November 02, 2008

A Thief in the Night, Halloween 2008

Happy Halloween

Halloween. I can’t sleep. I toss and turn, the house making more than its usual noises as it settles down, night deepening. Loud creaks, a crack. I picture chunks of it breaking loose and falling clean off. Ker-chunk. The wind begins to pick up. Fans along the top of the house clank. 12:30 a.m. Now 1:00, and I drift in and out, the house still making noises. 1:45. The wind outside pushes against the walls. The bathroom fans clatter. I’m in for it now, I think, and bury my head under my pillow to stifle the racket. Two a.m. Now I’m thinking of the night’s news, a man with a rap sheet two inches thick, breaking into a Seattle home and raping a woman at knife point while her children slept just down the hall.

What’s that?

I lie stark still, breathing hard, listening. I ease the pillow off my head, ears on high alert.

A sliver of light from the hallway lamp comes slanting under my bedroom door and 2:05 glimmers green from the clock by my bed. No, I finally think, it’s just the house, and I close my eyes. Not for long. This time I bolt straight up into a sitting position, staring at the door, heart pounding my ears so hard I can’t hear a thing. And my lungs don’t know what to do. They shiver and shudder in confusion and it hurts. I have to consciously tell them to take turns with in and out. In. Out. That’s better. Another noise… Someone’s in the house!

I don’t even reach for the phone; it’s sitting by my computer in the other room. So stupid. I’m going to be stabbed to death because I forgot the phone. Another noise and I throw off the cover, feet to the floor. Next thing I know I can’t pivot the doorknob key into lock! And my hands are shaking so badly I fear I’ll rattle the door in its frame. Hey you out there! Come get me! I might as well shout. Which way does the lock turn? Right? Left? Just as it clicks into place I hear footfall on the other side.

I freeze. Just for a moment. Then I’m across the room, grappling the lazy roll-up blind. Too loud. Half-heartedly, the blind at last gives me about eighteen inches. Good enough. I reach under, flip the window lock. Too loud! Every noise I make is going full blast. The window slides open with a trombone sigh. What, what? The screen? How do I get the screen out? I claw at the corner. Too loud too loud!! A loud snap, tooooo loud. The screen falls into the night. Now I’m trying to swing my legs out and over the sill, fighting the blind with more noise than a coop of hens all aflutter. I perch, one butt cheek in, one out, bare legs dangling in the wind. I hesitate. Maybe it’s just my imagination. And if I drop, I can’t get back in. And I’ll look pretty damn silly running around the neighborhood in bare feet and wearing only a short summer nightgown.

The rush and roar of my heart deafens me, pounding harder and faster than it ever has on a treadmill. Who needs a half hour of misery three times a week when all they need is someone to break into their house to give their heart a workout? I smell the sea. The tide’s in, the wind just right…a rare combination. Or maybe it’s just the salt in the sweat of my fear? All this darts through my head in a fraction of a second, whole thoughts, questions raised, curiosity up and sniffing like a chipmunk at its door while I remain dangling in terror half in, half out my window, straining, straining, straining to hear. Oprah of course would tell me to get the heck out of Dodge but I hang there.

I can see the slant of light under my door. If a shadow crosses, I’ll know. But then more noise and I drop, heavy as a brick, and land right on the screen, torking it out of shape. I’ve done this to a screen once before, at the old house. Dad had to fix it for me. There’s no one to fix this one, Dad’s dead, and a rush of loneliness rushes out of nowhere and takes me almost to my knees in sick fear. Dad! Dad! Tell me what to do!

I glance quickly down the narrow aisle of my side yard. I can dart in behind the rhodendrons, ease through the arbor vitae, then vault the floppy fish netting I’ve stapled behind them and land in the field behind the house. But what if I somehow get stuck in the netting, like Peter Rabbit? To say nothing of having to first tiptoe barefoot through the entire neighborhood’s unwanted cat poop! And once in the field? What then? Race over hay-stubble in my bare feet under full light of the moon? And to where? A single glance out a back window will give me away. Whoever’s in my house might--might?--have a gun and blow me to smithereens.

