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)

 

 

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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.

Forget Me Not

My husband’s first introduction to members of my extended family was at our high school graduation in 1972. Among others, my Aunt Birdie and my Aunt PeeWee traveled to Oregon from Southern California for the big event.

The two women were as different as night and day. Birdie (who was actually a much older first cousin) was a free-spirited soul who brashly gave 17-year-old Pete a quart of beer as a graduation present. PeeWee (the wife of one of my six uncles) was a faithful Mormon who I’m sure spent the night praying for us when we took off on a co-ed campout.

It wasn’t their disparate personalities that made an indelible mark on Pete, though. Credit that to their nicknames. Birdie was actually Frances. PeeWee was actually Irene. When I began reciting some of the other nicknames of the aunts, uncles and cousins he should someday expect to meet, all he could say was, “It sounds like the seven dwarfs!

OK. I have to admit. The list does sound a bit like Snow White’s whistling troupe of happy jewel miners.

Tuck, Art, Cutie, Rolly, Dopey, Curlie, Ozzie, Buck, Stinky, Snooky, Skippy, Dutch and Micki.

Try applying any sort of logic to match those monikers with Chester, Esta, Carrie, Roland, Helen Mae, Bennie, Raymond, Norman, Keith, Dennis, Tim, Wayne and Karolyn. And those are just the ones I can remember.

Cross my heart. Every one of these nicknames was used regularly; so regularly, in fact, that given names faded into the background. As the youngest of 10 children born over a span of about 20 years, my mother had grown weary of the tradition by the time she was ready to start her own family. She called my father Sam instead of his given name, Earl, but was adamant that none of her three children would ever be referred to by anything other than the names documented on their birth certificates. Although my grandmother’s Indiana upbringing made my name, Laurie, sound like Larie, the family basically complied.

To be fair … and I always like to be fair … Mom wasn’t 100% true to her own rule. She routinely called my brother Jesse Man and My Baby Boy. After we were all grown, she frequently referred to my sister as her O.D.D. (Oldest Darling Daughter) and, when I assumed the role of caregiver, she sometimes called me The Boss. Yet, those references didn’t quite qualify us to hoist a pick ax and sing Heigh-ho, Heigh-ho with the rest of the family prospectors.

Mom’s rejection of colorful nicknames magically disappeared when her own grandchildren and great grandchildren arrived. She didn’t bless every one of them with an alternate title, but she knighted a few with everlasting remembrances. Just before she passed away, she included some on a list of “forget me nots” that she dictated to my sister. The conversation was recounted in a letter my sister sent to me last December.

She wants to make sure Espen doesn’t forget that he is the Espenator or Skyler that he is “My Sweet Boy.” She wants Jesse to remember that he is Mr. Pister.

With Pistol and Trail Blazer

With Pistol and Trail Blazer

My son Jesse was the first grandchild to earn a nickname. Pistol, which later evolved into Mr. Pister, fit the bill because he was born with a gunpowder persona and hasn’t really mellowed in 39 years. Maybe he’ll slow down in another decade or two, but right now there is still too much to do, too much to see and too much to learn.

Sweet Boy Skyler, or sometimes Skyler Dyler depending on Mom’s mood, was not technically her first great grandchild but the first she had the opportunity to truly know. A soft-spoken boy, his tender sensibility was so endearing to Mom that she wanted to protect him from the unforgiving world from the day he was born. She was privileged to be the first person my daughter confided in when a plus sign emerged on her pregnancy stick back in 2002, and she honored that by treasuring every minute she spent with him.

With Sweet Boy Skyler and the Espenator

With Sweet Boy Skyler and the Espenator

Espen came along a couple of years after Skyler and was the polar opposite in terms of both build and personality. While husky, sensitive Skyler was Mom’s sweet boy, daring Espen was her fun, little firecracker. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator and Chris Owens’ Sherminator in the American Pie movies served as the inspiration to turn Espen’s name into the manly designation Espenator.

