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. )

Live Long and Prosper, Revisited

Last November, I wrote about Mom’s passion for all things Star Trek and how the epic space franchise played into birthday and Christmas traditions in our household. Mr. Spock’s most famous line, “Live long and prosper,” served as the foundation for the story.

A couple of days ago, the man who embodied Mr. Spock for nearly 50 years permanently beamed off this planet to explore strange, new worlds in ethereal dimensions. Actor, director, photographer, writer, global icon Leonard Nimoy died Friday, February 27, at the age of 83. When his gentle spirit arrived on the other side, I would like to think that Mom was among the crowd of friends waiting to greet him.

Mom always had a soft spot in her heart for the half-human, half-Vulcan who nobly struggled to maintain a logical decorum even in the most challenging situations. One of the quintessential moments for Mr. Spock was written into the television episode called This Side of Paradise, one of Mom’s favorites. It took several, increasingly inflammatory insults by his space cohort, Captain James T. Kirk, to raise his ire and free him from a mind-altering alien spore. “You belong in a circus, Spock, not a starship!” Kirk shouted, “Right next to the dog-faced boy!” It was hard not to feel sorry for Mr. Spock when he was jolted from utopia and compelled to sacrifice romance for duty.

"Live Long and Prosper"

Mom’s soft spot grew to embrace the real Leonard Nimoy when she, my two children and I had our photo taken with him at a jam-packed fan convention in Sacramento in 2006. Event staff were tasked with quickly herding dozens of people in and out of the banquet room where Mr. Nimoy and his Star Trek co-star William Shatner stood in front of a gold backdrop, smiling on cue through flash after flash. In the few minutes we shared with the two men, we at least were able to thank them for three generations of unparalleled entertainment. Mr. Shatner was suffering from a cold that day and, understandably I suppose, was not particularly engaging. Mr. Nimoy, though, treated Mom like a person instead of a prop. Unhurried, warm and welcoming, he leaned in toward her wheelchair and rested a friendly hand on her shoulder for the souvenir shot. She often recounted how special this simple, sensitive act made her feel.

I’m sure that brief moment did not impact Mr. Nimoy in the meaningful way that it did Mom. After decades of photo shoots, the parade of fans he touched must have been a blur. However, when I read the last comment he posted on Twitter four days before he died, I was amazed by the way his powerful words seemed to reflect on moments just like that one.

A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP.

Preserved in memory. Through this weekly column, I am the guardian of my mother’s memory and the storyteller entrusted with commemorating her life and experiences. Today I am also privileged to be one of the many guardians of Mr. Nimoy’s memory by chronicling his small act of human kindness toward my mother.

I can’t help but be reminded of Admiral James T. Kirk’s eulogy when Mr. Spock died at the conclusion of the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. “Of all the souls I’ve encountered in my travels,” Kirk said, “his was the most human.”

Kirk’s voice broke during that monologue. Poignantly, he struggled to keep it together to appropriately honor his friend. Today, in real life, there are millions around the world struggling to do the same as they remember Mr. Nimoy. He was truly our friend, if only through television, film and photo opps. If he could speak to us, perhaps he would repeat the dying words of Mr. Spock as he slowly succumbed to radiation poisoning after saving the ship and all hands on board.

Don’t grieve, Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one. I have been and always shall be your friend. Live long and prosper.

One of Mom's favorite axioms, commemorated in a posthumous note.

Mom’s favorite signature line, commemorated in a posthumous note.

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

 

Somebody’d Better Do Something About It

James Garner first set eyes on her during a muddy brawl in the main street of the fictional frontier town of Calendar, Colorado. Later, he caught her peeking between handfuls of long, wet hair whilst perched in a tree wearing nothing but her drawers. Finally, he threw a pitcher of water on the flaming bustle of her dress when she tried to serve freshly baked dinner biscuits.

This all happened on the same day, and it all happened to Joan Hackett when she was playing accident-prone Prudy Perkins opposite Garner’s unflappable Jason McCullough in the 1969 Old West parody Support Your Local Sheriff. With the back of her dress burned away and flour handprints on her face, she clenched a fist and declared in utter frustration …

I’m sick and tired of these stupid things that have been happenin’ to me, and somebody’d better do something about it soon!

My mother loved that line. Repeating it took the edge off when the universe dished out some ridiculous happenstance beyond her control. Believe me, in her 89 years, Mom had ample opportunities to quote Ms. Hackett.

