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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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.

The Perfect Thing (8)

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

Here Are My Accolades

My mother took her first breath in a small, white houseboat floating in the cool waters of Potato Slough on the California River Delta on December 4, 1924. She took her last roughly 200 miles northeast in the big, brown home we shared in the dry desert of Northern Nevada on December 9, 2013.

Nothing of global importance happened on either of those days. No wars were declared or peace treaties signed. No major scientific discoveries were announced or natural disasters reported. There wasn’t even a full moon. Yet, those two days are of supreme importance to me. They marked the beginning and the end of a life that affected me more than any other has or will.

Between those two Decembers, Mom lived 89 years. But, in her mind, she was ageless. She used to tell the grandchildren that she was in Ford Theater when President Abraham Lincoln was shot in 1865 and, while they were young and impressionable, they believed her. She used to lament to me that she was nothing more than an 18-year-old trapped in an aging body and, the older I got, the more I understood how she felt. She professed to everyone that she was going to live forever, and we all wished it could be so.

When I began writing this column last August, the primary purpose was to share the words of wisdom Mom left behind for me in a priceless series of cards and notes she entrusted with family members to deliver posthumously. Week after week, I’ve taken the quotes and catch phrases she preserved for posterity and turned them into stories about her, about caring for her, and about losing her. I would like to believe that, in some small way, these columns have served to support her wistful dream of everlasting life. As my gifted British friend, Chris Bannister, wrote in his lovely song Everybody Knows, what we leave behind is our best hope for immortality.

Everybody knows that nothing lasts for long except the sky. We can’t live forever but we try … by leaving something beautiful behind.

The something beautiful in those lyrics need not be a classic novel, a life-saving vaccine or a celebrated work of art. Exceptional experiences like those happen to so few. What every one of us is able to leave behind, though, is the unique way in which we’ve touched others. Most of the time, we aren’t even aware that the ripples of our lives circle out farther, ever farther, and gently collide with other lives. The impact may be no more than a tap, but it can alter a course, transform a life or simply create a precious memory that makes us smile or provides comfort in times of sorrow.

Here - Mom With StudebakerFor me, the ultimate example of this phenomenon was embodied in a condolence letter that arrived about a month and a half after Mom died. It was from her old friend “Little Mary” who took the opportunity to share a story that brought my mother’s vibrant youth to life. I paraphrased the tale when I wrote about Mom’s free-spirited nature last fall in the column This Hunt Is Dedicated. While driving a carload of friends from San Pedro to the opera in nearby Los Angeles, the rather unreliable coupe broke down and blocked the Red Car trolley. Mom hopped out in the rain, Little Mary wrote. “She lifted the hood and with her comb she tapped something, got back in the car and we drove off. The passengers in the Red Car applauded wildly. I’ve never heard the name Joyce that that video didn’t play in my head!”

Here - Mary's LetterThe tap that started the car on that otherwise forgotten day stayed with Little Mary for more than 60 years. Her condolence letter was the ripple that brought the story full circle. When it showed up in my mailbox, the colorful anecdote tapped me with a lovely reminder that the sum of my mother’s life was not wrapped up in her last years of ill health and dependence. It was as though Little Mary was the unsuspecting guardian of a secret that was long ago destined to comfort me in the wake of my mother’s passing.

Here - Memorial BrochureIn 89 years, Mom touched countless people as she drifted from the harbors and valleys of California, to the mountains and beaches of Oregon, and finally to the high desert of Northern Nevada. Some folks she knew well; others she did not. Either way, it was her Joie de Vivre that most of them remember. As I’ve said previously in this column, she was a fan of the weird and wonderful, the bright and beautiful. She loved to explore, wonder, dream and hope. Most of all, she loved to laugh. So much so that, in an unattributed poem she left with her Last Will and Testament, she told us to “remember me with smiles and laughter” or not at all. We honored that by using the poem in her memorial brochure along with a photo of her smiling gaily.

Sometime in her last year, when it was clear that time was growing short, I asked her what she remembered about helping her older sisters take care of their Here - Mom and Birdie90-year-old mother in her final days. I wasn’t making casual conversation; I was fishing for advice. She thought about it for a minute and said rather sheepishly that her most vivid memory wasn’t of bathing her mother or changing her soiled sheets or engaging in meaningful conversation. Instead, she clearly remembered sitting in the living room of her mother’s home laughing hysterically at a skit on Saturday Night Live. What made her and our equally unconventional relative, Birdie, giggle uncontrollably, she couldn’t say. Based on the month and year, though, I have a pretty fair guess. I can imagine both of them cracking up over the 1978 Christmas message that Gilda Radner’s recurring character, Roseanne Roseannadanna, shared with viewers as part of her trademark rant on the Weekend Update.

