “[a] time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” But Ecclesiastes doesn’t promise these times will occur in a linear fashion, just that “[t]here is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens.” Eccl. 3:1. (NABRE)

Another thought that comes to mind this week is that the meaning of each loss I have suffered is likely to evolve for me as time passes. But it may take many more years before I can internalize that idea, before I can see the larger patterns of weeping and laughing, of mourning and dancing in my life, and how these patterns have changed over time.

What have different losses meant in your life?

On Pillboxes and Parents

One of the things I found as I went through my parents’ memorabilia recently was a little white pillbox made of stone. I had a matching blue pillbox already on my dresser.

It wasn’t until I saw the white one that I remembered—my mother gave me the blue version many years ago. It has sat on my dresser ever since, ready to fill with pins or buttons or whatever other tiny items I needed to stash out of sight. At one point, my little pillbox contained one of my children’s baby teeth, but I don’t remember which kid or which tooth. Presumably, I got the tooth after the Tooth Fairy did.

Mother’s white pillbox, after I dissolved the pill

When I opened my mother’s white pillbox a few days ago I was surprised to see that it contained . . . a pill! I don’t know what kind of pill, but it was a white pill and it was stuck to the bottom.

During her last couple of years at home, after Mother was diagnosed with dementia, she resisted taking her pills. She took a lot of medications for a variety of physical and cognitive problems. Every morning my father put her morning doses at her place at the table beside her breakfast. And then she started a little dialogue.

“What are these?” she asked.

“Your pills,” my dad said, or if I was visiting, I’d pick up the routine.

“Do I have to take them?”

“Yes.”

“Which should I take first?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Why do I have to take them?”

“Because the doctor said.” We found that was a much easier answer than explaining what each pill was for.

“Should I take the big one first?”

“That sounds fine.”

“Now why do I have to take these pills?”

The conversation would go on for several rounds, but ultimately, after much coaxing, she took her pills. Usually, she began with the two big fish oil pills, which she swallowed together.

At least, most days she ultimately took her pills. Occasionally, we would discover a pill she had secreted in a drawer somewhere. Or perhaps in a little white pillbox.

By the time she moved to the assisted living unit, Mother was more compliant about taking her pills. She took whatever the nurse gave her. And she was taking fewer pills by that time. It didn’t seem worth having her take the huge fish oil pills to help her high cholesterol, nor several other medications for minor ailments.

Later yet, during the last few months she was alive, she had trouble swallowing. She could only take her pills if they were mashed up in applesauce. By then, she was down to taking a blood thinner and a couple of other medications deemed essential.

Then Mother died, and my father died six months later. After his death, I went through my parents’ bathroom to clean out the cabinets and cupboards. Between the two of them, they had amassed quite a collection of prescription and over-the-counter medications. I consulted my physician brother, and we decided which OTC pills he or I could use and which should be discarded. I spent an evening flushing pills down the sink.

I inherited Mother’s tendency toward high cholesterol and triglycerides, so I brought home from that trip in early 2015 four big bottles of fish oil pills. Their expiration dates ranged between 2015 and May 2017. I had just bought two large bottles myself, so once I was home, I had enough to open my own drug store. I lined them up in order of expiration date and took them daily, as prescribed.

Two and a half years later, I am just now finishing the last bottle of my mother’s fish oil pills, the ones with the May 2017 expiration date (I’m sure taking them a month or two past that date won’t kill me). Every time I open the bottle, I think of my parents.

Two pillboxes, side by side

And when I found my mother’s little white pillbox, all these thoughts of parents and pills roamed through my head yet again.

I dissolved the pill that was in her pillbox and placed the little container on my dresser next to the blue one she gave me. They look sweet together.

What little objects do you have that bring odd memories to mind?

Thoughts on Random Photos of the Absaroka Range

In the summer of 2015, when my sister and I went through family memorabilia from our parents’ house, we did a rough sort of our dad’s photographs. We threw the envelopes of negatives and prints into three piles—one for me, one for her, and one for our brother—based on whose family was most featured on that roll of film at first glance. I ended up with two large boxes of stuff, including my share of the photos, which wended their way to my house.