Somebody Better (2)Probably the worst foible of her senior years happened before Mom set up housekeeping with me in Nevada. She was walking her tiny Yorkshire Terrier on the gravel road in front of her old trailer on the Oregon Coast. Somehow wiry, little Lucy got away, and Mom instinctively ran after her on gravel that was wet from the persistent seaside drizzle. Before she knew what was happening, she slipped and fell hard on her right side. To this day, I can’t tell you how she managed to get herself and her diminutive dog back inside the trailer with a broken shoulder. She recovered without undue drama but duly spoiled and pampered by my protective sister who lived a couple of hours away.

Thankfully, Mom didn’t fall frequently during her 12 years with me in Nevada. There were several near misses but only two incidents that actually put her on the floor. One I wrote about in the column, “Love Always, Mom – Part Two.” Immediately after injecting insulin into her tummy to counteract the lunch she was about to eat, Mom OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAslipped to the unforgiving tile when her combination walker and portable bench rolled out from under her. It was a simple case of not properly setting the brake before sitting. My daughter was nearby and helped break Mom’s impact, but she couldn’t manage to help her stand. Except for an instant of panic when I got the initial call at work, it was all rather ordinary. Mom ate her lunch while propped up with pillows against a kitchen cabinet, I came home and, when our group effort to get her back on her feet failed, we sedately summoned the paramedics. She was bruised but not seriously injured.

The second incident occurred in the living room a few weeks later. My husband and I were sitting on the sofa when Mom backed her walker up to her recliner to watch the news before dinner. She was not in our line of sight, so we were both surprised a moment later when she said evenly, “Laurie, can I get some help?” She had missed the chair by a fraction of an inch and slid quietly to the carpet. After previously watching the paramedics help her to her feet, my husband and I were able to use the same technique to hoist her into the chair. A moment later, the two of them were casually watching the news while I finished preparing dinner.

My heart went out to Mom when she began having “accidents.” To put it delicately, she had recurring digestive problems and sometimes just couldn’t move quickly enough to reach the refuge of her bathroom. Adult diapers, bed pads and rubber gloves became staples in our household. Once I remember being late to work on a critical day involving the State Legislature and our departmental budget. Shortly after I called in, our director dialed me back. I apologized about my tardiness and matter-of-factly explained that I was “cleaning up poop.” Bless his kind soul. All he said was, “Oh,” and began to pick my brain about an issue within my scope of work. Naturally, Mom was mortified that she couldn’t always control her bodily functions but, as long as I was nonplussed, she remained calm, too.

It was especially important for me and other caregivers to keep a cool head when she crashed. If you know anyone who is diabetic, you know that crashing is the frightening result of abnormally low blood sugar. The person gets shaky, breaks into a cold sweat, has heart palpitations and can become confused or anxious. The trick is to ingest some form of concentrated sugar as quickly as possible. Glucose tablets, candy and orange juice were our counter-agents of choice. As years passed and we gained experience with this phenomenon, Mom’s crashes occurred less frequently and were easily resolved. However, in the beginning, we weren’t always prepared for this unexpected and unnerving development. Once after a cardiology appointment, she crashed while I was helping her into the car. The only thing I could think to do was high-tail it to the nearest fast food drive-through and buy her a chocolate milkshake. She spilled some of it on the seat and was horrified because I had just paid a pretty penny to get the old sedan detailed inside and out. “Oh well,” I said. “What are you gonna do? Battle scars.”

Somebody Better (3)The thing is, stupid stuff happens to everyone. Admittedly, some of us are more prone to accidents than others. When I was growing up, I earned an embarrassing but deserved reputation as a sloppy eater. Virtually every time I put on a new outfit, I ended up spilling food on it. For an elementary school open house and spaghetti feed, my sister reluctantly loaned me her pretty, yellow party dress and … you guessed it … I came home with tomato sauce splashed down the front. In addition, I’m terribly inept with kitchen knives. My husband is convinced that someday I’m going to end up in the emergency room with a severed finger on ice. Whenever I chop carrots for stew, there is nothing he can do but cringe and look away.

Likewise, when young, beautiful Joan Hackett blustered that “somebody’d better do something about it soon,” she had to know deep down that no one could really prevent “stupid things” from happening to her. Still, you certainly didn’t see her laying low after the bustle burning incident. She got up every day, got dressed and determinedly went about her business in that uncivilized, gold rush town. At the end of the film, one last “stupid thing” resulted in a desperate attempt to stay astride a bucking horse. James Garner assumed his best business-as-usual stance and calmly called out, “Jump, Miss Prudy! Jump!” She leaped off the spooked horse and found herself in the arms of her devilishly handsome beau.