In her dictated remembrances, Mom didn’t mention the granddaughter she initially wanted us to call Trail Blazer because the Portland Trailblazers won their only national basketball championship just days before she was born in 1977. When my husband and I balked, Mom later attempted to nickname her J.J. because we had christened her Jennifer Joy. The fact that we vetoed Trail Blazer and J.J. didn’t mean the stories were forgotten, however. In fact, they are legendary. My daughter heard them so often that, when she reached the age when kids typically want to establish their own identity, she wished we had listened to Mom and given her a more unusual name.

With Rhianna Danna and Lucas the Enforcer

With Rhianna Danna and Lucas the Enforcer

With her last days closing in around her, Mom’s fuzzy thoughts also floated past the granddaughter who actually did win a nickname. My sister’s dear Rhianna became Rhianna Danna in homage to Gilda Radner’s Saturday Night Live character Roseanne Roseannadanna. Whether her nickname is on the “forget me not” list doesn’t matter, though. It’s not likely she will ever stop cherishing her grandmother’s pet name for her and the special love that is always behind such endearments.

To Mom’s other grandchildren – Rachel, Lucas, Cary and Eddie – Grandma Joy may not have given you (or tried to give you) nicknames but you have titles nonetheless.

Rachel, you were the amazing first of seven grandchildren. Like the Knight of Templar, you are privileged to safeguard the oldest memories of your Grandma Joy. You are one of the original Oompa Loompa Girls and the Princess of Quite a Lot. You know your grandmother passed her crown as Queen of Everything to you. Wear it proudly.

Lucas, with you Grandma Joy got her wish that a child would be named after a member of the 1977 Trailblazer championship team. The late Maurice Lucas was the power forward, and his fierce play earned him the nickname The Enforcer. Remember this as you power through the life changes you’re undertaking. Maurice Lucas led his team to victory. You can, too.

With Cary the Fearless

With Cary the Fearless

Cary, your Grandma Joy was thrilled when your parents named you after her mother, Carrie Elizabeth Heasman. Your fearless pursuit of a career in music is reminiscent of her courageous spirit. More than a hundred years ago, she followed your Great Grandpop, Noble Cleveland Metzger, from Indiana to the untamed landscape of Montana where they claimed a homestead on some of the last free land ever offered by the United States government. Though it didn’t work out exactly as envisioned, it was a bold move. You embody that same, brave, pioneering character.

Eddie, the youngest of the seven, you were named for rocker Eddie Van Halen. On the off-chance that wouldn’t impress you later on, your Grandma Joy and several other family members engaged in an impromptu brainstorming session at a beachside restaurant one day. Their efforts to remember every famous Eddie in recent history was so hysterical that anyone who wasn’t there (like me) wishes he or she was. Somewhere there is a framed list of all the names tossed about that day. Eddie Albert, Eddie Arnold, Eddie Money, Eddie Murphy, Eddie Rabbitt, Eddie Rickenbacker. The list goes on. You probably have that memento. If you do, keep it. It will always be a fond reminder of one of your Grandma Joy’s favorite stories. You were still just a “baby bump,” but you were the star of the show.

Mom didn’t leave one of her trademark catch phrases for me to use as the foundation for this story. She just wanted her grandchildren and great grandchildren to remember her. That was the reason behind the “forget me not” list that she dictated to my sister. In the absence of a quote from Mom, I will borrow one from Morrie Schwartz. My favorite author, Mitch Albom, shared his words in the powerful book Tuesdays with Morrie.

Death ends a life, not a relationship.

Remember this, Rachel the Queen of Everything, Jesse the Pistol, Jennifer the Trail Blazer, Dear Rhianna Danna, Lucas the Enforcer, Cary the Fearless, Eddie the Star of the Show, Sweet Boy Skyler Dyler, and Espen the Espenator. Grandma Joy will never really die as long as the nine of you keep her alive in your thoughts, in your conversations and in your hearts.