I glance the other direction, up to the front of the house. I dash for the gate. Shivering, trembling so badly I can hardly grasp the latch, I gratefully find it undone. The gate swings away noiselessly, but then collides with the gravel on the other side. Too loud! I give the gate a shove. The gravel grates, everything amplified. I squeeze around. Three steps. My feet find the brick I laid last summer. Just to my right is the garage. Tucked along the wall and beside the garbage can is a stump my dad made for my watering can. If I had my phone I could sit here in the shadow of garage and garbage, and call 9-1-1. But no phone. I have to get to a neighbor’s. Any instant the intruder will break into my bedroom and know I’ve flown the coop.

Do I go Lori’s? My neighbor on the other side of my house? But her porch lights will be on. One look out my kitchen window and the intruder has me in his sites. Who will get to me first? The guy with the knife, or Lori, wondering why someone’s ringing her bell in the middle of the night?

I sure as shooting ain’t going down to the mean Lori’s house. Down the street the opposite direction. Once-upon-a-time my boss, she replaced me in July with a twenty-year-old. I won’t get over the discrimination for a long time. Russell’s? I wonder. Across the cultesac? The scent of the sea is suddenly eclipsed by the garbage and I stagger forward, to the end of the garage and drive. What?

A car sits bold as you please in my driveway. I shrink back quickly and cozy up to the garbage can. Is someone at the wheel? Waiting for the guy inside to make his haul and come flying out for a quick getaway? I ease forward, thinking that the good Lori’s porch light might be bright enough for me to see. Yes, and no one’s in the car. Wait. . . Blake’s car? As in Blake, my twenty-eight-year-old son? Is that his car?

I dart quickly across the drive, past the face of my house and front porch. The accountant lamp on Grandpa’s desk, a warm glow behind the Venetian blinds, suddenly goes out. I plunge around the porch and gain the far side of the house.

The side windows are all over my head. No one inside is going to spot me while I work my way down to the back yard. But to where? Why? I’m losing all sense of rational thinking and I freeze at the back deck, mind paralyzed. Really, I can’t go up and peer through the glass doors to see if it’s Blake! How asinine is that? What if it isn’t? I have to find out if it’s Blake’s car. I have to. How?

I head back up to the front.

I’m passing the living room window when the wooden blinds above my head rattle. I jump a mile. Truly. I look up. Maybe it is Blake! A burglar, a murderer, wouldn’t be rattling the blinds. Would they? Or maybe they know by now I’m out here. My heart goes into overdrive. I cough on the pain in my chest and stumble forward, pause at the porch, car in full sight.

It looks like Blake’s car. Ah! I suddenly remember he’d been vandalized, that his radio has been stolen. I glance at my front window, where the accountant light is out. All is quiet. Very dark. No one is peering through the slats. I race to the car, peek in through the driver’s side. Oh my gosh, a gaping hole in the dashboard!

The relief is so profound and so swift my innards go warm and liquid and I nearly wet myself. True. At the same time I realize my feet are ice, and soaking wet from the grass that needs to be cut one more time before winter sets in. I stumble up the drive, knees so wobbly they’re knocking, stagger up the two cement steps and lean an index finger into the doorbell.

He doesn’t answer.

I use my thumb this time. Twice. Bing bong. Bing bong.

Get up, I say to myself, shivering and shaking and wondering how long I can stand. Then I hear him. He flips on the porch light. I hear him turn the dead bolt. The door swings open three inches. A very puzzled-looking Blake squints through the crack. Suddenly recognition lightens his eyes and, hand to his head and stepping back a bit, he says, “What the…”

“What are doing in my house?” I demand.

“What are you doing out there!”

“Someone broke in and I jumped out the window!”

“You jumped out the window?”

He let me in.

Of course I’m locked out of my bedroom. He has to go out and around and scramble up through the window. I try not to think of the damaged screen.

“How could you do this to me?” I demand when he sheepishly lets me into my own bedroom.

“I e-mailed you! I told you I might be staying over!”

“You didn’t e-mail me!”

“I did!”

I head for the computer, fire up Firefox. He’s laughing in the doorway and says: “When the doorbell rang and I’m wondering who might be calling? I never, ever, in my wildest dreams figured on finding my mother standing out there!”

