Make the Most of Your Time

A New Chapter

Through the years, I have come to regard life as poetry. Between each hopeful sunrise and blushing sunset, the universe expertly weaves a melodic sonnet that perfectly reflects the infinite beauty of all that surrounds us and flows through us.

The prerequisite for this harmonic perspective, I believe, is an awareness of life’s poetic moments. When recognized, such a moment can teach a lesson, validate a decision and even serve as a compass. The most powerful experiences can affect you forever, as was the recent case when I was decluttering my bookshelf and found an unfamiliar hardback called My Time by Abigail Trafford.

Thinking the book was a potential candidate for the donation box I was filling, I wondered, “Hmmm. What’s this one about? I don’t remember reading it. Where did I get it?” I slipped it off the shelf, opened the front cover and saw familiar handwriting. The inscription from Christmas 2004 read …

Make the most of your time. Mom xxxooo.

My Time Message

I drew a quick breath and read the book jacket. It said, in part, “This generation (ages 55 to 75) is the first to experience the period of personal renaissance in between middle and old age. (The author) skillfully guides us through the obstacles of My Time and shows us how to reinvent ourselves in these bonus decades.”

Immediately, I felt the power of the moment. I had stumbled upon a posthumous note from my mother! No, it was not one that she wrote during the last weeks of her life and entrusted a family member to deliver at an opportune time (as were most of the notes that have fueled this column). This note was more profound, more ethereal than that. Written more than a dozen years ago, the message waited patiently inside that important book until I was ready to embrace it.

And, indeed, I was ready. The timing was so precise, so perfect that it left me awestruck. Clearly, it was synchronicity at its best.

Mom’s death in December 2013, in the very room where I now write these words, affected me deeply. Early on, I didn’t know how I could carry on without her. Even when the feeling passed that I may as well have died, too, it took many agonizing months to reach that place of “the new normal,” which in recent years has become the coveted nirvana for anyone suffering a loss.

Piled atop my grief about Mom were the passing of my sweet, old Springer Spaniel in September 2016 and a problematic shift in leadership and organizational culture at my longtime workplace. There was little I could do about the sorrow surrounding Katie’s death except wait for time to work it’s magic. At the office, I took the advice I had always given others. If you are unhappy, it’s up to you to make a change.

A transfer to a different job in the same state department helped for a while. In fact, voluntarily moving into a position with much less responsibility gave me time to focus on myself for the first time in a decade. I joined Weight Watchers and began to take long, purposeful walks in the evenings after dinner. The pounds I had accumulated through years of stress eating and a sedentary lifestyle began to melt away, and the solitary walks gave me time to think. It was on one of those walks that I suddenly realized I had finally passed a previously elusive milestone. There actually was going to be life after Mom for me! It took more than three years, and I honestly didn’t see it coming, but I had finally arrived at the summit of my long journey. It was such a surprise, such a defining moment, that I almost expect to see an “X” marking the spot on Ryegrass Road in our neighborhood.

Around that time, some disconcerting issues at the office led me to another realization. A different job, on what was essentially the same organizational chart, was never going to restore the joy I once took in my work. After much soul searching, I decided to leave public service as soon as I could develop a viable plan. The biggest obstacle, of course, was my budget. Retiring before age 65 meant a financial sacrifice. I went on the hunt for a low stress, private sector job to supplement my pension. The day after I picked up an application for a position that fit my criteria, I found the book. That moment … that indescribably poetic moment … changed everything; most importantly my attitude. I threw the job application in the trash, stopped planning an escape and started planning a life.

My Time

Just 15 pages into My Time, I began taking notes on post-its and pasting them like tabs so I could easily return to certain passages. Information about the landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development, directed by Dr. George Valliant, captured my attention like nothing else had in a very long while. I could see myself in the stage called Generativity, which typically involves giving back, and in the stage called Keeper of the Meaning, which involves tying the past to the future.

Both personally and professionally, I highly value the future as well as the past. I’ve often said that raising two children who I regard as superlative adults is the single most important thing I have ever done or will do on this planet. And, as a leader, mentoring my staff and preparing them for their turn at the helm is consistently at the top of my priority list. Equally important is passing on family history at home and imparting lessons learned at the office.

Until I saw myself in Abigail Trafford’s book, I didn’t regard my interest in heritage and legacy as anything other than a personal passion. Now I understand that it’s part of life; part of being human. It’s an especially great motivator in one’s later years when most of us begin to truly grasp the reality that our time here is limited.

My Time didn’t change my mind about retirement. What My Time did was inject excitement into the possibilities of life after retirement. I am blessed with a well-developed sense of Generativity. I am the Keeper of the Meaning; that’s so me. Doggone-it, I still have something to give! What an incredible awakening! Between now and the end of the calendar year when I step out of public service, I intend to transform these cherished gifts into my new life’s work. I intend to dream and hope and create. I intend to take risks. I intend to live.

Sometimes I wonder why Mom gave me Abigail Trafford’s book. Here is what I know. At Christmastime 2004, Mom was in the midst of a health crisis. We had lived together for three years, I was taking her to see specialists of all kinds, and she was enduring a laundry list of tests to determine the cause of her distressing symptoms. We wouldn’t know for two more months what the problem was and how to address it. Once we did, her health improved, and she lived another nine years. But on Christmas Day 2004, when she gave me that book, she probably thought she didn’t have much time left herself. I imagine she looked back on her life, regretted the things she didn’t do, and wanted me to live with enthusiasm after she was gone. Mom didn’t talk much about her deepest, most personal thoughts, but gestures like this one were worth a thousand words.

I know I never read My Time until now. Not only was I busy taking care of Mom, but it just wouldn’t have interested me. When I unwrapped that Christmas gift a dozen or so years ago, I had just hit my 50s, still had a long career in public service ahead and was still zealous about my work. How grateful I am that I kept the book all these years. How poetic that I randomly picked it up at a major crossroads in my life. How I appreciate Mom for somehow nudging me from the other side …

Make the most of your time.