With Eddie the Star of the Show

With Eddie the Star of the Show

With Rachel the Queen of Everything

With Rachel the Queen of Everything

 

Love Always, Mom – Part Two

It seems that the Part Two’s of my weekly column sneak up on me. I don’t go into a writing session knowing that a particular topic is going to require two chapters. Usually the notion evolves as I watch the words fill up the blank pages on my computer screen, and I realize there is more to say than will fit neatly into one edition. This week, though, it came to me in a hospital emergency room on Christmas Day. By the time twilight fell on that most magical of dates, I had found new meaning in the words that formed the basis of last week’s message.

Love Always, Mom xxxooo

I wasn’t at the hospital for myself. My 37-year-old daughter called at about 9 a.m. and asked for help because a gland in her neck was so swollen that it was gagging her. I picked her up and we drove the 20 miles from our one stoplight town to the nearest open medical facility – the lone hospital in our state capital. She completed the required paperwork, and we steeled ourselves for the long wait that is inevitable for patients who aren’t experiencing chest pain or don’t arrive by ambulance. The cheerful registrar switched the waiting room television to a marathon of A Christmas Story, and we settled in to watch Ralphie pursue his dream of owning an official Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock and “this thing which tells time.”

Jenny

Jennifer in the ER – Christmas 2014

Just as we were beginning to feel restless, a woman whose fingertip was on ice in her husband’s pocket and a tow-headed toddler who had been bitten in the face by her grandmother’s dog came through the double doors. Their ghastly calamities curled our toes and made us grateful for our relatively mundane circumstances. A few minutes later, my daughter felt guilty hearing her name called before theirs until a nurse explained that they were on a different treatment track.

Once in the exam room, it was amazing how suddenly our circumstances changed from mundane to alarming. It wasn’t a run-of-the-mill swollen gland – the kind that typically accompanies a cold or an ear infection. It was an acute inflammation of a parotid (salivary) gland, and the doctor was concerned about the same thing my daughter had been worried about – that the severe swelling would soon interfere with her breathing. Almost in the blink of an eye, blood was drawn, an IV was inserted and my daughter was moved to the imaging room for a CT scan with contrast dye. The commotion made her sick to her stomach and, afterward, she just wanted to relax under a warm blanket.

We waited quietly for the results. There was no television in the exam room and not enough bars on our cell phones to make calls. I could only keep the family at home apprised of the goings-on through text messaging and social media. We speculated about what they were doing without us, and my daughter thanked me for giving up the holiday for her.

“Jennifer,” I said to my precious girl, “there is really no one I would rather be spending time with on Christmas Day than you … even if it is in a hospital emergency room.”

It was the truth. I love everyone in my family with all my heart and would go to the ends of the Earth for any one of them. There is something just a little bit different, though, between a mother and daughter. That something different is what I write about every Sunday in this column when I share stories about my mother, our lengthy caregiving relationship and the pain of losing her. This week I’m bringing in another generation; not only because of our Christmas misadventure but because my daughter played a large part in keeping my mother safe at home while I worked. For 8½ years, in fact, she spent more time with Mom than anyone but me.

The arrangement with Jennifer couldn’t have been more perfect. In the beginning, it was convenient for her because her children were really just babies. She could make a little money as Mom’s caregiver, drive only a few short blocks between our homes and bring the children with her. It was equally beneficial for Mom. Grandmother and granddaughter got along famously, and Mom had a front row seat to her great grandsons’ childhoods. The work itself was not taxing for Jennifer. In those days, preparing meals, stand-by bath assistance and laundry were about the only tasks on her list.