Sometime last year, I sorted those photos into two shoeboxes—one containing pictures of my childhood years and the other of when my kids were young. But I didn’t organize them any further. I should have, I know, but I didn’t. I knew it would make me emotional.

This past weekend I decided it was time to go through all the stuff I have from my parents’ estates. I didn’t get very far.

As I was trying to separate photos from files, then start to discard the paperwork I collected while managing their estates, I opened the shoebox loosely categorized as photos of my children. These were mostly taken when my parents came to visit us in Kansas City or when my kids went to visit them in Washington State.

At random, I pulled an envelope of snapshots out of the box. “Absorka Ranch Trip ’89” my father had labeled it. (He was never a good speller. Moreover, the trip was really in 1990. But I knew what the envelope contained.)

I’ve written before about our vacations at the Absaroka Ranch in Wyoming. (See here and here.) Of horseback riding and campfires and such. This random envelope I grabbed contained pictures of the family trip my husband, children, and I took in 1990 with my parents, my in-laws, my husband’s sister and her family. We had a total of twelve in our party, ranging from my five-year-old daughter to my 72-year-old father-in-law. We took up about half the cabins in the ranch, and two other families filled up the rest.

My daughter, the youngest wrangler

I found a nice snapshot of my daughter. And many panoramic views of the mountains and fields where we rode. Many mornings, my parents and I walked out from the ranch house before breakfast while waiting for the meal to be ready, and my dad took several of the pictures in the envelope on those walks. As I went through the deck of pictures, I remembered our trip.

My mother and me on a morning walk in Wyoming

But the snapshots also resonated with me in the summer of 2017—twenty-seven years after they were taken—because I am currently writing about the emigrant travel through Wyoming. The settings I describe in my work-in-progress look much like the views my father captured, though at the point I am in the story, the wagon train is not yet to the Absarokas. In fact, my novel will end before the wagon company reaches the Absarokas—it ends at Independence Rock. But I write about things I experienced in the Absaroka Range. About the sagebrush and the sand, the mountains and the meadowlarks, the hawks wafting on the wind, and the cool morning air before the heat of the day.

My memories of those trips to the Wyoming ranch have colored not only my life but also my fiction, in ways I never imagined in 1990. My memories give depth to the research I’ve done.

Writers, how have your personal experiences influenced what you write?

Musings on Time in the Twenty-First Century . . . and Before

As of the end of May, we’ve spent 209 months in the 21st Century (I started my count in January 2000). So at the end of this month, we will be 17.4% into our new century. If time were the plot to a novel, we’d be almost finished with the first act and moving into the middle of the story.

Are we ready to declare we are in Act 2 of the 21st Century? I don’t think I am. When I quit working at the end of 2006, I felt like we were still on the cusp of the new century. I’ve continued to feel that way, despite my calculation that we are a sixth of the way through the 21st Century.

Maybe it’s because I write historical fiction that takes place in the 1840s. Maybe because my family stories seem so rooted in another time. Maybe because I’m a conservative at heart and don’t like change. Whatever the reason, I still feel like a 20th-century inhabitant, though I’m living firmly in the 21st Century. I find myself reflecting on 20th-century events. And sometimes I’m even pulled back into the 19th.

I remember figuring out as a child that I would be almost forty-four when the year 2000 arrived. Forty-four seemed so old. At the time, my parents were still in their thirties. And then it dawned on me that I might spend half of my lifetime in the century yet to come—that shocked me.

I recently calculated that my life expectancy isn’t quite that long. While it is possible I will live to be eight-eight—and I certainly hope to—the odds are that I will die before 2044. Still, it’s possible. And I will most likely spend many more years at least in the 21st Century. When will my perspective shift to seeing myself as a post-2000 being more than one of the 1900s?

Maybe I never will. Maybe I will continue to reflect on the past.

Granddad Hooker, Theresa & brother

Because of the recent anniversary of the U.S. entry into World War I, I’ve been thinking a lot about where the nation and my family were one-hundred years ago.

  • The one great-grandparent I knew, Thomas Hooker, was born in 1879, so he was an adult when the 20th Century began. By 1917, he worked in the Polk County Courthouse, where he served as Sheriff for decades.
  • My other great-grandparent alive during my childhood (I never met her), Lillie Smith Claudson, was born in 1885 and married in 1900. By 1917, she had four children. Act 1 of her 20th Century was certainly productive.
  • James Parks, my husband’s grandfather whom I knew, was born in 1899 and enlisted in the Army infantry at the tail end of World War I in 1917. His entire childhood passed in the first 17 years of the last century.