I will, Mom. I promise you. Your baby girl isn’t ready to settle into a rocking chair just yet. To borrow a popular quote attributed to writer Hunter S. Thompson, I don’t intend to arrive quietly at my final destination. I will “skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a Ride’!”

Dream (8)

Like I Was Never Here

(Three-Year, 36,000 Mile Check-Up)

In the months leading up to her death in December 2013, my mother often said with sad resignation, “It will be like I was never here.” She typically voiced that concern when discussing the inevitable disposal of her cherished belongings – elephant figurines, crystals, teacups, scrapbooks, Star Trek memorabilia and countless other collectibles that represented her personal fascinations. The thought that they would end up in a Goodwill box, and all evidence of her existence would be erased, tormented her.

The truth is that the vast majority of the material possessions she treasured were reverently distributed among immediate family members and a few close friends who wanted keepsakes. Today I’m sure every one of the recipients of these beloved baubles enjoys gazing at them from time to time. I’m equally sure each and every one of them would say they don’t actually need a physical reminder of this precious person we called Mom, Grandma Joy, Auntie Joy or dear friend. The mark she left on our lives is far more powerful and timeless than any memento could ever be.

So why is it that – three years, one month and 20 days later – I cannot get her wistful lament out of my head?

 It will be like I was never here.

This mournful prediction will never be true – at least not in my lifetime or the lifetimes of my children and grandchildren. Mom is with us in our hearts every day. She and I shared the same zany sense of humor and, when I giggle uncontrollably about one outlandish thing or another, she is right there with me. On Saturday nights when the kids and grandkids descend on my house for a weekly meal and family reboot, we sometimes imagine what she might have said about this or that and whether she would have liked a particular dish on the menu. This past Christmas Eve, while everyone was in hysterics over a spirited game of Jenga, my daughter-in-law suddenly saw Mom out of the corner of her eye, standing next to her old chair, wearing a white dress splashed with flowers, watching us. You don’t even have to believe the sighting in order to be warmed by the thought.

So, again, with the connection to Mom still so strong, why can’t I let go of her fear? I suppose, in reality, it has now become my fear. It’s a heavy, burdensome inheritance from the woman who gave me life and who I escorted to the next one.

What if I start to forget the sound of her voice or what her hand in mine felt like or the details of the stories she told and retold? Coincidentally, I have similar fears about my sweet Springer Spaniel, Katie, who died at the end of last summer. I never want to forget how soft her coat was or how her little stub of a tail wagged vigorously when I came home from work or how she always managed to convert a quick pat on the head into a lengthy rub of her hind end.

This is the angst I live with every day. It’s a fear of the growing distance between the time they were here and the time they were not. It’s a separation anxiety not unlike my dog’s recurring panic whenever I had to leave her. Truth be told, it has triggered some rather odd behavior on my part.

Every time my husband empties the dishwasher, I come along behind him and rearrange the coffee mugs so that Mom’s favorites are stored in what was “her corner” of the cupboard. Although the bathroom connected to her bedroom has now become my domain, I haven’t had the fortitude to change the decor or dispose of some of the powders and lotions that were in her medicine box when she departed. There are gouges cut by her wheelchair in the door frame of her toilet room that should probably be repaired. And it was only because of my dog’s end-of-life incontinence that I finally surrendered and steam cleaned the carpet in Mom’s bedroom, erasing evidence of the day she fell asleep in her chair and a nearly full cup of tea slid out of her hands. I actually took a picture of the stain before running the machine over that spot. (OK, two pictures.)

Likewise, I went around the house snapping photos of the dark shadows on walls where my dog loved to cozy up and sleep before I could finally muster the resolve to point a bottle of Formula 409 at those smudges. More than three months had to pass after her death before I could bring myself to remove the reminder for her monthly pain injection from the front of the refrigerator. Even then I didn’t throw it away. It is tucked in a Ziploc bag with the care instructions I always left out for my husband when I had to be away overnight.

So what is it that causes an otherwise normal human being to obsessively preserve evidence that a loved one existed? In this column, I have always tried to refrain from espousing words of wisdom that might label me as an armchair psychologist, so I will carefully answer this question only from my own perspective and through my own soul searching.

Reluctance to dispose of possessions, change routines or redecorate is rooted in the same need that causes a person to spray-paint “Bob was here” on a boulder in the desert. Gravestones are kind of like that. So are those wooden crosses erected on the side of the road in memory of accident victims. Even charitable and advocacy organizations that spring up after a family suffers a tragic loss are tools of the “remember me” trade.

I’ve never painted on a rock and thankfully don’t need a tombstone yet. However, when I was 17 years old and heartbreaking circumstances forced my parents to sell our beloved home in rural Oregon, I took a break from cleanup to slyly deposit a tiny reminder that I, Laurie Samsel Olson, had lived there. I put a bobby pin on top of the door frame that separated the kitchen from the den. Such a small act, and I’m sure the hairpin was tossed into the trash sometime in the last 46 years. I want to believe that, when it was found, someone at least thought, “Hmmm. Well, how did that get up there?”

Pragmatic people would no doubt say what I already know intellectually and that I stated early in this column. Physical reminders of a lost loved one are not critical. The mark that they left on our lives is far more powerful and timeless than any memento could ever be.

And yet, letting go of the tangible in deference to the power of the intangible is much easier said than done. I still want to see and touch things that my mother saw and touched. I want to hold my dog’s dirty old collar and know that her DNA is still on it. Somehow, their belongings establish a comforting link between the world they now call home and the world we formerly shared. Today I can’t think of one good reason to sever that strong, psychological tie.