As the years passed and Mom’s health slowly declined, the caregiving arrangement elevated from convenient for the two of them to critical for me. There was no one I trusted more completely than my own daughter to take good care of Mom and have free reign in my home at the same time. It was not only trust that gave me confidence, though. By nature, Jennifer is very pragmatic and cool-headed. Those characteristics came in handy on more than one occasion. The most memorable was the day she called me at work and casually made small talk for a few moments before calmly saying, “Grandma and I need your advice about something.” I responded somewhat distractedly, “Uh-huh. What is that?” When she said, “Well, Grandma fell and …,” I didn’t even let her finish her sentence. I’m normally fairly good in a crisis myself but this was one of my worst fears – that Mom would fall and break a hip. “She fell?” I shrieked.

Jenny and Mom

Jennifer and Mom – October 2013

Jennifer’s unshakable composure as she related the incident was palpable, and I felt my panic dissipate with the steadiness of her tone. As Mom’s doctors had predicted, the best thing we could hope for if she lost her balance was that someone nearby could help break her fall. That’s exactly what Jennifer did. As a result, Mom was not seriously injured; just bruised. However, she was unable to get up even with Jennifer’s help. The most concerning thing was that she had taken her insulin shot immediately before falling and was now supposed to be eating lunch to counteract the dose. We strategized to avoid a diabetic crash; I hung up the phone and started home.  By the time I arrived, Mom was peacefully finishing her lunch while propped up against a kitchen cabinet with a pillow behind her. The three of us tried unsuccessfully to get her back on her feet before calling the local paramedics for assistance. Within 10 minutes, she was resting in her recliner in the living room watching television as if nothing had happened. I was never so grateful for Jennifer’s “all in a day’s work” attitude.

Years continued to pass, the children started school, and I became increasingly dependent on Jennifer to help keep the household running smoothly. She prepared shopping lists when we were low on Mom’s favorite foods, scheduled and trained secondary caregivers, looked after the dogs and sometimes took Mom to a medical appointment if I had trouble arranging the time off work. On many occasions, she matter-of-factly handled situations and messes that would repulse people with weaker constitutions. Between chores, she and Mom talked about their favorite fantasy books, watched forensic crime shows on television, poured over family photo albums and talked about the old days. I sometimes found myself envious of their easy relationship.

At least once or twice over the years, Jennifer thought she might like to do something with her life besides care for her grandmother, but she was determined to see things through to the end. By the time Mom made her final departure in December 2013, Jennifer knew she had been incredibly fortunate to know her grandmother more intimately than most grandchildren could ever hope to imagine. Likewise, Mom was well aware how fortunate she had been to spend her waning years in the care of someone who loved her unconditionally.

Unconditional love was also present in the hospital emergency room this past Christmas Day … that and an enormous sense of relief when the test results showed Jennifer did not have an abscess that needed to be drained on the spot. She was released with a strong antibiotic and instructions to apply an ice pack every couple of hours. On our way home, we agreed that Christmas Day had not only been all right but would most surely become the stuff of family legend.

Back at her house, with the rest of the family gathered around, I handed Jennifer her traditional gift from me – a red-nosed Rudolph for her collection. This year, I had also found a greeting card with the most famous reindeer of all on the cover. What a jolly coincidence that it read: “Hope your Christmas is so merry it’ll go down in history.” After adding, “To my Jenny, the best daughter in history,” I signed off with almost exactly the same words my mother had written to me …

I love you always, Mom xo

(And I do, Jennifer Joy. I do.)

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Jennifer and Me – Thanksgiving 2006

This Hunt Was Dedicated — Wooo-Hooo!

At the end of September, this column irreverently dedicated the 13th Annual Nevada Day Treasure Hunt to my mother – “irreverently” in tribute to her appreciation for the weird and wonderful, the bright and beautiful.  This epilogue is to report that she would have considered the outcome of the game howl-arious.

A dog found the treasure.  Yes, you read that right.  A big, lovable, Chocolate Lab sniffed out the worn leather pouch that traditionally holds the blue and silver medallion encased in an acrylic square.  The pouch was safely tucked in the middle of a tight cluster of trees beside a creek bordering a fitness trail.  A thin layer of pine needles ensured that no one simply walking past would spot it.  But that didn’t stop Eli, our canine contestant.  He nudged it out of its nest and, carrying the pouch gently in his mouth, trotted proudly back to his human companion.  She and some friends had been trying to decipher the daily riddles that held the secret of the treasure’s whereabouts, but she quite honestly described Eli’s find that day as “dumb luck.”  Fittingly, the game ended on the 13th clue of the 13th hunt.