Life is just like a fruitcake. When you look at it, it’s rich and sweet with honey and sugar and spice, tastes delicious, makes your mouth water and everything. But if you look at it real close, there’s these weird little green things in it and all that and you don’t know what it is!

I’ve probably never heard a more perfect … and perfectly hilarious … analogy. Life is, indeed, like a fruitcake. But I would venture to say that the weird little green things in it are not necessarily all distasteful. An unexpected turn of events – for instance, living with and taking care of your mother for the last 12 years of her life – could prove to be just as rich and sweet as the honey, sugar and spice.

Today’s column heading is the last line from Mom’s posthumous notes that I have to share with you all. While that puts a punctuation mark on the foundation for these essays, it doesn’t end them. Mom left so many more “notes” for us to explore through things she often said but did not write down, through tape recordings she made more than 20 years before she passed away, and through scrapbooks filled with intriguing memories. My intent is to carry on for as long as the stories find their way from my immortal maternal muse to the keyboard of the computer she and I shared.

Here are your accolades, Mom.

Here - From Card

Here they are – bringing a smile, a tear, a laugh or an insight to every reader who scrolls through these columns. As of this morning, your stories have been viewed 2,162 times by readers in 34 countries. Your body may have returned to ashes, but your spirit is alive and well. Your playful inspiration is the something beautiful you left behind. That and your Joie de Vivre are rippling around the world at this very moment. Someone, somewhere just felt your gentle, joyful tap.

 

(Desiring to give credit where it’s due, I want to note that the poem “Remember Me” may have been written by Laura Ingalls Wilder or by Michael Landon when he wrote the script for a Little House on the Prairie television episode called “Remember Me.” Mom probably heard it on the television show since I know she didn’t read the books. )

Beam Me Up, Scotty!

“Beam me up, Scotty” is an oft-misquoted catch phrase from the grand patriarch of all television and film space odysseys, Star Trek.

Contrary to popular belief, Captain James T. Kirk never issued precisely this command to his Chief Engineer, Montgomery Scott, at any time during the last half century. He came close in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home when he said, “Scotty, beam me up,” but no script contains the exact words in the exact order that fans ‘round the world love to repeat.

Mom loved that hijacked line, too. It was one of the axioms she commemorated for posterity when she dictated some recollections to my sister in her final days. After she passed away, we borrowed the essence of it for her memorial brochure.

The mortuary that handled Mom’s cremation suggested the brochure even though we weren’t planning a service, and we thought, well, why not? However, the samples they provided completely turned us off; they just didn’t reflect Mom’s spirit. I’m sure our faces looked as if we had just sucked lemons when we read standard language like, “Entered into the world on (insert date) and returned to the loving arms of the Heavenly Father on (insert date).” Finally, in a moment of dazzling inspiration, we decided to characterize Mom’s arrival and departure in Star Trek terms.

Beamed Down: December 4, 1924.  Beamed Up: December 9, 2013

She would have loved it.Beam Me Up (5)

Like legions of other Trekkies, Mom used the altered quote, “Beam me up, Scotty,” as a synonym for escape. Who wouldn’t want to be transported from an unfriendly planet to the safety of a powerful starship? From a stressful workplace to a peaceful tropical island? From a miles-long traffic jam to the serenity of home? From a time in your life when insulin shots and a wheelchair are your best friends to a better day when you enjoyed good health?

While many Star Trek innovations like communicators and hand-held electronic tablets have emerged in real life as cell phones and i-Pads, scientists haven’t quite come up with a way to dematerialize matter and rematerialize it somewhere else. I understand that a handful of brilliant Montgomery Scott wannabes are working on it, but it’s not likely to come true in my lifetime.

It certainly didn’t come true in Mom’s. She had to settle for virtual trips through time and space with her Star Trek comrades. Once she had an opportunity to become part of her favorite crew through a green screen technique at a Universal Studios souvenir shop. Years later she enjoyed a museum tour, a make-believe battle with the cybernetic species known as the Borg and lunch in a futuristic Ferengi café – all within the earthbound walls of the now defunct Star Trek exhibit at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel.

Beam Me Up (3)Mom wasn’t really content with fictional interstellar exploration, however. She was the quintessential skywatcher. My niece, Rhianna, and I both have vivid memories of midnight adventures oohing and aahing with Mom as we watched the Perseid and Leonid meteor showers. Most of the family also remembers being with Mom when we excitedly spotted Comet Hale-Bopp hanging over the Pacific Ocean in 1997. Half a dozen years later, while cruising through Alaska’s Inside Passage, I clearly remember rousing her in the middle of the night and pushing her wheelchair to the observation deck to witness the unique spectacle of the Northern Lights.