Realistically, I know it will happen. Someday I will redecorate Mom’s bathroom, repair the gouges in the door frame of the toilet room and paint over them, and rearrange the kitchen cupboards. Likewise, I will round-file the instructions for my dog’s care and take her old, lumpy bed out of our home office. I will do these things. Intuitively, I know I will. But I also know that none of that will happen until my heart is absolutely sure that I’ve successfully wrangled with and tamed the plaintive voice in my head that still whispers …

 It will be like I was never here.

No, Mom, that won’t ever be true. No, that will never be the case, my sweet Katie girl. You were here. You will always be here.

(Today’s column is dedicated to my sister-in-law, Lori Samsel, whose mother, Donna Anderson, passed away on Friday, January 27, 2017. She, too, will never be forgotten.)

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Katie and Me – July 2007

 

Quiet Sleep and A Sweet Dream

Dream (3)Throughout her adult life, Mom experienced a recurring dream that was poignantly revealing. In the dream she roamed the halls of a school, unable to find her locker or her classroom. She was always lost, always searching, never finding. One hardly needs to consult a dream interpreter to understand the obvious meaning behind her unresolved quest. To think that she was perpetually adrift, unable to find her heart’s desire, was reminiscent of an ancient Greek tragedy.

Toward the end of her life, Mom also suffered from vivid nightmares. Many times I would hear her during the night or during an afternoon nap fighting against someone or something that posed a threat. She could rarely recount the experiences when I woke her, but judging by the flailing and yelling, the danger must have seemed very real. Sometimes she was so enmeshed in these dreams that it was difficult to break the spell. When gently touching her shoulder or softly calling out “Mom” didn’t work, I resorted to shouting her name, “Joy!”

One day just before she was admitted to the home hospice program, she was able to recall a particularly powerful vision. It began harmlessly but ended in disturbing cries that drew me to her bedside. Her story is still clear in my mind.

I was with a bunch of other people by the water. I’m not sure whether it was the ocean or a lake, but there was a pier. I’m pretty sure the people around me were my brothers and sisters. Sam (her late husband, my father) was in the water and he wanted me to get in. He kept laughing and trying to coax me, but I didn’t want to go. Finally, he grabbed me and pulled me in. Everyone was laughing, but I was really mad.

Dream (2)

As with her recurring dream, this one did not require hours of thoughtful analysis. She simply was not ready for the end of this life … or on the flip side … the beginning of a new one. The hospice social worker she shared the story with concurred without hesitation. I was quietly concerned because I knew Mom did not have much time left to prepare. The ethereal boat was going to leave the pier with her aboard regardless of whether she wanted to go. I shuddered to think that she might die flailing and shouting – figuratively if not literally – as though she were in the middle of another bad dream.

The day inevitably came, of course, when she traded her hospital bed for a seat on that ghostly vessel bound for the Other Side. By that time, though, I was no longer worried that she wasn’t ready. Long after she stopped talking to us, my sister and I heard her pose two important questions to no one that we could see. I was alone with Mom for the first question. My sister was alone with her for the second.

Where are we? Where are we going?

Although she displayed some typical signs of near-death anxiety in the days leading up to her departure, Mom was entirely calm and peaceful when she asked these two questions. Her eyes were closed to the mortal world. There was no trepidation in her voice whatsoever.

I can’t think of anything she could have said in her last hours that would have given me more comfort. The answers would be interesting, but the questions are solace enough. Evidently, she went somewhere with someone.

Dream (6)The idea that our loved ones depart on a journey of mystical proportions is not without basis. Religious beliefs aside, it is a fact that the dying use travel as a way of expressing their impending departure without even realizing it. In their 1992 book Final Gifts, hospice nurses Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley documented multiple examples of patients who exhibited near-death awareness in this way. Mom could have been one of their case studies. Out of the blue, about three months before she died, she told me that one day I would come home from work and she would be gone – out the front door, walking and carrying everything she needed in a small bag. I thought she was joking as she so often did, but her voice was somehow different. Faraway. When I questioned her scenario, she was indignant. I let it go, and we didn’t talk about it again.

Today, with about 17 months of bereavement under my belt, I still miss my mother terribly. However, I don’t worry about where she is. I don’t picture her splashing around with my father in a lake or the sea near a pier, nor do I imagine her walking down the sidewalk of our neighborhood with a hobo sack slung over her shoulder. I don’t think of her futilely roaming the halls of a school because I think that, in the end, she finally located the elusive door of her locker or classroom and found paradise inside. No, I have embraced another vision – one that she shared with me on a sunny morning after she awoke from a quiet sleep accompanied by a sweet dream.

I was riding a motorcycle down a winding road with tall trees on both sides. It was getting dark and all I could see clearly was the headlight of the motorcycle on the road as I went around the curves. I don’t know where I was going, but I could feel the wind in my face and I felt free.

Dream (1)That is how I like to think of Mom – on an endless sojourn with no particular destination. I can imagine her long, dark hair blowing in the wind and a beautiful smile on her youthful face. She leans right into one curve, straightens out her bike, and leans left into the next turn. She is free.

And maybe freedom is the real point after all. Not where you are going or how you get there.

When our family gathered to scatter Mom’s ashes at her beloved Oregon Coast, we took some time to play and sing the songs she had requested – Mr. Tambourine Man by Bob Dylan, Tender Years by John Cafferty, Around and Around by John Denver, Always by Irving Berlin. I read a little poem she wrote when she was a child about wanting to be a cowboy. We wrapped the tribute up with a piece by the late British poet laureate John Masefield; a poem Mom had loved since she was old enough to read and appreciate classic prose. I could never deliver it in the resounding, dramatic way she always did, but it was the perfect farewell nevertheless.