And there’s his e-mail. i may sleep at your place tonight on the way back from vancouver, so if you hear a noise in the middle of the night don't be alarmed.

Who said better late than never?

I hear him wandering back to the living room and sofa. “This’ll be a funny story in the morning!” he calls over his shoulder. “We can have a lot of fun with this one!”

I kill Firefox. It blinks out. I trail Blake. “It would be a whole lot funnier if I’d had my phone and called the cops on you.”

“It would,” he agrees.

I turn back to my room. Gosh, that would have been funny!

“Someone needs to get you a tazer!” he hollers.

So guess what’s on my Christmas list. Happy Halloween, everyone!

August 15, 2008

Good-bye, Heather

She’d been born to die, my little sister, a gift wrapped in grief. Grief I first experienced through my mother, a stranger who came from the hospital without our baby. She wore my mother’s bathrobe and mindlessly she turned in her fingers the large shiny black buttons I loved. Who was this woman? Listless, she sat on the kitchen sofa, eyes puffy from crying, heedless to the growing collection of family and friends. They swarmed around her, fuss-clucking and full of God-words. She didn’t respond. Her Aunt Grace, our great-auntie, fixed supper. Joan, our boarder, set the table. Where was Heather?

My father explained. Mum had been dressing her to come home and was talking to my uncle, a resident at Vancouver General, when Heather went blue. Uncle Stan through quick thinking had saved her life. For now. But she was not expected to live.

One by one people took their leave. Aunt Grace said dinner was ready but Mum shook her head no and her plate was cleared away without comment. Dad lifted me into my high yellow chair and scooted me in. He did the same for Linda and Tresa. Seven, six, and just-about-five, me in the middle, I stared at our reflections in the large plate glass window on the other side of the table, wondering if the glass might fall in from the weight of sadness pressing against the house. Unable to eat, I pushed the food around on my plate. Dad finally cornered off some mashed potatoes, told me to eat this little bit, and I could be excused. “Leave her be,” said Mum and I burst into tears.

But it was the grief, like sunlight through stained glass, which made Heather’s fragile life so lovely. And how we loved her, my other sisters and I. The first eighteen months of her life Linda, Tresa and I only knew her only through hushed whispers and diagrams Mum drew of Heather’s heart with its all-but-missing wall between the two ventricles. The right ventricle, she explained to us is where the tired, used up blood, having run its course through our arms and legs, came in to receive more oxygen from our lungs. The left ventricle, she said, is where the refreshed blood got ready to sprint back out. But with a gaping hole between the two halves, Heather’s blood got all sloshed together. Her heart had to work twice as hard and still she’d never have enough oxygen to make her strong.

The doctors, Mum said, predicted she’d died within days. If not, then weeks. If by some miracle she defied all odds maybe, maybe, a few months. There was a good chance she'd never learn to speak, sit up. Or walk. Chances were good she’d slip into a vegetative state, her brain starving for oxygen. But when they brought her home eighteen months later, after her second open-heart surgery and not expected to survive the trip, one look at this frail little sister, so weak and so blue, and looking for all the world like me, my terrible grief eclipsed into magical wonder. God had hung a smile from the stars.

For a long time we were not allowed into our parents’ room where Dad set up Heather’s crib under an oxygen tent. Exceptions were made if we donned surgical masks and scrubbed our hands about raw with a huge yellow bar of Fels Naptha. We didn’t mind; we could kill her with germs we didn’t know we had. We could, however, peek through the door all we wanted. Sometimes I just sat on the cold tile floor and watched. Mum usually had her propped up in a corner of her crib, and Heather amused herself by watching butterflies Mum had made from candy wrappers. They hung from a coat hanger, I think. She also had Aunt Grace’s “Puppydids,” a mink shawl of heads and tails that she’d fallen in love with, and Auntie hadn’t thought twice about letting her keep them. At first, when I softly opened the door lest I startle her and inadvertently kill her, she’d stare at me without movement, but after a few days she smiled, recognizing me, a weak soft smile that came mostly from her eyes. “Hi, Heather,” I’d say. What I meant of course was “I love you.”

