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.

The Perfect Thing (13)

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

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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.

Dead Cabinet (9)

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.

Dead Cabinet (10)

 

 

Be a Good Girl

Not every note my mother left me was on paper. Some messages go so far back that they are part of who I am. Over the course of 60-some years, I’m sure that I heard today’s four-word lesson literally tens of thousands of times.

Be a good girl.

That reminder followed me out the door every day when I was a child. Whether I was heading off to school or to a friend’s sleepover or to visit one of my grandmothers, that was Mom’s fundamental rule. Becoming an adult didn’t alter her parting words. Becoming her caregiver didn’t change the ritual either. In her last years, I began to tease her that she had ruined my life with that phrase. What if I had wanted to be a bad girl every once in a while?

Alas, with sugary nicknames like Pollyanna, Goody Two-Shoes and Mary Tyler Moore, it’s no secret that I have, indeed, been a good girl most of my life. When I was about 5 years old I tarnished my reputation by putting gum in my sister’s hair, forcing an unwanted haircut. In high school I got caught parking with my boyfriend on a dark, quiet road and then made things worse by lying about it. But, compared to serious problems like drug addiction, alcohol abuse and criminal mischief, my transgressions were ridiculously tame. Bad … really bad … just wasn’t in my genes.

At times, I’ve wondered why Mom routinely told my sister and me to “be a good girl,” but she peppered her farewells to our little brother with a fairly large repertoire of less constraining phrases like “have a good time” and “if you can’t be good, be careful.” Perhaps being a girl herself, she knew what kind of childish shenanigans or youthful escapades we could engage in and the potentially devastating consequences thereof. I prefer, however, to think it was really because she wanted to continuously instill in us the extraordinary character of the women in our family.

Carrie Elizabeth Heasman Metzger

Good Girl (1)No woman in my family lineage was more amazing than my mother’s mother. In the early 1900s, she toiled tirelessly with her husband to cultivate unforgiving homestead land in Montana. World War I, the military confiscation of horses for the overseas cavalry and the Navy’s strong “invitation” for my grandfather to build warships in Washington’s Puget Sound interfered with their plans. When the war ended, they found themselves living nomadically in the valleys of Northern California, much like the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. Ultimately, they migrated south to the Los Angeles harbor area where my grandfather took up ocean fishing. Soon he wanted their six boys to forgo school and work with him. My grandmother objected, the two separated, and my grandfather was later killed in a violent storm at sea. Shockingly for the times, my grandmother lived openly with another man out of wedlock, helped to take care of his elderly mother, and determinedly continued to raise her children and some of her children’s children. When she died in 1979 at the age of 90, she had 10 children, 25 grandchildren and 56 great-grandchildren. The fact that there was standing room only for her memorial service was a testament to the love she so richly deserved.

Beulah Ann Todd Samsel

Good Girl (8)My father’s mother was equally tenacious, although not as beloved as my maternal grandmother. She had no children except for my father. Her firstborn son tragically died as a toddler of a vitamin deficiency hideously called Black Tongue Disease in 1914. My grandfather was a drinker and, although family references to him were always vague, I suspect he was abusive. Sometime after my grandmother divorced him, he was struck and killed by a truck while walking intoxicated down a country road in Tennessee. Meanwhile, my grandmother was bravely raising my father and working in a café at an aircraft manufacturing plant in El Segundo, California. She somehow also found the wherewithal to take care of her aging mother in her last years. Life wore my grandmother down and, by the time my parents married, she had become a somewhat bitter, critical, meddlesome presence. In hindsight, I know that she was doing her best, in whatever misguided way, to ensure that her son was loved and her grandchildren would someday find a place at God’s knee. Sadly, she denied she even had a family just before she died in a nursing home at the age of 93. That doesn’t change the fact that she was courageous and strong when she most needed to be.

Joyce Maxine Metzger Samsel (Joy)

Good Girl (4)Although I didn’t give her enough credit while I was growing up, Mom’s inner strength is solely responsible for our family’s survival. Back when it still wasn’t generally accepted to be a working mother, she kept the books for medical doctors and raised three children while my father traveled the world as a Merchant Marine. She was forced to finally and forever become the head of the household in 1970 when my father had a late-life diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia coupled with bipolar disease. His breakdown while alone and far from home destroyed the family emotionally and financially. Yet, somehow Mom found the will to rise from the ruins and rebuild a stable life for us. At first, I don’t think she believed she could do it. Decision-making was never Mom’s favorite task, but she pulled up her proverbial bootstraps and marched ahead into the unknown. When she passed away in 2013 at the age of 89, she had little to show for her efforts in the way of material possessions, but she enjoyed the priceless devotion of her children and grandchildren.

Betty Joan Millard Olson (Jo-Anne)

Good Girl (5)When I was 20 years old, I was lucky enough to marry into a family with another remarkable maternal presence. She wasn’t my mother by blood, but she became my second mother by heart. She was a traditional housewife in the 1950s and 1960s; raising three children and unexpectedly losing one to a mysterious genetic condition. By the mid-1970s, though, she had evolved into a dynamic, free-spirited woman whose circle of friends ranged from laid-back, mountain-dwelling hippies to driven, progressive yuppies. Breaking free from mid-century expectations was not easy since her husband was the quintessential ruler of the roost with staunchly conservative values. Regardless, she went back to college and earned a master’s degree in religion, converted to Catholicism when she fell in love with Mother Mary, and became a compassionate spiritual counselor. For several years she watched over her elderly, widowed stepmother who, by all accounts, was not a particularly warm and accepting substitute for the mother she had lost as a child. Yet, it was not in her nature to feel anything but love for the tiny, straight-laced, Christian poet we called Grandma Millard. My mother-in-law died of lymphoma in 1988 at the age of 62. It’s hard to believe I knew her only 16 years. Her example of love, kindness, forgiveness and spirituality has followed me every day since we lost her. In difficult situations, I often find myself pondering, “What would Joan do?”

Laurie Joy Samsel Olson

Every one of these women was strong, self-reliant and had a significant influence on my life. Collectively, they were seekers, doers, fighters, achievers, lovers and believers. All were mothers. And all were caregivers.

I look at their lives and their photos and I see … me.

Good Girl (6)Next week I’m turning 61. In July, I will have been married to, acrimoniously divorced from, and happily married again to my high school sweetheart for a grand total of 43 years. The descriptors that fit between those milestones run the gamut from joy to hostility, dependence to self-reliance, forgiveness to contentment. In October, I will have been a grateful mother for 40 years and a doting grandmother for 13 years. Sometime this year, though I’m not sure exactly when, I will pass the 35th anniversary of the day I became a full-time career woman. And in December, I will observe the second anniversary of the day I said good-bye to the woman who cared for me when I came into the world and who I cared for when she made her exit.

My path does not exactly mirror those of Carrie, Beulah, Joy and Joan, but the basic journey shadows theirs in almost storybook fashion. The Brothers Grimm could not have written a better parable about children walking squarely in the footsteps of their forefathers.  I am my grandmothers’ granddaughter. I am my mothers’ daughter.

Maybe that’s why Mom didn’t write down the most important lesson she ever tried to teach me. Maybe … just maybe … she thought I had already learned it. The only thing left to do is pass it on to my daughter, stepdaughter, daughter-in-law, nieces and the great-granddaughters’ who are still just a gleam in my grandsons’ eyes. To all of them … and to all my readers of the feminine persuasion, remember to …

Be a good girl.

Grandma Carrie Metzger (about 1930) at Cabrillo Beach, California.

Grandma Carrie Metzger in 1930 at Cabrillo Beach, California.