Sea Fever

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by, and the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking, and a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking. I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied. And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying, and the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying. I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life, to the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife. And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover, and quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

On this Mother’s Day 2015, my long trick writing Notes From My Mother has come to a natural end. I have shared all of the posthumous notes Mom left me and have posted some additional stories that fit in nicely with the theme. As of today, I am going to suspend my weekly entries in order to follow my maternal muse down a different path of remembrance. If you look back at my October 2014 column titled “Don’t Forget Our Secret Handshake,” you’ll get a clue about what is to come. I expect to check in periodically while my sister and I work our way through this other exciting project. For now, I thank you for reading these stories about my beautiful, funny, sometimes weird, always wonderful mother. And I wish you all – wherever you are – quiet sleep and a sweet dream.

Dream (8)

Life Is Just A Bowl Of …

Forrest Gump famously said that his mother compared life to a box of chocolates because you never know what you’re going to get. My mother had an opinion on life as well, but it was a little more fruity. Depending on the circumstances, life could either be a bowl of cherries or a bowl of cherry pits.

Last Note (12)In the latter half of the 1980s, Mom and I repeated the cherry pit version often. We would laugh each time we said it, but it wasn’t really very funny. During those years, Mom lost her little home on a forested acre with a creek running through it because she couldn’t afford to install a dedicated water system as the bank required for refinancing. That meant she was unable pay off a 10-year mortgage balloon on her private contract, and the house reverted to the former owner. Also during that time, she spent the last year of her career working as the administrator of a nursing home that was in danger of closure due to licensing violations. The corporation she worked for gave her the assignment because they trusted her to bring the facility into compliance and, indeed, she did. However, the stress was monumental. All the while, she was living in a rustic geodome without water or heat on a friend’s property.

As for me, I was burned out as the editor in charge of the content of eight neighborhood newspapers in the city of Portland. Although it may sound like an important job, it didn’t pay particularly well. Neither did my husband’s job, so we were constantly counting pennies. At least we were when we were together. In 1988, we hit some bumps in the marital road and split up for several months. The same year, my mother-in-law succumbed to a six-year battle with lymphoma. That was in May. Two months later my father died unexpectedly during orthopedic surgery. My parents had lived apart for years, but his death hit my mother hard nevertheless. Looking back, it’s no wonder that she and I periodically shook our heads and, with utter resignation, made the cherry pit comment.

Last Note (11)By 1994, both of our fortunes had changed. Mom had retired and realized her dream of moving to the Oregon Coast. I had embarked on a more fulfilling and financially stable career in public service and happiness had been restored to my marriage. In a just-in-case farewell note I wrote and tucked away for Mom that year, I documented five rules of life. A few I’ve covered in this column because they were also among the posthumously delivered farewell notes Mom left for me. Live long and prosper. I’m the pretty one. A more uplifting version of Mom’s personal mantra, I’m the only one. In the Number One spot was the Joie de Vivre we had lost for a while.

Life isn’t always a bowl of cherry pits.

Whether you compare life to a box of assorted chocolates, to juicy cherries or to the ugly pits, the fact is that life is an ever-changing adventure. One day can be entirely different from the next. Grief is of the same nature.

Over the nine months or so since I started writing this column, I’ve sometimes gotten lost in the joy of remembering my beautiful, funny, sometimes weird, always wonderful mother. Some weeks, though, I’ve found myself slipping backward into sorrow. During those times, I would trade all the sleep and personal freedom I now have for the pleasure of helping her in and out of bed, escorting her to the bathroom, preparing her meals, managing her medications and otherwise caring for her 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

These past few weeks have been like that. I miss her so much that my heart aches. Even with other family and friends close by, I feel lonely. Talking to a peer the other day about the tough choices she is faced with concerning her elderly parents, I was secretly envious because she still has her folks … even if they are in fragile health. I want my mother back, gosh darn it.

It started because I discovered something tucked away in her closet that I didn’t expect. It was a surprise, a delight and a source of agony all at the same time. Three big scrapbooks full of memories.

I knew the scrapbooks were there; I just didn’t know what was in them. I found out while searching for documentation of a particular event in Mom’s life. I wanted to see if, by chance, she had saved the program from the Christmas Day party aboard the battleship U.S.S. Oklahoma in 1937 when she received her first doll. I didn’t find that particular item, but the pages were filled with so much more.

Last Note (2)Inside one of the scrapbooks were touching mementoes that celebrated both special moments and everyday occurrences. A postcard my father sent from the Gulf of Mexico in 1947 was full of passion and love, along with a P.S. to order a new lens for his glasses while he was away. A 1977 letter from my grandmother shared all the family news from afar. A pocket pasted to one page held poems, songs, quotations and toasts that Mom explained “all meant something and touched the inner me in some way.” Another pocket held a multi-page love story she wrote when she was a pre-teen. Roughly the second half of the scrapbook contained page after page of drawings, stories and cards from her children and grandchildren.

Last Note (9)Another of the three scrapbooks was home to dozens of examples of Mom’s artistic gifts, including a self-portrait etched in charcoal in 1949. I browsed through the drawings with interest and appreciation until one page stopped me short. I immediately felt a lump in my throat and tears stinging my eyes. I was looking at the faded remains of a once beautiful watercolor Mom painted for a community college class that we took together in the spring of 1974. Our instructor sent us into a wooded area adjacent to the campus and told us to paint what we saw. I was in front of Mom. She painted me amongst the tall trees and bushes. As I gently ran my fingertips over her brushstrokes, I was overwhelmed with longing to share the moment with her. Instead, I texted my sister, who said she knew about the contents of the scrapbooks since she helped Mom fill them. Even in a text, I was too choked up to say little more than, “Well, I did not.”

Last Note (8)My sister commented that, for Mom, the scrapbooks were “a work of undying love for her family.” How I miss that love right now. Friends tell me that the love is still there or that I will see her again when it’s my turn to Walk into the Light. Of course, there is truth in those words. But when I go into Mom’s bedroom, today’s reality is that she is not sitting in her recliner watching the birds in the trees that my husband and I planted by her slider. She is not napping peacefully in her bed with her oxygen machine rhythmically pumping nearby. She is not there to talk to me, smile at me, laugh with me or cheerily greet me with a lyrical, “Hello, Laurie Joy.” She will never be there again.

