Beyond The Dead Cabinet

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

Beyond The Dead Cabinet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond The Dead Cabinet.

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

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

The Perfect Thing (13)

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

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Don’t Forget Our Secret Handshake

With a partner, hold out your right hands. Overlap your fingertips and wiggle them together for a few seconds.  Stop, make fists, bump your fists together and hold them there.  Thrust your thumbs upward and cross them back and forth like swords four times.  Press the ends of your thumbs together firmly.  Then draw back slightly and give each other a thumbs up.

That was the top secret handshake created by and reserved for Mom and me during our adventure as care receiver and caregiver. It was declassified after her death last December, and is being shared in this column only because you, dear friend, are now a trusted member of our clandestine society.  Your initiation was simple.  Just reading some of the notes she left behind and exploring the explanations with me has drawn you into this exclusive club.  Since my co-conspirator departed with a nagging fear that she would not be remembered, I’m delighted to induct you by ceremoniously quoting a few of her last words.

Don’t forget our secret handshake.Secret Handshake (BW)

Secret societies, including some with secret handshakes, have existed for centuries. Literature and films have memorialized many; some bona fide, others created or dramatized to advance a storyline.  Who can resist the allure and mystery of the Knights of Templar, the Illuminati, the Jedi Order and the Sith, the Dharma Initiative and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen?  As someone of the feminine persuasion, though, I am most enchanted by stories about women of all ages who bond over a common problem, a shared belief system or a collective goal.

In The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, young friends Carmen, Tibby, Bridget and Lena find redemption in a magical pair of thrift store jeans passed from one to another over the course of a summer.  In Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, lifelong friends Teensy, Necie, and Caro help pal Vivi reconcile with her daughter, Sidda.  No matter what the circumstances, the women in these and other mythical societies unfailingly emerge triumphant; having forged strong friendships that last through the ages.

No one ever wrote a bestseller or filmed a blockbuster about them, but my mother actually was part of such a sisterhood. Find a recording of Glenn Miller’s Chattanooga Choo Choo or Kay Kyser’s Jingle Jangle Jingle to set the mood and flash back to 1942.

In March of that year, Mom was a 17-year-old, slender brunette who removed her wire-rimmed glasses for class photos. With high school graduation rapidly approaching, she and several close girlfriends decided to cement their long-time friendship by starting a club.  They knew that the only sure way to hold on to each other after they shed their caps and gowns was to create opportunities to spend time together.  Without dissent, Friday became their sacred meeting night, and a different girl played hostess each week.

Semanons Minutes (BW)In minutes carefully preserved in soft-cover notebooks, they recorded debates about whether to make yellow gingham uniforms, the number of times a member could miss a meeting without a reasonable excuse, and what they should call their group. They bagged the idea of matching dresses, set strict attendance rules, and dissed several foreign-language designations before settling on the Semanons (No Names spelled backward).  The short business meetings of “the Sems” were generally followed by music, dancing, singing and sugary homemade refreshments like Boston cherry cream pie and marshmallow malts.  “A perfectly swell time was had by everyone,” the secretary wrote after a gathering in May 1942.

If the goings-on seem frivolous given the fact that World War II was raging, keep this in mind. In the months before they formed their club, they listened to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech on the radio about the December day that would “live in infamy.”  They watched newsreels of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  They looked on with sadness and confusion as their Japanese-American friends were ushered onto trains bound for internment camps.

Nothing and no one was safe, especially not in their hometown of San Pedro, California. Ships coming and going from the Port of Los Angeles, activity at the Fort MacArthur U.S. Army installation and the ominous presence of artillery embattlements for coastal defense created a distinctly military atmosphere.  If that wasn’t enough, they watched their fathers and brothers enlist, obeyed blackouts and curfews, shuddered at the sound of pre-dawn air raid sirens, adjusted to rationing, and sacrificed their senior yearbook for the war effort.

Their Friday night gatherings helped them hold onto a shred of normalcy in an otherwise unstable world. Joy and laughter were always on their agenda.  Along with the notebooks of minutes, the girls saved dozens of pictures, souvenirs, restaurant menus and live theater programs to commemorate adventures that sometimes stretched from Friday night to Monday morning.  Surely, Big Bear Lake was never the same after they descended upon it to share a rustic cabin, shimmy into long johns and teach themselves to ski.

A line in the minutes of their December 7, 1945, meeting finally paid tribute to the dark days of the war. “On this anniversary of Pearl Harbor, in our first year of peace since 1941, we celebrated club at Mary’s house.”

Marriages, babies, jobs and relocation eventually forced the girls to let go of their weekly ritual.  Christmas parties became Christmas cards.  Periodic visits became telephone chats.  But they never let go of each other.  Their friendship endured through the years until, one by one, they passed away.  When Mom joined the dearly departed last December, I was able to contact only one original Sem to share the sad news.

Oompa Loompa Girls (BW)

No alliance could ever truly replace the Sems for Mom, but life has a way of carrying us forward to different places and relationships. Mom rode the wave with anticipation and was never averse to forming new sisterhoods.  In particular, the Oompa Loompa Girls always brought a smile to her face.

Oompa Loompas are short, fat beings that work in exchange for chocolate in Willie Wonka’s candy factory. No one remembers exactly when, why or how this came about, but some years ago Mom, my sister, Leslie, and my niece, Rachel, became the Oompa Loompa Girls.  Mom’s tiny Yorkshire Terrier, Lucy (aka Lucerella), was their “plus one.”  It probably happened during some self-deprecating moment when they were simultaneously lamenting their curvy figures and declaring their undying love for chocolate.  I can imagine them all laughing hysterically (or barking as the case may be) and the name stuck.  Every time Mom looked at a picture of their little group, she would declare, “The Oompa Loompa Girls!”  It was the kind of inside joke that tends to make everyone else feel envious of the exclusive camaraderie.

I wasn’t an Oompa Loompa Girl, and I certainly wasn’t a Sem. Deep down I guess I will always be just a little bit jealous of those sisterhoods.  However, as with the vast majority of caregiving relationships, I had my own bond with Mom that ran deeper than we could ever have dreamed.  We didn’t have a name for our partnership, but ours was a “’til death do us part” promise that tested the durability of our connection while also serving to strengthen it.  Phone Upload (1.29.14) 4772Our secret handshake was the symbol of our abiding pledge to one another, which most certainly is the reason she was compelled to commemorate it in one of the cards she left behind for posthumous delivery.

Don’t forget our secret handshake.

As briefly noted at the beginning of this column, Mom had a nagging fear that she would not be remembered. She was concerned that the space she occupied in our home and in the lives of those she loved would become a vacuum quickly swallowed up by new belongings, different priorities, and other liaisons.  All I can say is that, under normal circumstances, a grown daughter could not possibly forget her mother.  Our union, which reached far beyond the scope of a traditional parent/child relationship, will go down in the record books right next to the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and the bestseller that is destined to be written about the Sems.

If you’re listening, Mom, don’t worry. I won’t forget our secret handshake.  More importantly, you will always and forever be in my heart and … well OK … in the hearts of those pesky Oompa Loompa Girls, too.

(This week’s column is lovingly dedicated to my friend, Connie, and her 92-year-old mother who had to bid their final good-bye this past week.)