Third Creek by Fitness TrailNever in the years that our family has sponsored and organized this event have we been so surprised by the win.  We’ve occasionally been taken off guard by a speedy resolution.  One year, on the third in a line-up of 15 clues, a hunter with a hunch found the medallion behind a historical marker commemorating Nevada’s mining history.  Another year a forest ranger suspected it was hidden on a trail near the California-Nevada border and presented it after Clue 5.  On the other end of the spectrum, the 2010 game continued all the way to Clue 14, and we were beginning to Treasure Hunt Hiding Spot 2014think no one would find the pouch staked among sagebrush alongside a gravel road abutting the site of an Old West fort.  Eli’s role in ending this year’s hunt will become part of its down-home folklore.

For more than a decade in Oregon our family played a similar game associated with the Portland Rose Festival.  Some of our most beloved memories are rooted in researching possible solutions to cryptic rhymes, exploring unfamiliar roads and landmarks, and wandering down Treasure Hunt Medallion in Hidingnature trails certain that we were about to spot the coveted prize.  We came “this close” a few times, but we were never lucky enough to actually find it.  Make no mistake, though.  The memories we made were no less precious just because we came up empty-handed.

When we moved away from Portland in 1997, my son suggested that we start a treasure hunt in our new home of Northern Nevada.  We could use our experience to design a truly engaging game that would encourage people to learn Treasure Hunt Medallionabout the state, visit new places, and enjoy each other in the process.

Wouldn’t it be fun, he mused, to be the creators instead of the hunters?

To give credit where it’s due, he was largely responsible for the first couple of hunts.  When the rest of the family climbed on the bandwagon, the Nevada Day Treasure Hunt became our personal, cherished tradition.

Some might argue that, when you stage a community event, it can’t be personal.  On the contrary, it is very much so.  For years we have guarded our family outings with the secrecy of an FBI undercover operation.  The grandchildren were indoctrinated from birth and no longer need reminders to “zip it” when anyone asks what they did over a long, summer weekend.  We kick each other under restaurant tables when one of us absent-mindedly starts a conversation about the hunt in public.  If the topic comes up while visiting on our patio, we go inside the house.  A few local businesses have supported the event over the years, mostly with in-kind services, but our family is solely responsible for the game from start to finish.  We have purposely fronted the $1,000 prize because major cash sponsorships too often come with strings attached.  The smaller the inner circle, the easier it is to preserve the simplicity and integrity of the hunt.

Yes, the game is personal for us.  It was even more so this year because it was the first since my mother — the kids’ beloved Grandma Joy — passed away.  As described in my September column, “This Hunt Is Dedicated,” she was the custodian of the opening clue, and her enthusiasm when we unearthed quirky details about Nevada’s past (or present) was contagious.  She never really could walk trails with us, but she delighted in coming along for the ride to scope out the general area around potential hiding places.  In truth, this year’s hunt was not the first we had to organize without her.  Her contribution in 2013 was limited to modest cheerleading; she was enrolled in a home hospice program the week after the medallion was found.

LucyOn a recent Saturday night, the family gathered around the dining room table to enjoy buttery squares of freshly baked cornbread and steaming bowls of homemade beef stew, which I learned to make under Mom’s tutelage.  The conversation turned to the recently ended treasure hunt and what she may have thought of Eli’s triumph.  She loved animals of all sizes, shapes and species … more than she loved most people.  She was rarely, if ever, without a dog by her side, on her lap or snuggled up beside her in bed.  She considered her Yorkshire Terrier, Lucy, who died in 2007 to be her true soulmate, and animal rescue organizations were her charity of choice.  To me, even her cheers sounded like the yelp of a happy dog or the spirited howl of a wolf.  We have no doubt Mom would have taken great pleasure in this particular shaggy-dog story.