Never. For those coping with grief, that word cuts like a brutally honest knife. The only thing that can dull the pain is time. The most we can hope for is to cherish our memories and move on in a way that would make our departed loved one proud. Through this column, I have been able to bring my mother’s memory to life for family, friends and other interested readers. I’ve often felt as though she has been standing at my shoulder whispering in my ear, “Put in this. Don’t say that.” I hope that she is proud of the result.

Last Note (6)What I think she would most be proud of, though, is any success I may have in moving on with my life after 12 years of sharing a home with her and caring for her. It’s not an easy task, especially when every room in our house is filled with reminders that she is gone. But I am trying. I just have to remember that some days are always going to be better than others. As the late singer-songwriter John Denver once sang, “Some days are diamonds. Some days are stone.” And to paraphrase what Mom and I used to say …

Some days life is just a bowl of cherry pits. Other days you get the cherries.

Here’s to more days full of ripe, juicy cherries. As for the pits, well, I guess when you think about it, they aren’t really so bad. Pits are the seeds that grow into the trees that produce the cherries that fill the bowls. With apologies to Forrest, you can’t say that about a box of assorted chocolates.

Last Note (7)

 

Beyond The Dead Cabinet

Avast, me hearties! Last week, mustering my best online pirate impression, I invited you to accompany me on a quest for hidden treasure …

Beyond The Dead Cabinet.

If you didn’t read last week’s column, we’ll gladly stay at anchor while you browse through that tale of the cherished possessions residing behind the glass casements of a small curio Mom and I irreverently called The Dead Cabinet. The three shelves are a storehouse for trinkets that hold the keys to the kingdom when it comes to ancestral memories. Among other things, it is home to the wallet that was in my grandfather’s pocket when his body was found washed up on a beach after the only tropical storm to make landfall in California in the 20th Century. On the shelf below that is a well-loved Raggedy Ann that belonged to my husband’s little sister who mysteriously died in her sleep at the age of 13 in 1971. My father’s pipe, my grandmother’s spectacles, my father-in-law’s favorite blue hat – all these and more serve as introductions to stories that might otherwise be lost to the next generation and the next.

Be lively now! Haul in the boarding plank, raise the anchor and hoist the sails. Let’s skim the waves through stories associated with booty that won’t fit in The Dead Cabinet.

Dead Cabinet (14)As noted more than once in this column, my mother was a Depression-era child. She was also very much a product of World War II. The events of that momentous, four-year period naturally had a major impact on her values and character. One of her most cherished possessions, stored safely in her bedroom closet, is a touchstone for that time in her life. It’s her high school sweater. When I caress its coarse, red threads and stroke the thick white and blue “S42” emblem, I instantly float backward some 73 years. I may not have even been a gleam in my father’s eye yet, but the sweater doesn’t care about that. It’s a time machine for anyone who wants to take the trip.

Mom celebrated her 17th birthday just three days before the Japanese waged their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941. Unlike today when news of that importance would break on every television channel within minutes, it took more than an hour before the general public on the mainland started to become aware of the event. I imagine Mom missed the first announcement. More than likely, she was doing homework or helping her mother in the kitchen at 11:26 Pacific Standard Time (PST). Perhaps, though, her older brothers were listening to the WOR Radio broadcast of a football game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. (Yes, it was a football game.) A sports announcer was excitedly describing a pass, catch, run and tackle when the play-by-play was suspended for the following message.

We interrupt this broadcast to bring you this important bulletin from the United Press. Flash. Washington. The White House announces Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Dead Cabinet (15)Sixteen words to introduce a nine-word headline that would change the world. Imagine the shocked stares. Imagine the sound of squeals and static from old tube radios as listeners frantically turned dials, searching the airwaves for more news. They heard it through brief interruptions and then more lengthy commentaries on regularly scheduled NBC and CBS shows. Finally, they heard First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s call for courage during her regular Sunday radio broadcast at 3:45 PST. Just three hours later, the entire West Coast from the Mexican to the Canadian borders went black. No radio. No lights in businesses or homes. Even automobile headlights were extinguished. The next day radio broadcasts resumed and President Franklin Roosevelt addressed the nation. He recounted what was known about the infamous Pearl Harbor attack and announced additional attacks by the Japanese on the Philippines, Midway, Guam, Wake and other islands in the Pacific. There was no room for doubt that the United States was at war.

Two months later, in February of 1942, Mom sadly watched her Japanese-American high school friends shipped off to internment camps. They were forcibly removed from their homes on Terminal Island in East San Pedro and their entire fishing village, known as Furusato or “Old Village” was razed. That same month, a Japanese submarine unsuccessfully fired upon an oil field near Santa Barbara to the north. The next day an unknown object (or objects) spotted in the sky over Los Angeles triggered screaming sirens, a blackout, and the firing of some 1,400 artillery shells. San Pedro quickly transformed from a small fishing town into a major U.S. Naval Base. Concrete bunkers concealing 16-inch battle guns that could pitch a 2,000-pound shell 26 miles out to sea were built into the hillsides. People began to suffer from what the military called “war nerves” and were easily panicked. Mom’s photo album from that era tells the intensely personal side of her experience – her brothers in uniform, friends writing from battle zones, classmates killed in action.

The Perfect Thing (15)Mom never over-dramatized that time in her life. Other than the heart-wrenching story about her Japanese-American friends, most of the memories she shared were full of nostalgia and patriotism. Food rationing spawned creativity in the kitchen. A paper shortage prompted her senior class to forgo a yearbook. Those headed for graduation chose red, white and blue as their class colors. Mom’s red, white and blue class sweater is testimony to that choice.