If all’s well that ends well for a headstrong, twitter-pated frontier gal and a reluctant hero whose trademark retort was “basically, I’m on my way to Australia,” then it can also end well for every accident-prone, modern-day Prudy who slips and falls, misses the toilet, spills food or slices fingers. All you have to do is stay calm and carry on. Mom believed it. I believe it. I hope Russell Wilson believes it, too.

Wait. Huh? I can see the double-takes and puzzled stares, and can almost hear a rewind sound effect – something akin to a phonograph needle scraping across an old record. Who is Russell Wilson and what is he doing in Mom’s story?

Mom was an avid football fan and, along with my husband, followed the highs and lows of the Seattle Seahawks. She passed away just two months before the Hawks finally won their first Superbowl in 2014. Last week, they had a chance to take home another Vince Lombardi trophy. In the waning moments of the game, the Hawks were poised to score. Quarterback Russell Wilson threw a pass on the one yard line and the ball was intercepted by a rookie who saved the day for the Patriots. Although I’m a relatively new football fan, I was as shocked and exasperated as any 12th man in the country. I must have sputtered “stupid” two dozen times. Today I’m happy to say that I have regained my Garner-esque composure, and I remember that stupid things just happen to everyone now and then. You can’t stop it. The only thing I can do is pull up my Joan Hackett under-drawers and make an offer to beleaguered Mr. Wilson. On behalf of my wise mother, I’d like to loan you one of her favorite movie quotes.

I’m sick and tired of these stupid things that have been happenin’ to me, and somebody’d better do something about it soon!

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.]

These Aren’t the Droids You’re Looking For – Part Two

After last week’s piece about embracing the unexpected, it occurred to me that the most important relationship in my life fit the same bill. Amid blurred images of droids and storm troopers, quests and regrets, the face of my own hero emerged. He has never brandished a light saber. Never piloted a speeding spacecraft through an asteroid belt. Never saved a galaxy. But he rescued me.

Droids Part 2 - (1)I met my first husband, Pete, in our senior year of high school in 1972. Graduation was only two years past when we tied the knot in a beautiful cliffside ceremony on the Oregon Coast. He was 19; I had recently turned 20. With no responsibilities other than our cat, we were free to travel around the western states in our old Ford van with Pete’s rock band. That is, until I became pregnant once and then a second time. We morphed into parents with light speed and pursued a typical family lifestyle that would never have interested us as teenagers. Ultimately, we learned the universal truth of middle age. The ideals that seem paramount in one’s youth are not necessarily the same ones you value as adults. Sadly, after 27 years of marriage, we separated. Our divorce became final on Christmas Eve 2001.

A half-dozen Christmas Eves later, I became engaged again. The following August, in a historic chapel in one of Nevada’s oldest townships, I once more donned a white lace dress and married the man of my dreams.

It was still Pete.

When our first marriage ended, we went down separate paths in search of something and someone different. In the rearview mirror, we discovered that the life we left behind was the something and that we were the someones. We were the droids we were looking for after all.

It’s a happy ending, yes. But it wasn’t an amicable divorce. The unexpected problems that pulled us apart were gravely serious. Darth Vader and his evil empire had nothing on us. We gave in to the dark side and angrily threw in the towel on our relationship, our home and, well, basically our entire life together. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we hated each other, but we really, really didn’t like each other for at least the first three years after we took off our rings.

It’s often said that things happen for a reason. Not that I was ever glad about our divorce, but I do recognize that it opened doors for me to pursue a few memorable adventures, and it paved the way for the arrangement between Mom and me. Had I not been at loose ends when her mobile home was destroyed in a storm, she might have moved in with my sister in Oregon instead. We may never have grown as close as we did nor learned as much. Blessings come unexpectedly and wear many disguises, and my 12 years with Mom was a blessing of epic proportions. Some blessings aren’t free, however. This one came with a price tag that put limitations on my efforts to find my footing as a single woman. Just as I was about to live independently for the first time in my life, I was back under the same roof with my mother.