Even outside the room we had to be careful, and people criticized my parents for this. It wasn’t fair to burden us big girls with Heather’s uncertain existence. It wasn’t healthy, they admonished, that we had to be quiet once we reached the back corner of the house when coming home from school. It was wrong that our normal pursuits be secondary to death hovering at our door. Who were these people? They went to church. Didn’t Jesus say to think more of others than ourselves?

Heather blossomed in the warm rays of family sunlight. She learned to sit up, to talk, and, delightfully, to sing—a clear sweet voice that floated through the house like bird song at dawn. Mum began taking her outdoors on sunny days and let us push her gently in the baby swing.

When she gave Heather a bath in her bathinette out by the clothesline, sheets drying in the sunshine, we were allowed to pass the soap and help dribble water over her pale blue skin—as delicate and translucent as a poppy open to the sky. It hurt me, though, to see her scars, two zipper-like marks that ran horizontal around her rib cage, one under each arm. I’d distract myself by showing her how to wiggle her fingers in the water and make a splash; and I’d wonder at the courage she possessed.

By two-and-a-half she’d learned to pull herself up and could walk alongside the chesterfield; or, holding onto our fingers, in front of us. How she came by her black patent leather shoes I don’t recall, but the three of us didn’t begrudge her the shoes we had no dream of ever owning for ourselves. And as much as we loathed our Buster Browns—shoes so ugly and uncomfortable we had to stick our feet in an X-ray machine so the salesman could tell if a new pair was too big or too small—we took pleasure in Heather’s good luck. And I admired her for making liars of the doctors. At seven years old and seeing those shoes, I understood that prayer was not a waste of time.

When she turned three, a winter child, Mum pulled out my old blue snowsuit. And while it was Mum or Dad who dressed her, my sisters and I were allowed to mitten her hands. I treasured the sensation of tucking her little fingers into the warmth of mittens I once wore. “Three little kittens, have lost their mittens, and can’t tell where they are,” we’d sing. “Oh, Mama dear, we greatly fear, our mittens we have lost.

“What!” I’d cry, “Lost your mittens! You naughty kittens! You shall have no pie!” and Heather would smile. I lived to see her smile.

She had a bedtime routine. I might be busy doing cutouts, or playing a game with my other sisters, or coloring or reading to myself, but I found comfort in the schedule unfolding around me. Her jammies on, she first had to have her blue may-he-dun, then her pink. Never the reverse. Once Aunt Grace, when visiting, got it backwards; and she feared she might kill Heather for all the distress it caused. We of course sprang to the rescue and explained the error, and if Heather had two doses of Penicillin that night it was better than letting her heart gallop on.

After her mayhedun, she had to be carried about the house, shutting all the cupboards and drawers, everything tucked into its place and put properly to bed. Mum’s canary had to have his cage draped and the counter had to be wiped. Finally, sitting down on the yellow rocking chair before a fire, Mum had to sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” and two verses of “Silent Night.” Once she tried to shorten the routine but Heather cried, “No, no, shepherd’s cake!” It took awhile to figure out, but eventually Mum caught on and settled back in and sang the second verse of the Christmas carol. “…shepherds quake, at the sight.”

The routine was soothing as oil, a serenity that became as much my goodnight schedule as Heather’s. Her stints at the hospital left the house empty and I didn’t sleep well and I rattled around with a hole in my own heart. When she returned, the house filled back up and I shut my eyes at night to a world very much at peace.

In the March after Heather turned three in December, Mum decided to give our new baby a bath in Heather’s old bathinette, brought out from the back bedroom and set up in front of the plate glass window in the kitchen. Heather was feeding herself in the baby table by the fireplace. Mum had just gotten Tim undressed, and he was lying on the bathinette hammock strung over the water, waving his little arms and legs and chewing on his fists, trying to find his thumb, when something slammed with a whack into the window. A rattle and crack and glass flew like rain. A grouse hurtled past me, bounced off the table, glass skittering, and landed, wings slapping the slate, on the raised hearth across the room next to Heather. She nearly came out of her chair, screaming in terror.