The sweater is tiny and, studying it on its hanger, I wonder if it will even fit my slight-of-frame, 10-year-old grandson. Surely, it won’t fit me. My daughter tries it on and the sleeves do stretch around her normal-size arms. Together we get a sense of Mom’s diminutive stature at the age of 17, and somehow we can feel her plucky, young life force in the little garment. Not only that; but the turmoil of wartime is blended right into every stitch of that old, red yarn.

Mom isn’t the only family member who left behind a touchstone too large for The Dead Cabinet. My son is the proud curator of a handmade violin once played by his fraternal great grandfather. Its smooth curves and the rich sound it emanates when chalked horsehair is stroked across the strings can magically turn the clock back a hundred years.

Dead Cabinet (11)Dell Millard, my husband’s grandfather, was a prolific composer of beautiful hymns, an accomplished gospel singer with his own radio show, and a New Age evangelist decades before the Charismatic Movement of the 1960s. He helped developed the town of Shady Cove east of Medford, Oregon, and loved to hunt for, cut and polish unusual rocks. After a chapel that he built in Medford was removed to make way for a courthouse, he constructed a picturesque water fountain and bench from petrified wood that still welcomes Jackson County visitors. In recent years, every member of our family, from the oldest to the youngest, has gone on a quest from Nevada to Oregon to drink from that fountain and figuratively summon the spirit of our departed loved one. Standing there myself one summer afternoon with my husband, I pictured Dell on that very sidewalk dedicating the fountain to the pioneers of Southern Oregon and reading his poem called “Rocks.” It was June of 1945, World War II was coming to an end, and celebrations were slowly spreading around the globe. In Medford that day, the celebration was just for a simple fountain built by a simple man, but it was no less historic for our family.

Dead Cabinet (17)These days we don’t really have to go further than my son’s farm, 15 minutes down the road, to time travel with the aid of Dell’s violin. My sister-in-law turned the coveted instrument over to him three years ago this May. The violin was not in the best of shape but, after entrusting it to the healing hands of a local craftsman, it is glorious once more. The restoration revealed that it was made between 1910 and 1912 by a violin-maker in Minneapolis named L.H. Cornell. Dell probably bought it when he was attending a Minnesota university. According to the local craftsman, the quality is on a level with the legendary Stradivarius … without the life-changing price tag.

The Perfect Thing (12)Those details are fascinating but no more so than the man who played the violin. Judging by his entertaining short story about Freddy the Freckle-Faced Frog, his uplifting sermon about “The Greatest Thing You Can Believe,” and his heartfelt song about going home to “The Beulah Land,” Dell had a winsome spirit, was a profound thinker and, most of all, was a man of deep faith. He passed away a few years before I met my husband, but his legacy looms large in our family. If I have a guardian angel, I could easily imagine it being this tall, strong, gentle, reverent and wise man. When I hold his violin, I can not only imagine it; I can believe it.

The time-worn sweater, the glorious violin, the fountain made of petrified stone and other heirlooms too large for the shelves of a small curio are symbols that give generations past a place in the present. If the sweater had once been worn by the beautiful Marilyn Monroe or the violin had been played by the talented Itzhak Perlman, they might be of interest to pirates looking for valuable plunder. Never mind that. To the landlubbers in our family, they are more precious than gold. They are the keys to our ancestral kingdom. The touchstones that take us across the oceans of time to the sacred place that can only be found …

Beyond The Dead Cabinet.

The dedication plaque at the fountain in Jackson County, Oregon.

The dedication plaque at the fountain in front of the Jackson County Courthouse in Medford, Oregon.

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Mom and her friends show off their class sweaters. Mom is kneeling in front on the right.

The Dead Cabinet

For at least the last decade, my living room has featured an unusual conversation starter known as The Dead Cabinet.

Although I am at times likely to curl my upper lip and offer “aargh, matey” as a gravely greeting, this wonderful curiosity has nothing to do with pirates. It’s not a reproduction of the Dead Man’s Chest where scurvy buccaneer Davy Jones stashed his broken heart. It’s not a rendering of a faraway Caribbean island where 15 men sang about a bottle of rum.

It is, however, very much a treasure chest.

Dead Cabinet (7)Safe behind three glass casements are keepsakes so precious that, in case of fire, I would likely choose to save them as soon as I was sure that people and pets were out of harm’s way. It’s not because any of these mementoes could add significantly to my bank account. They are, instead, an irreplaceable link to my family’s past. Dead men may tell no tales, but The Dead Cabinet surely does.

Mom and I bought the cabinet a few years after we began sharing a home in the high desert of Northern Nevada. During one of our Sunday morning coffee chats, I mentioned a long-time fantasy of creating a sort of family museum if ever I had enough space. It seemed so pointless to accumulate mementoes of lost loved ones and then keep them packed in boxes gathering dust in the garage. Mom’s eyes lit up.

We didn’t have enough square footage in our little, yellow house to devote an entire room to things that belonged to the dead, but we could certainly spare some wall space in our main living area. A trip to the local furniture store turned up the perfect size display cabinet fashioned like a lawyer’s bookcase. As soon as it was delivered, we both began unearthing treasures that hadn’t seen the light of day for decades.

Vintage jewelry, eyeglasses, Bibles, a well-loved Raggedy Ann, a pair of tiny antique baby dolls, a blue fabric hat, letters and postcards, trinket boxes, photographs, sheet music and dog-eared, yellowed documents all found a place on the shelves. As long as an item was handed down from a deceased relative, it was a candidate for the cabinet. Once we discovered that a small plastic Kewpie doll standing in one corner had actually belonged to my husband and not his departed sister, so out the little guy came. Exactly how and when we started calling the case The Dead Cabinet, I don’t recall, but it was typical irreverence for Mom and me.