Memories of her delight in heavenly mysteries are the intangibles Mom bequeathed to us, but she also left behind hard evidence. Ever the organizer, she preserved some of her celestial research in a big, white binder labeled “Things That Interest Me.” The thick scrapbook commemorates her fascination with everything from The Lord of the Rings to Charles Schulz and his immortal Peanuts cartoon strip, but the last section is all about “Outer Space.” It begins with a 2008 article from Parade magazine about the final repair mission of the Hubble Telescope and is followed by Internet printouts of photos snapped by the amazing contraption. Breathtaking galaxies, incredible star formations and other stunning cosmic anomalies constitute a proverbial feast for the eyes. Meanwhile, the cover she chose for the binder erases any doubt about her principal interest. It’s a portrait of the Pillars of Creation inside the Eagle Nebula.

Beam Me Up (2)Until I was preparing to write this column, I never paid much attention to the details of Mom’s enchantment with those far away images. Now I know that the Eagle Nebula is essentially a cluster of gas and dust, that the Pillars of Creation are giving birth to stars, and that the phenomena is situated near the constellation that is Mom’s astrological sign – Sagittarius the Archer. Interestingly, some astrologers say that people born under this sign enjoy experiences that are beyond the physically familiar and are eager to explore new dimensions of thought. Whether Mom was aware of that last piece of trivia is unknown but, for me, it opens another window into the soul of the person who was my own Pillar of Creation.

While poking around on the Internet, I was sad to discover that the Pillars of Creation that Mom so loved no longer exist. They were destroyed 6,000 years ago by a supernova, but the shockwave hasn’t reached Earth as yet. We are basically seeing ghosts carried on beams of light over the vast expanse of space.

Learning about the Pillars’ demise is a little like finding out that “Beam me up, Scotty” is not actually a true line from Mom’s beloved space franchise. Yet, I somehow find both realities rather poetic.

Mom’s physical body is gone but her spirit continues to light my way like a heavenly beacon. The letter, cards and notes she left behind for me have served as a loving foundation to document priceless memories about living with her, caring for her during her last years and loving her for a lifetime. As I said to her grandchildren and great grandchildren in last week’s column, she will never truly be gone as long as we keep her in our thoughts, our conversations and our hearts.

As for the errant line from Star Trek, I take comfort in what Captain Kirk and other crewmates often did say when they were ready to return to the safety of their interplanetary home on the starship Enterprise. By the time she passed away five days after her 89th birthday, Mom was exhausted and no longer able to move or talk. Her physical resources were completely used up. In Star Trek jargon, her Dilithium Crystals were depleted. I’d like to think that, when she finally departed, someone somewhere issued the simple but beautiful command that restored her weary soul.

Energize!

Today I’ll borrow one more line from Star Trek in salute to Mom. In the words of 20th Century whale biologist Dr. Gillian Taylor when she had to say good-bye to Captain Kirk at the end of The Voyage Home, “See you around the galaxy.”

Beam Me Up (1)

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

 

Everybody Remember Where We Parked

Since Star Trek premiered close to a half-century ago, entire books have been written about all the insightful lessons embodied in the stories. With apologies to Dave Marinaccio and others who have penned these entertaining volumes, my mother needed only five words to convey the most important Star Trek takeaway for our family.

You may remember these words from what was unquestionably the most fun cinematic version of the epic franchise – Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. When the crew traveled back in time to save the world and landed their spaceship smack dab in the middle of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, Captain Kirk called out to his somewhat discombobulated shipmates …

Everybody remember where we parked!

Activation of a cloaking device made the pirated Klingon Bird-of-Prey invisible to everyone including our heroes. Yet, they still managed to find it again after wandering all over the city from Chinatown to Sausalito to Alameda. More than that, they fulfilled their daring mission to retrieve two humpback whales and successfully time-warped back home.

Home. No matter where you roam or what adventures await, the prime directive is to remember where you came from and how to get back there. It may be the old family farm, the city where you grew up, or it may just be found in the warm embrace of people you love. However you define it, home is the one thing we all long for and cherish.

Home (3)My mother knew the value of home even though a permanent abode eluded her throughout her 89 years. The youngest of 10 children, she was born on a small, wooden ark anchored in Potato Slough in the Sacramento River Delta in 1924. Her parents had attempted to homestead in Montana during one of the last government giveaways of agricultural land but ended up on the West Coast after the life-altering events of World War I. The Grapes of Wrath could have easily been their own story as they fished the abundant waterways and picked produce in the fertile California fields to keep food on the table.

In 1928, they migrated south to the harbor town of San Pedro where my grandfather established himself as an ocean fisherman. Despite his efforts, they barely stayed one step ahead of the landlord, moving from one rental home to another in rapid succession. Mom remembered watching shoes of all sizes, colors and styles as pedestrians walked past one odd place constructed on a downslope, causing the windows to be level with the sidewalk. In her favorite house, she had a bedroom no bigger than a closet, but she loved it because she didn’t have to share with an older sister who, legend has it, pinched her while she slept.