After dinner, my son read aloud a selection of comments from the social media page we established for the hunt.  Some were intriguing posts from hunters comparing notes with each other or sharing suggestions with us.  Some were petulant but harmless comments added by unsuccessful hunters expressing their frustration with the outcome.  To our dismay, there were also over-the-top tirades published by angry competitors whose online road rage was startling.  They cruelly cursed everyone and everything for their loss except the plain fact that they did not correctly decipher the clues.  We pondered whether these attacks are evidence that the hunt has grown beyond our capacity as a family to continue in the same simple manner of the past 13 years.  Attracting a grim, hardcore fringe is a sign of the times, it seems.

Our story hour ended on a decidedly positive note when my son read a long, humorous, inspiring tale submitted privately to him by a family that drove, hiked, explored and otherwise scoured nearly all of the seven counties that comprise the broad search area.  Their description of midnight research sessions, determined excursions to places near and far, and toting a tired daughter piggy-back reminded us of well us.  Though they didn’t find the medallion, they said the things they learned about Nevada and the memories they made are worth far more than the cash prize.  Aaaah.  Such a sweet amen.

Wouldn’t it be fun, my son mused, to be hunters again?

As mentioned in some previous columns, Mom harbored a long-standing fear that she would not be remembered.  Unique hits on the Treasure Hunt’s main webpage and our social media page indicate that upwards of 20,000 people participated in or at least followed the hunt this year.  With those statistics, being forgotten is not an issue.  Mom would be both humbled and pleased, I’m sure.  But, trust me, I knew my weird and wonderful, bright and beautiful mother.  The smile spreading across her face and the gleam in her eye would be more for the goofy Chocolate Lab named Eli than for anyone or anything else.  I can imagine her raising a fist in the air, as she so often did when rooting for her favorite football team, and howling, “Wooo-Hooo!  Go, you little devil, go!”

There once was a doggy named Eli

Who could follow a trail with an eagle eye

But it was his nose

That outsmarted the pros

All hail to that four-legged furry guy

Accept Gifts Graciously

Just before my 9th birthday in 1963, my father paused his maritime career and took what he referred to as a “shore job.”  He often recalled, with a wink and a smile, that a comment I made led to this regrettable decision.  I barely remember it, but I did look up at him one day while he was between voyages and innocently asked, “Why don’t you come home at night like other daddies?”

The decision was regrettable because, within a few hours of clocking in on his first day at a dog food plant, he was seriously injured in a freak accident. He and a co-worker were moving a large, heavy meat cutting machine that suddenly tipped over, trapping him underneath and breaking multiple bones.  We were told he would have died instantly had he not thrust out his arm and, with superhuman effort, kept the contraption from crushing his chest.  For weeks he was hospitalized; immobilized with one leg in traction.  My birthday was celebrated at his bedside.

Daddy - Broken Leg - 1963When my father was finally released, he came home in a full body cast and with an arsenal of medical equipment. A hospital bed equipped with a trapeze bar took over one corner of the living room, and a pair of wooden crutches leaned against the wall nearby.  Parked in the covered breezeway between the garage and the house was a long, flat gurney outfitted with over-sized rubber-rimmed wheels for manual propulsion.

Mom was not employed outside the home at the time of the accident but, as soon as the shock subsided, she began applying for bookkeeping jobs in medical offices around the area. She was quickly hired by a team of orthopedic surgeons, and my paternal grandmother began to spend weekdays at our house in the San Fernando Valley so she could look after my father, sister, brother and me.  Most weekends, she returned to her tiny apartment in downtown Los Angeles.