Mum darted for Heather so fast she slammed her hip against a chair and nearly tripped over the bird, as big as an owl, now flopping all over the floor and spurting blood. She whisked Heather, screaming, down to the other end of the house, calling at me to do something with the baby while I stared at wee Tim covered in glass shards. Behind me the bird was dying. Would Heather would die? Would the baby blink on glass and go blind? Would he cry and swallow some of it? Don’t let Heather die, God, don’t let the baby move!

Quickly, carefully, I picked at the glass. From around his eyes first, then his mouth, under his chin, his neck. He stared up at me, as still as stone. I worked my way down his little body no bigger than a sugar sack. Don’t let Heather die, don’t let Timmy move. I glanced up at the clock. Five minutes? So many pieces, tiny and large, and still I picked away at the spill. At last Heather’s crying ebbed and the baby I saw, checking him over, had but one wee scratch, on his ear lobe. Just a thin red line of blood. I slowly grew aware that the bird had ceased to stir and I swung around. The poor thing was dead; a heap of feathers, glazed eyes, and blood I couldn’t look at.

A few days later, the feathers and blood mopped up, Mum had Tim sleeping in Heather’s old pram in front of the hearth and warm fire, for it was raining, the drops steadily splattering the large new windowpane. Heather pulled herself up alongside the pram to take a peek inside, then reached for Tim’s hand and tucked a nickel into his palm.

“Look, Mummy. Heather just gave Timmy a nickel!”

She was sewing at the far end of the table. “Where did she get that?”

“I don’t know, but she gave it to Timmy!”

“What a little monkey,” said Mum, mumbling around the pins in her mouth.

Life was so lovely.

One night some time later I awoke from a deep sleep sensing something was wrong. I threw back the covers and crept into the hall. At the far end a sliver of light slipped through the crack at the bottom of my parents’ door. An eerie glow washed over Mum’s well-polished tile floor.

“Daddy? Daddy?”

I sprinted, bare feet cold against the tile, and inched open my parents’ door. He was sitting on the edge of the bed holding Heather, carefully keeping the oxygen mask a few inches from her mouth. She’d always been afraid of it. Put too close, she’d thrash in a panic. Years later, I understood. Rubber suffocates. No knew back then—though Dad didn’t need to. He always held the mask where she needed it, even though precious oxygen escaped. The lesser of two evils.


He looked up.

“May I come in?”

He motioned me to sit beside them. The bed sank a little under my weight. Heather startled. I reached over and took her blue fingers in my own and was happy it calmed her. At the end of the bed, Mum paced. In front of me stood the oxygen tank.

In the terrible tension and rushed tiny gasps of my sister, I became fascinated by the gauge needle slipping closer to the red empty mark. I gave Dad a running commentary. Finally, in uncharacteristic abruptness, he said, “Brenda, it would be better to pray than to chatter.”

I instantly let go of Heather’s hand, shoved both of mine down between my legs and bowed my head in agony. I’d been caught pretending she wasn’t dying. But she was. I did know this. And I knew that if she didn’t regain her breath within minutes, before the precious oxygen was gone, the sun would rise without my sister in its light.

Frantically I prayed. I begged. I watched the needle sink into the red zone, like the spinner in Shoots and Ladders settling on the line between six and one. And I reminded God of the grouse coming through the window and how he’d let her live. Do it again. Please. The hiss of the oxygen tank suddenly sputtered out. I slid my eyes sideways, afraid. But she was asleep, her lovely translucent skin the soft pink of sunlight at dawn.


He looked at me with bone-weary eyes.

“She didn’t die.”

“No, she didn’t,” and he reached with a smile to ruffle my bangs.

She died two months later while I slept.

Did it hurt to die?

“She just went to sleep, and woke up in heaven,” the preacher said that dull day mid-June, 1961, while I stared with stinging eyes at the little white box in front of the church. How did he know she just went to sleep and woke up in heaven? He wasn’t there; no one was there... Her third open-heart surgery and she’d been left alone….

In the tunnels of my mind I could see the slats of her crib slivered through with the low light of night at the hospital. Tucked in, needles sticking her, alone under the canopy of plastic and surrounded by her beads, her Ned the Lonely Donkey which was really mine, her string of red monkeys looped across the crib bars—and her Puppydids, of course, kissing her face while the oxygen pointlessly hissed. Had she cried out? Found no one there? While I slept? God’s smile hung from the stars came crashing down, and I stared at the white box in mounting panic, for I did not know where to find the scattered shards.