So that’s one perspective on what happens in one-sixth of a century. If I look at the last seventeen years of the 1900s, I see the passage of a sixth of a century from another angle.

  • My son, who began walking in May 1983, graduated from high school in May 2000, a time I remember well, but a time that feels long ago.
  • I hadn’t even used a personal computer as of 1983, though I was starting to teach myself how to operate a Wang word processor. When PCs first came to my company a year or so later, I knew as much about them as the IT department did. But by 2000, my knowledge had failed to keep up with the experts.
  • In 1983, Bill Clinton started his second stint as Governor of Arkansas. He was not yet a national figure. By 2000, he’d been President for two terms.

And then there are all the events that have happened since the start of this century, showing that time flows on whether we embrace it or not. Act 1 of this century has changed the world.

  • The job I took in 2000 has been held in a variety of iterations by several individuals in the last seventeen years. It is a changed role in a company that also has experienced great change.
  • As the last century ended, we worried about whether computers would survive the switch in dates to Y2K. People filled their bathtubs with water in case public utilities shut down, but those fears did not come to pass.
  • The tragedy of September 11 hadn’t yet occurred seventeen years ago. Remember the ease of traveling before long security lines? Some fears we had not expected did come to pass.

Time rolls on, whether we are keeping up with it or not. History happens.

Now I ponder what Act 2 in the 21st Century will bring. And I wonder what I will make of it. Whether coming events will strike me as odd as airplanes must have seemed to Great-Granddad Hooker in 1917. Whether I will ever seem as old to my descendants as he seemed to me.

What do you think the greatest surprises of the 21st Century will be?

On Birthdays and Memory

Sixty years ago today was my first birthday. I was too young to remember it, but there is a fuzzy photograph of me in a high chair with a cake bearing one candle in front of me. I was the oldest grandchild on my mother’s side of the family, so I’m certain my first birthday was a big occasion.

Family lore says that I stuck my fingers in the flame and got burned. That happened to most of the kids in our family—I’m surprised my parents didn’t learn better over the years. A one-year-old does not know that candles burn. I was more careful with my own children.

Although I can remember some things from a very young age (see here and here), I have no specific memories of my birthday until my sixth birthday when I was in the first grade. Or maybe it was my seventh birthday when I was in the second grade.

My mother arranged a daisy-themed party. I have no photographic evidence of this daisy party, but I know it was my first birthday party with friends beyond family members. I had a party in the second grade that I remember well, but I think I had a party in my first grade year also, and I think that’s the daisy party I recall.

My mother made invitations and taped plastic daisies to them, then we sent the invitations by mail. I felt very grown up to be entering society with written and posted invitations requesting “R.S.V.P.”

My mother was very much in control of this party. Daisies were one of her favorite flowers, not mine. The entire party involved daisies. In addition to the invitations, there were daisies on the table, more plastic daisies on the name cards at each place setting, we played a game of pin the petal on the daisy, and so forth.

I did get to choose the cake. I chose angel food. I usually wanted angel food, whenever I got to choose. I love the airy sweet texture of angel food cake. My mother typically covered it with whipped cream and pineapple frosting, though sometimes she left it plain and served fruit compote on the side. Angel food was one of the few cakes my mother made from scratch. She preferred making pies to cakes, and most of her cakes were from boxed mixes. Though she also made German chocolate cake (my father’s favorite) and pineapple upside down cake (my brother’s favorite) from scratch, so she was capable of some fine cakes.

Even though I have no memories of my early birthdays, I know that birthdays were important occasions in our family. Birthdays were so important that we also celebrated half birthdays with half cakes. So it surprises me that my early memories don’t include my birthdays. But they don’t.

That is the way of memory. We cannot decide how to fill the filing cabinet in our mind. Why certain things remain in our heads and others disappear forever is a mystery. Is it because certain physical synapses connect in our brains, triggered by later events? Is it because some traumas sear us irrevocably and cannot be dispelled? Is it because some scenes get repeated as family lore and institutionalized in our minds? Probably all of the above. Our memories make us who we are, yet we have no control of which we keep and which we lose.