There’s nothing irreverent about my adoration for what is in the cabinet, however. Every piece is a true delight. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be my grandfather’s wallet. Perhaps it’s because I never knew him.

Dead Cabinet (8)Mom was 14 years old when her father, Noble Cleveland Metzger, was one of about 45 people killed at sea during the only tropical storm to make landfall in California in the 20th Century. It was the proverbial “perfect storm” because the currents off the Pacific coast are very rarely warm enough to carry a Mexican hurricane that far north. The difference that day in September 1939 was that the area had just experienced a week-long, record-breaking heat wave.

In the absence of any kind of weather tracking system, the historic storm caught everyone by surprise when it whipped through the region with gale force winds and torrential rain. Onshore, cars floated down flooded streets past homes and businesses that had washed off their foundations. Offshore, pleasure and commercial boaters frantically fled for safe harbor when the pleasantly rolling sea suddenly turned into an angry, churning adversary.

A fisherman by trade, my grandfather was trolling aboard The Nina off the coast near Oxnard when the storm struck. The engine swamped and failed, but the captain of a nearby fishing charter loaded with guests came to the rescue and tossed a tow line. In a punishing shower of rain, salt water and foam, my grandfather steadied himself on the pitching deck, caught the line and lashed it securely to The Nina’s bow.

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Mom with her Pop, sister Carrie and friend Mr. Schneider.

At first it seemed that The Nina was out of danger, but it soon became apparent that both of the wildly rocking vessels would likely be lost if the tow line was not severed. Over the roar of the unforgiving wind, the two men desperately called back and forth. My grandfather begged the captain not to cut The Nina loose. The captain shouted an anguished, “I’m sorry,” and sliced the strained line. It whipped back toward my grandfather with violent force and broke his neck. He was killed instantly, his deck hand perished, and The Nina sank.

My grandfather’s body, with his wallet still in his pocket, washed up on the beach at Point Mugu a few days later. The distraught captain of the other vessel told the authorities and my uncles the details of the heartbreaking story. It was passed down to me through my cousin, Norm Metzger, from his father, Cecil.

The fact that my mother, the youngest of 10 children, ended up with my grandfather’s water-logged wallet is a blessing to me. It’s empty now except for the fine grains of sand leftover from that tragic day. Once in a while I take it out of its place of honor in The Dead Cabinet and run my fingers across the brittle, stained leather. I close my eyes and imagine my grandfather’s strong hands flipping it open to retrieve a dollar bill to buy chewing gum or soda pops for an entourage of children, and then slipping it back into his pants pocket. The vision connects me to a man I can only dream of through my mother’s stories, photograph albums, and documents discovered on genealogy websites.

Dead Cabinet (1)Of course, not every family keepsake from the past few generations will fit into one, small Dead Cabinet. Now that she has reunited with her beloved Pop, Mom actually has her own display case. We used to talk sometimes about what items she might like me to place in the original cabinet after she passed, but she left behind so many meaningful mementoes that I simply turned the tall curio in her bedroom into a resting place for a generous selection. Inside are elephant figurines, crystals, a charm bracelet, sparkling earrings that dangle to your shoulders, a white feather boa, old tin tags for dogs who crossed the rainbow bridge more than a half century ago, a bust she made in a long-ago art class, and a lengthy list of other memorabilia. The little brass bells she chimed to summon me after our relationship evolved into one of caregiver and care receiver have a special place in front.

Fittingly, Mom’s bedroom has become the quasi family museum that I once envisioned. The curio is the centerpiece, but the room is a cornucopia of heirloom furniture, photo albums, handmade quilts, fat scrapbooks and vintage clothing. Most of Mom’s bedroom furnishings also remain in their original places. I picture her watching from a safe distance, chuckling as she remembers a conversation we had when we knew her time was growing short.

“What are those black spots on the arm of my chair?” she asked as I prepared to help her transfer from her wheelchair to her lumpy, old, beige recliner.

“I don’t see anything. I’ll have to get down there.”

“Right there!”

“Oh. Those little spots? They look like ink marks. Your pen probably slipped when you were writing down your blood sugar.”

“Oh. Oh well. You’ll probably get rid of that chair anyway when I die.”

“No, Mom. Your room is going to be a shrine.”

“Well, in that case, you should buy a better bed.”

“What? Mom, you’ve waited until now to tell me you don’t like your bed?”

Priceless.

Priceless is also the most appropriate way to characterize the family keepsakes I’m fortunate to have amassed. They are like the keys to the kingdom in terms of our heritage. Clues in a vast treasure hunt through the roots and branches of the family tree. The elusive “X” every pirate seeks on his tattered map to buried booty.

Hold that thought while I curl my upper lip, clear my throat, and conjure up my inner sea-going scoundrel.

Avast, me hearties! Riches await ye. Meet me here next week. Together we’ll set sail and venture …

Beyond The Dead Cabinet.

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The Perfect Thing

My mother was the classic child of the Great Depression. Though she remembered her upbringing with fond nostalgia, the stories she told were mostly of staying one step ahead of the landlord, relying on government commodities to keep food on the table and learning to make something from nothing.

The Perfect Thing (10)Puppies and kittens substituted for dolls until she was 13 years old and the sailors of the U.S.S. Oklahoma threw a Christmas party for impoverished children onboard their massive battleship anchored in California’s San Pedro Harbor. As afternoon shadows began to fall on that 1937 holiday, she contently rode the motor launch back to the docks with her very own doll cradled in her arms.

Like so many other men and women of her generation, Mom didn’t understand or condone the throw-away mentality of the modern age. If something was broken, you either fixed it or kept it until you were able to fix it. If you didn’t need something today, you hung onto it because you might need it tomorrow.