Home (7)In 1944, when Mom was a 20-year-old labor union secretary, she managed to convince the State of California that she was actually 21 so she could help her widowed mother buy a tiny, newly-built tract house on a busy street that ran along an ocean cliff. The lot was on a corner adjacent to an empty military field, which allowed a view of water and sky if you looked southwest from the living room window. That little house, with its towering palm trees and backyard picket fence, served as the stable family home that everyone in my mother’s sprawling family longed for and returned to during the 35 years my grandmother lived there. To this day, even I think of it as my original nesting place.

Two years after the oceanside cottage became the family’s belated homestead, my mother and father married in a small ceremony in a chapel called the Wee Kirk o’ the Heather at Forest Lawn. Young and filled with wanderlust, they lived for a time in “the room” constructed inside my grandmother’s garage, later rented their own apartments and houses, and finally began to buy and sell homes.

We moved about every five years during my childhood. My earliest memories are of a place with a million-dollar view of Long Beach harbor about six miles up the road from my grandmother’s house. The next stop was 47 miles north on a half-acre in the San Fernando Valley where we had a pool, a tennis court and a neighbor who did movie and television stunt work for the likes of Jane Fonda and Ken Berry. A thousand-mile trek north, to a white rambler on seven acres of forested hillside, promised to be our last move. It wasn’t. My father’s late-life diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia coupled with bipolar disorder squelched those dreams.

Home (8)After that devastating development, Mom would pack and unpack four more times before retiring to the Oregon Coast in 1987. The longest stretch she lived anywhere was the aging, pink trailer she bought a quarter-mile from the sand in Rockaway Beach. She was one year shy of paying it off when it was damaged beyond repair in a 2001 storm. Shortly thereafter, she and I took up residence in a little, yellow house in a northern Nevada subdivision.

Looking back on Mom’s transient life, it’s easy to understand why her photo albums, scrapbooks, family history project and mementoes were so important to her. She passionately guarded virtually everything she owned. The memories associated with each cherished belonging kept her connected with her roots and essentially comprised her home.

Meanwhile, I am my mother’s daughter. It’s eerie how much my adult life has mirrored hers in terms of moving here and there. My husband and I mostly raised our children in a thousand-square-foot, sky blue Cape Cod in Southeast Portland, but those 10 years hardly makes us candidates for the Guinness Book of World Records. We hope our current resting place, where we’ve been miraculously growing trees and roses in the desert sand for the last six years, will be our last stop. In fact, when we moved here in 2008 with Mom, we all hoped it would be our last stop.

Home (1)Shortly after all the boxes were unpacked and cupboards were arranged, we put our heads together on a project that commemorated home. We each chose three pictures of the dwellings we remember most fondly, framed them, and hung the collage in the front entryway next to a painting that says, “Home is where your story begins.” Mom has been gone for more than a year now, but the display still calls out loud and clear …

Everybody remember where we parked!

Ironically, Mom didn’t remember to commemorate this catch phrase in any of the cards she left behind for me when she made her final voyage home. She did, however, include it when she dictated some remembrances to my sister during her last days. When I received Mom’s final posthumous card shortly before Christmas last year, my sister sent along her typed notes from that conversation. And there it was on a list of Mom’s oft-repeated quotes.

As I write this, I think of all the places and things that mean home to me.

My grandmother’s house where my cousins, siblings and I drove pedal cars around the network of concrete backyard pathways and took turns jumping off the front porch down to the carefully manicured lawn.

The big, white house on the Oregon hillside that my family dubbed The Funny Farm on Crawdad Creek after an unfamiliar water-dwelling creature snapped my curious brother’s finger.

The little blue house where my husband and I raised our children.

The little yellow house where Mom and I blended our lives for better or worse.

Home also dwells in my mother’s bedroom. When she died, I became the curator of her photo albums, scrapbooks, family history records and many of the mementoes from her parents’ childhoods and her childhood. Her bedroom is slowly becoming a family history museum of sorts. Anytime I want, I can walk into the sunlight that pours through the prisms Mom hung in her windows and delight in the rainbows she loved to see painted on her walls. I can browse all the memories displayed in cabinets and arranged neatly on shelves, and take a wondrous voyage through time and space to the places in my heart that I call home.

Mom, I promise. I will always remember where we parked.

Home (2)

 

[Feature Photo: Cousin Raymond Musso, Grandpa Noble Metzger, Mother Joy Metzger, Aunt Irene (Pee-Wee) Metzger, Aunt Carrie (Cutie) Metzger, Cousin Francis (Birdie) Musso and Uncle Joe Musso.]