Which is the earliest birthday you remember?

Avoca Blankets: Evoking the Generations

avoca-img_20170202_085016In the summer of 2001, a few months before September 11, my daughter and I took a trip to Ireland. The trip was sponsored by her all-girls Catholic school. About ten mother/daughter pairs went, along with two teachers. The school had arranged several such trips over the years, but due to shenanigans on a previous girls-only trip, mothers were required to participate with their daughters the summer we went.

Some mothers participated for the mother/daughter bonding time, some to learn about history, some to see the scenery, some no doubt because of the Guinness. I went for most of these reasons, though not for the Guinness, which has never really appealed to me.

Most of the mothers and daughters probably had some trepidation about enforced togetherness for ten days. Each mother/daughter pair was required to share the hotel rooms in the various stops we made as we motored about Ireland. I was no exception on the trepidation issue—my sixteen-year-old daughter could be testy on occasion, and often took it out (mildly, but pointedly) on her mother.

It turned out to be a wonderful trip. There was some drama, some fatigue, some hurt feelings at various occasions for one and all. But overall, I had a delightful time, and I think my daughter did, too. Ireland is the only place outside the United States that I have visited where I felt I could really live happily. (Well, Canada is fine, but it’s too cold. And the little bit of England outside of London that I’ve seen would probably be all right. And Copenhagen came close.)

One of the places we stopped for a midday break was a touristy gift shop that sold Avoca wool products. I had never heard of Avoca before our trip, but their website now proclaims that Avoca is “an Irish family-run business that spans one of the world’s oldest surviving manufacturing companies and Ireland’s most exciting stores.”

My daughter and I didn’t buy anything in that gift shop, but a few days later when we were shopping in Dublin, we came across more Avoca products in another store. They had the most beautiful woven wool plaid throws. We each decided we needed one as a memento of the trip. I bought a blue plaid with a stripe of pale pink for myself, and my daughter selected a green plaid with a goldish stripe for herself. We squished them in our luggage for the return flight home.

I don’t like wool next to my skin—too scratchy—but that autumn I discovered my new throw was the perfect weight for snuggling under while I read or watched TV. Or a light extra layer on the bed when another blanket would be too heavy. For years now, during the winter months, it sits at the end of our bed, and I throw it over the comforter on chilly nights. I’ve had it dry-cleaned several times, but it still looks lovely, with the fringe only just starting to unravel.

m-at-xcountry-meet-w-avoca-blanket

Daughter at cross-country meet wrapped in Avoca blanket

My daughter took hers to cross-country meets during her high-school years. In college, it went with her to rowing regattas and on picnics and hikes. When she got her first apartment, it went on the back of her couch for reading and snoozing. She is now grown and owns her own home, and the Avoca throw is still on her couch. It has had a fair amount of heavy use over the years, so it’s shabbier than mine, but still looks pretty nice.

I was so taken with my Avoca throw in 2001 that when Christmas came around that year, I decided to see if I could buy more of them for Christmas gifts. I searched the web and found an Avoca source in the U.S. I think I ended up buying three more, but the only recipient I can remember for certain is that one of them was for my mother. I got her the same blue plaid design I had bought for myself.

My mother kept hers on the back of a couch to use as a cozy cover for reading also. When she went into assisted living in January 2013, the Avoca throw went with her. Unfortunately, the caregivers at the facility put the woolen throw in the laundry along with her other clothes. It felted and shrunk to half its size. When I saw it, I almost cried. After my mother died, my father gave her Avoca throw away with the rest of the things she’d had with her in assisted living—it wasn’t worth keeping.

So when I see my blue plaid Avoca throw at the end of my bed now, I remember a lovely trip with my daughter. I smile at my daughter’s growth from high-school student, through college and law school, and into independent adulthood—and of her green throw that has accompanied her at every step. I mourn my mother’s decline from cozy reader to Alzheimer’s patient and then her death, and the destruction of the Avoca throw that reflected her deterioration.

All these memories speak of continuity from one generation to the next, and they speak of the inevitable changes that occur through our lives. All these memories fill my heart because my daughter and I were taken with these pretty woolen blankets.

What do you own that symbolizes change for you?