One Friday evening, without any forethought, I asked if I could spend the weekend with my grandmother. She was 75, decidedly puritanical and not inclined to engage in active pastimes that would interest a fourth-grader.  Nevertheless, the two of us got along quite well in those days.  Within minutes Mom was washing my hair over the kitchen sink and telling me to be a good girl.  She handed me a one dollar bill (about $7.50 today) to pay for a treat or a toy in case we went shopping.  At first, I politely declined.  “You don’t have to do that,” I said.  More than 50 years later, I still recall her reply.

 “Learn to accept gifts graciously.”

During that weekend, my grandmother and I rode the original Angels Flight rail cars up and down the steep incline between Olive and Hill streets, listened to evangelist Dr. John McGee preachGrandma Samsel and Kids - Easter 1962 (2) at the colossal Church of the Open Door, and sang hymns in a nearby park with a few of her friends. At one point, we wandered through a cluttered five and dime where I picked out a thick coloring book and proudly paid for it with the gift from my mother.

My memory may be fuzzy on some childhood moments, but the lesson involving the one dollar bill is vivid. It was a singular comment made by an ordinary mother to her young daughter; not taken from a book of etiquette or borrowed from an illustrious poet.  She never said it again.  She never wrote it down.  Yet, it was so powerful a message that it is permanently etched on my heart.  Mom’s words have reminded me to practice being gracious many times over the last five decades.  However, it wasn’t until preparing for this week’s column that I suddenly saw it as a piece of advice that could have helped me through the sometimes grueling years as her caregiver.

In a past column, I described how Mom earned the nickname “The Only One” by periodically lamenting about shouldering more than her share of the responsibilities in our family. The rather unflattering moniker grew into a term of endearment over the years but, speaking as a recent graduate of the caregiver corps, I think it should have been an accolade from the beginning.  Imagine a 39-year-old with three children ranging in age from 4 to 11, a seriously injured husband facing a lengthy rehabilitation, and a household budget blown to smithereens.  Pulling the family through that dark period probably ticked off three of the four requirements for sainthood … and we weren’t even Catholic.

To be fair, though, Mom could not have brought us through it alone. Gracious acceptance of her mother-in-law’s generous gift of weekday homemaking was critically important.

Grandma Samsel and Jesse - 1963In a plot twist worthy of M. Night Shyamalan, the partnership prevailed despite the fact that Mom and my grandmother were never particularly fond of one another. Their relationship was guarded at best.  As the story goes, my grandmother never thought any woman could live up to the high standards she set for her only son.  My mother, in turn, viewed her as a Class-A critic and meddler.  Regardless, they managed to set aside their differences to achieve a common goal.  The two of them orchestrated a relatively uncomplicated tag team to ensure that the four people they both loved most – my father, sister, brother and I – had everything we needed … and more.

Clean clothes drying on an outdoor line, the aroma of freshly-baked apple pie, southern truisms repeated with a lingering Texas drawl, and black-and-white episodes of the inaugural season of General Hospital became staples of weekdays with our grandmother.  When Mom returned home from work in the evening, she was greeted with a warm dinner and a mostly contented family.  Weekends were spent swimming in our backyard pool, enacting Wagon Train on the wheeled gurney that was supposed to be parked in the breezeway, and playing with the puppies that came along after our Collie had an unchaperoned visit with the neighbor’s German Shepherd.  My sister, brother and I were not necessarily oblivious to the hardship that had befallen our family, but the blow was softened significantly because of the commitment Mom and our grandmother made to each other.

Mom and Jesse - 1963 (2)If this story was a made-for-television movie, it would conclude with Mom and my grandmother becoming best of friends through shared adversity. Real-life isn’t always punctuated by Hallmark moments, though.  The two of them remained wary of one another for the rest of their days.  That in no way devalues their temporary alliance.

Photos of Mom from this difficult chapter of our lives provide a hint of the exhaustion she could not entirely escape. I can only imagine what would have become of her, and those of us who were depending on her, had she not joined forces with a rather unlikely partner and followed the same, simple rule she passed on to me.

Learn to accept gifts graciously.