The story ends here. I'm 56 now. Heather died 47 years ago, and so I've spent 47 years looking for the scattered shards. A new book I'm reading, Sibling Loss, explains why. At nine years old I did not have the psychological development to create closure for death. And so the years have passed, her death never finalized in my mind. Writing about her is a way of bringing closure, of saying good-bye, of telling her I love her, miss her, and still weep for her.

And while I've spent my life searching for that lost connection I couldn't close, I am ever so grateful to my mum and dad for allowing my other sisters and I the eye-witness access to the fragility of life and it's exquisite beauty when reflected so clearly through the terrible prism of suffering. My little sister was a child of great courage, and even greater love, an offering she gave freely to all who knew her. Nearly half a century later she is an enduring blossom, and I still breathe the lingering fragrance of her life so well lived. I can catch the scent.

Good-bye, Heather.

August 04, 2008

A Date With David Denny

As some of you know, I often joke that I left my husband twenty-five years or more ago because I'd fallen in love with David Denny, founder of Seattle. Actually, I don't think it's all that funny. My love affair with the most profound man I've ever had the pleasure of getting to know has never wavered, and so you can imagine my delight when I learned a friend at my former job is one of David's great grandsons. And he has an old trunk full of manuscripts, photographs, letters, artifacts! Oh, my lucky day!

David's Trunk
And so I spent Saturday immersed in history, happy as a clam.

Very quickly, 19-year-old David and a pal he met on the road west landed at what is now Freeport Point, West Seattle, on September 24, 1851. The next day they explored up the Duwamish River, came back down, and around the West Seattle peninsula. Here they met Chief Seattle and a hundred braves along a stretch of sand that is now called Alki Point. David decided to build a city here. He dashed off a note to his sick brother in Portland, "Come at once, there's room for 1,000 settlers," and sent Charley Terry back down to Portland with it. He, with the help of Seattle's men, built the first cabin in what is now Seattle. The rest, as they say, is history.

You can of course read the whole story in my six books on David and Loui(z)a. Here I'm just going to introduce you to some of the material my friend graciously allowed me to see--much of which he allowed me to take home--including one of David's Bibles, some newspapers 120 years old, envelopes and letters, old diaries, handwritten manuscripts...

Here are some of my favorite things:

David's Bible.
What tops the list is of course David's Bible. He is one of the few men I know who lived his life as the Christian he professed to be--to the point of losing more than $3,000,000 during the recession of 1893. His brother Arthur begged that David shut down his many ventures, but David refused, saying that he could not put 100 men out of work. He could not let 100 families starve. And so he mortgaged everything, trying to stay afloat long enough to ride out the recession. He lost. By the time his brother's bank, no longer owned, however, by Arthur, was through with him, David was left with less than 25 cents to his name. He never recovered financially. He died poorer than when he arrived at nineteen years old. But he died with a reputation more valuable than gold.

The front flyleaf has his signature, dated Jan 18 - 1900. On the opposite flyleaf, Laurie has written: "Grandpa died at 3.36 Wed morning of Nov 25, 1903. Those present were Grandma Denny and Mother, Jon, Zeo, Inez, and Winnie. William & myself. [Added in ink is Zick Use, Indian.] Grandma held his hand as he passed away. The battle is over and Grandpa has the victory."

Letter from A.A. Denny to Rev. Bagley
This letter was actually written to a cousin of some kind of mine--Reverend Daniel Bagley, father of Clarence Bagely, a Seattle historian.

The letter is penned by Arthur from Washington D.C. where, as one of Washington's first Representatives, he was trying to secure the appropriation for Washington's university. The appropriation was important because having the university would put Seattle on the map and secure her position as the leading city in the Northwest. Arthur is, however, discouraged. He doubts he can secure the appropriation and allotted $40,000 "this time around."

But Arthur did pull it off, despite his discouragement. We owe the reality of the University of Washington to him.

David's Matches:
These are some of David's matches. I was amazed to see how they were made and packaged, almost the size of toothpicks, stuck together. And I thought today's matches were a bit dicey--always breaking!