All in good time, I wanted to date. Living with Mom then was not very different from living with her while a teenager. She didn’t require care in those days, but I still needed to let her know where I was going, with whom I was keeping company and when I would return. Periodically she hinted that she didn’t like being left behind while I went to such enviable events as an amateur barbershop quartet recital or a deafening motorcycle rally. Guilt became a more reliable companion than any of the men I met. In fact, the best thing I can say about my string of first/last dates was that they provided for amusing conversation when Mom and I drank our coffee on Saturday mornings.

There was the dental supply representative who lied about his relationship status and shrugged it off by saying he “felt” separated. The bass player who thought a deep French kiss was appropriate after one dinner. The former Marine who, between hearty bites of enchiladas, graphically told me about slitting an adversary’s throat behind enemy lines. And the freshman entrepreneur who showed me his entire line of uninspiring bumper decals while sitting in the front seat of his pickup truck. Those were some of the better guys. Most of the truly appalling stories aren’t appropriate for a family column. A friend who enjoyed hearing of my odyssey through singledom is still waiting for my trashy bestseller about the ultimate Mr. Wrong, Mr. Unsuitable, Mr. Offensive and Mr. Are-You-Kidding-Me.

They say that if you kiss enough frogs, you will eventually find a prince. There were no princes among my frogs, but there were a couple of knights – a gentile Texas businessman who treated all the Droids Part 2 (7)women in our family regally and a talented, funny musician who struck up a friendship with us while Mom and I cruised through Alaska’s Inland Passage with my sister and her husband. Mom adored both of these squires, but neither could take Pete’s place in her heart. Despite our troubles, he remained the man of Mom’s dreams for me. He and I had hooked up so young that he became like one of her own kids. They shared a fascination with certain fantasy stories that I could never really wrap my head around, traded detective novels in their own personal paperback exchange, and loved to watch football together. Once Pete arranged a train trip from Portland to Seattle so he and Mom could see Joe Montana quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs against the Seahawks. Our daughter and I went along, but it was more their day than ours.

Eventually, I stopped dating frogs. The gentile Texas businessman and the talented, funny musician drifted out of my life. One day I realized that I was content without a relationship. Another I realized that the truce between Pete and me had slowly blossomed into friendship.

IM000141.JPGFor Pete, becoming friends was not enough. He wanted to reconcile. We clearly loved each other, but I was not convinced reuniting was a good idea. What if things went south again? Like any good hero, Pete wouldn’t give up on his quest to rescue me from my own fears. Then one Saturday afternoon in August 2007 he tagged along to a gathering of folks I call “my John Denver friends.” While sitting at a picnic bench at a Lake Tahoe campground, I looked around at some of the couples listening to a tribute band and realized that many of them were actually “re-couples.” They had parted ways with their previous significant others, were charting unknown waters with new love interests and were not overly concerned that their relationships would capsize. The only thing different about Pete and me was a shared history. That bond, I suddenly understood, was not a debit. It was our greatest asset. I turned to him and said, “OK. I think we should get back together.” Four months and six days later, he proposed by the soft lights of the Christmas tree as Mom, our children and our grandchildren watched through misty eyes. I kept everyone in suspense for an agonizing 30 seconds or so and said yes.

Mom was elated and joked that she wouldn’t have to break in a new son-in-law. The joke was rooted in the truth, though. She never had to wonder whether Pete would love her or want to live in the same household. We were already a family. She never had to worry that he might be resentful of our close relationship as mother/daughter and caregiver/care receiver. His eyes were wide open. He knew Mom and I were a package deal. He wanted to be with both of us.

Droids Part 2 (4)Our wedding the following August was also the wedding of our son, Jesse, and his fiancé, Hydie. Our dearest relatives and friends gathered in the quaint, little Nevada church, and every member of our immediate family had a part. Jesse and Pete served as each other’s best man. Our daughter, Jenny, was matron of honor for both Hydie and me. Our grandson, Skyler, walked me down the aisle. Our younger grandson, Espen, escorted Mom in her wheelchair to the front of the church, and our son-in-law, Chris, took photographs. During the ceremony, Mom read the same Apache prayer that was recited at our first wedding. That day our whole family was reunited – not just Pete and me.

So this is the story of two droids who long ago in a galaxy far, far away parted ways in search of something that didn’t really exist. Two droids who took years to realize that they already had what they were looking for. Since we put our original rings back on our left hands, we haven’t “tried” to make our second marriage work. As Yoda would say, “Do or do not. There is no try.” So we do. You might say the force is with us these days. You might say that our story is a little like the original Star Wars movie. It had a good first run, but it has become the most popular and highest-grossing film in the franchise under its re-release as A New Hope.