Family folklore is packed with stories of Mom retrieving this-and-that from boxes bound for thrift stores or tables laden with items priced and ready to be sold at the next day’s garage sale. While I was her caregiver, my hands were tied when it came to clearing out clutter. Once she spotted a broken birdfeeder I had tossed on top of a rubbish pile way off in the far corner of the backyard, foolishly thinking she wouldn’t notice before we loaded our old pick-up truck for a trip to the dump. She did, and the next morning I tramped out there and found a place for the poor, maligned birdfeeder in the bushes under the crabapple tree by her bedroom slider. Another time I bought her a new wind chime to replace the mangled one hanging from the trellis near the same crabapple tree. She wouldn’t let me throw away the old one, and I’m quite sure it’s still tucked in a box in our laundry room.

The Perfect Thing (5)I also still have the last two of the four acrylic tumblers she bought at a neighbor’s yard sale some 25 years ago. Painted with pink and purple flowers and molded of thin material, they were just the right size and weight for the fresh glass of water she liked to keep handy to wet her whistle now and then. Eventually, the tumblers began to crack and leak, but parting with those last two was never an option for her and, by way of respecting her memory, it is not an option for me either. They were and always will be the best example of …

The Perfect Thing.

That was the line Mom used to justify countless stops at garage, yard, driveway, lawn and patio sales as well as the occasional second-hand store. “They might have the perfect thing,” she would say to me or my sister or a granddaughter or whoever was in the driver’s seat that day. Somehow, having a house full of her own paraphernalia was not quite enough. Someone else might have something better or different.

The Perfect Thing (1)After she moved to Nevada to live with me, we managed to squeeze two households of furniture, kitchen gadgets, memorabilia and other miscellaneous belongings into one little, yellow house. Seven years later my ex-husband and I remarried, and we bought a 2,369-square foot, four bedroom, three bathroom house with a three-car garage because wedging yet another household of stuff into our compact, 1,420-square-foot home clearly exceeded the state’s legal limit. Still, the treasure hunting continued.

At times, the accumulation was laughable. If Mom could have rolled on the floor guffawing when my visiting sister played us a video of a George Carlin routine about stuff, she no doubt would have done just that. As it was, she and I both had tears of glee rolling down our cheeks.

That’s all your house is, is a pile of stuff with a cover on it,” the late comedian quipped. That’s all your house is; it’s a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff! Now, sometimes you gotta move. You’ve gotta get a bigger house. Why? Too much stuff!

At other times, belongings were anything but laughable. Mom was already in Nevada with me when my sister and her family packed out Mom’s storm-damaged trailer and transported a small U-Haul down the long Interstate 5 through Oregon, across the northern tip of California, and finally to our little house in the desert. For years Mom was convinced that some of her things were missing no matter how many times we tried to reassure her that none of us would ever betray her in that way. She had seen too many of her brothers and sisters give up treasured possessions in their old age and too many residents of the nursing home where she worked sadly arrive with just the bare essentials.

In the end, of course, we all move on to a place where stuff isn’t necessary. We can’t pack a bag of our favorite things and take it with us when we walk into the Light, cross the Great Divide, ascend to Heaven or make the final trip Home. Mom prepared for that eventuality by amassing an inventory – on cassette tapes and on dozens of pages organized in a three-ring binder – virtually everything she owned. If she remembered when and how she acquired an item, she documented it for posterity. The tapes even have some amazing back stories that shine a light on family history, on bygone days, and on Mom’s personality. Of the tapes I’ve listened to so far, a favorite tale is the origin of the Pink Depression Glass. She recorded this memory in 1990 while living in her trailer on the Oregon Coast.

The Perfect Thing (4)Four plates, four saucers, four cups, a sugar and creamer, and a platter. My brothers, when they were very young, used to do canoe tilting. And you’ve probably never even heard of that. Two guys would get in a canoe. One would paddle. The other one stood in the front of the canoe with a long pole with a padded end on it and they went up against two other guys in another canoe and they tried to knock each other out of the boat. So a lot depended on the paddler to keep the boat in the right position and the other guy had to be really strong and steady. God, I can’t remember which of my (six) brothers it was but it was probably … Gene and Tom. The Perfect Thing (7)This set of dishes – this Pink Depression Glass – was a first prize they won and they gave them to my mother. A lot of years ago, one time when I was visiting her, she gave them to me. And I love those dishes. I’d like to be able to eat off them every day. Of course, I don’t know why I couldn’t, but I love those dishes. So whoever gets them, cherish them. They’re very special. Anyway, they’re probably worth a little bit of money. I mean, Depression Glass is considered a real collectible now and these date back to … well … Tom just died at 81 … you can see it must have been more than 60 years ago when he was a young boy. All my brothers were real good swimmers.

Mom handed down the Pink Depression Glass to my sister several years before she passed away. My sister didn’t need the story to persuade her to hang onto this treasure. But that, I believe, was the purpose of Mom’s tape recordings and inventory binder. Perhaps if we knew where certain things came from, we might be more apt to understand the sentimental value and keep them in the family.

The Perfect Thing (6)These days I love browsing through second-hand stores almost as much as Mom did, but now when I walk through the maze of this-and-that, I find myself wondering how century-old family photos wound up on a shopkeeper’s shelf or who might have sipped tea from a delicate, old china cup. Was that Depression Glass in the display case a prize in a canoe-tilting contest? Did that vintage birdfeeder once hang outside a homebound grandmother’s window? The mystery intrigues me

All right. I know that every room in our big house and too much space in our multi-car garage already are devoted to storing a lifetime of Mom’s things, my husband’s things and mine. I know I don’t truly need one more thing. I also know that the stuff in those second-hand stores represents someone else’s life; someone else’s stories. But I can’t let go of the notion that maybe, just maybe, if I keep looking, one day I’ll find …

The Perfect Thing.

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Mom and granddaughter Rhianna looking for the perfect thing among her late sister, Fay’s, vintage costume jewelry.