David and Louisa's Glue Pot
This is David and Loui[z]a's glue pot. It looks like a double boiler, where water was boiled to soften the glue in the interior "pot." A pot similar to this, only larger, is what burned Seattle to the ground in 1889. The glue bubbled over and burst into flame. I think 66 blocks of downtown Seattle were reduced to rubble. Arthur actually got richer with this disaster. He and a buddy owned a brick company and a law was passed that downtown buildings and roads had to be built of bricks. If you go to a reading in the basement of Elliott Bay Books, you'll see the bricks.

Frying Pan w/Painting of a Cabin
The handle is broken off this frying pan. Still, you wouldn't want fry an egg in it. Someone's painted a log cabin on the bottom. It looks suspiciously like the first cabin built in what is now downtown Seattle, the foundation of which was laid by Loui[z]a and her sister-in-law.

It could well be the "honeymoon" cabin, or the cabin built up in the Swale where the Seattle Center is.

The artist is not identified but David and Loui[z]a's eldest daughter was a prolific painter.

Anna's Letters
The letters found in an envelope bearing the image of David Denny's Electric Railway Company and bound with a ribbon, contained letters to his daughter Anna from a lover I did not know she had. She and her Dad had gone back east, to New York, in 1888. Here she died of a sudden illness and David had the sad task of bringing her back in a coffin on the transcontinental railroad. In all of my research I never came across the fact that she was deeply in love, and to read these letters can bring tears to your eye, knowing that this young man would never see her again.

Louisa's Sweetbriar
David's step-sister and sweetheart, Loui[z]a Boren, brought sweetbriar seeds from Cherry Grove, Illinois, in 1851 as a tryst between herself and her best friend, Pamelia. Every July, when the flowers blossomed and grew, these clustered wild roses would remind Loui[z]a and Pamelia that they were never really apart.

The sweetbriar grew and spread and the early Seattle pioneers called Loui[z]a the Sweetbriar Bride. I conclude with a picture of her sweetbriar growing up and around my front porch. I am fortunate. The women in Cherry Grove, Illinois, pulled it up by the roots from her farm and gave it to me when I went back to speak to their historical society a few years ago. After three years of coaxing, it finally bloomed!

The inset is a picture of David, Loui[z]a, and their eldest two children--Inez and Madge. In all they had four girls and four boys. Madge died as a young girl in a flu epidemic, as did Anna while back east. Jon's twin died a few hours after birth. The family history is the story of Seattle, and I am grateful to know some of their descendants.

So many things in David Denny's trunk. . .

Merci beaucoup, Theron!

July 28, 2008

Blake Snyder and Screenwriters

I just spent a weekend with a handful of screenwriters and Blake Snynder, one of Hollywood's most successful spec screenwriters. Not that I want to write a screen play. I needed help structuring Temper the Wind, a story that's been in my head for more than ten years and which won first place in this year's PNWA's literary contest. But which is, did I say? stuck in my head? Stuck like Pooh in Rabbit's Hole?

Blake started out burying the title--not "killer" enough.

Then he and the others pushed and pulled and tossed out the trans-fat of all my old ideas and dieted me instead on new ideas. Weird ideas.

We ended up with a completely different story. But, hey, I'm no longer stuck.

This is Blake Snyder.

BTW: If you're a story teller? Get the book. And his blog is to your right, should you want to learn more about his 15 beats.

May 11, 2008

This year we celebrate 100 years of Mother's Day--started by Anna Jarvis. Following her mother's death in 1905, Anna bombarded politicians, business men, and religious leaders, urging them to create a special day to honor mothers for their devotion, sacrifice, and skills. She had some pretty strict ideas of how this was to be done.

1. It was to be a holy day, not a holiday;
2. it was to be a singular possessive because we have just one mother;
3. it's to be celebrated with a single white carnation and a love letter, telling our moms why we love and appreciate them;
4. and it's be held the second Sunday of every May because it's the anniversary of her own mother's death.
5. It was not to be commercialized.

Three years after Mrs. Javis's death, in 1908, the very first celebration was held at her old church in Grafton, PA. In memory of her mother, Anna distributed 500 white carnations. In 1913 President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Mother's Day a national holiday and the rest, as they say, is history.

Actually, Anna Jarvis spent the rest of her life fighting the commercialization of Mother's Day. She deplored the profiteering and elaborate gifts--so far removed from the single carnation and personal letter she envisioned. When I read of her distress? And when I thought about how best to celebrate Mother's Day this year? One plus one equals two, even I know that. So this, my friends, is my love letter to Mum--Shirley Elizabeth Goodfellow Wilbee.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mum!

One of my earliest memories of you takes us back to Wheaton, a thunderstorm, the three of us girls no more than 1, 2, and 3 years old in a long, thin bedroom on a second story, with a window, maybe two, looking down to the backyard. We’d been put to bed, I think, before the storm blew in. My memory opens to the darkness, the terrible Midwest heat, the mugginess, the sound of heavy rain, ozone in the air, flashes of lightning. All three of us were crying.

I have an image of Tresa standing in her crib, but this may be borrowed from one of Dad’s home movies. What I remember for sure is the three of us crying, sticky hot, and scared by the charged atmosphere. You came up with some candles and set them around the room. You also brought up a cool face cloth and wiped our faces and hands and put clean sheets on our cribs and laid us back down with our blankies. Then you pulled up a chair and started to sing.

You sang several songs, a welcomed oasis from the howling storm outside and beastly heat inside. The song I remember is “A Wise Man Builds His House Upon The Rocks.” You taught us the hand motions, and this probably got our minds off our fear and discomfort. I remember laying on my fresh new sheet, enchanted by the play of the candle-lit shadows on the walls and the lightning flashes that momentarily overpowered them. And your voice lifting over the sound of the thunder outdoors and the rain bouncing off the window frames and glass.

Miss Peacock in Port Coquitlam used to have us sing “A Wise Man Builds His House Upon the Rocks” at Southside Baptist. We’d do the hand motions and I always thought of that night in Wheaton. Perhaps it was Miss Peacock that kept the memory alive. If so, I’m grateful. It’s a wonderful memory, and still comes to mind when the air is electrically charged and the smell of ozone is thick.

Thanks for this and other memories, and for always doing everything in your power to make us physically comfortable amidst trying circumstances. You had, and have, a gift for that.

Love, Brenda

May 01, 2008

May Day!


Have you ever wondered about the origins of May Day?

In Port Coquitlam where I grew up, grade two youngsters put on the annual "May Pole" dance for our community. Every day for two weeks in 1960, at James Park Elementary, my classmates and I practiced dancing around our May Pole, boys and girls arbitrarily paired off and put through the confusion of complicated and intricate steps around our pole, all the while holding one end of twenty-four ribbons attached to its crown. What I remember most is having to hold hands with Barry Litzenburger--and hating it to the point of nausea--and Mrs. Dandrea's unrelenting patience as she untangled us over and over again from our ribbons.

She had a little record player set up on the girls' lawn and it seemed she was always lifting and resetting the needle so she could physically move into our web and extricate us from ourselves. Once we got it, though? Euphoria. I didn't even mind Barry anymore--I was so happy skipping and high-stepping my way around and around and in and out and sometimes swirling around the other way altogether--opposite the boys.

On May Day itself school was let out and everyone gathered at the civic field where numerous beribboned poles had been strategically scattered. I was taken by surprise by the sheer festivity of the transformed green. The energy was high. Music skirled over the PA system. I suspect my grandparents came out from Delta. I was all dolled up in my hand-me-down dress from Jean Dickson--a lovely dress with lace on the Peter Pan collar and black velvet ribbons; and I thought myself quite a doll (if you didn't count the boys' haircut!), about as close to a princess as I knew I would ever get.

If you look at the picture? You can see by Barry's body language that he was about as enamored with me as I with him.

But never once, at least so far as I can recall, do I ever remember being taught what the holiday meant.

Have you ever wondered?

Mayday and May Day are two different terms. One originates in France from the idiom venez m'aide--come to help me. The other is a holiday.

Mayday we all know. May Day is less familiar. Nonetheless, May Day on May 1st is a well-known holiday throughout the world--celebrated for a variety of, but related, reasons. it began as a pagan festivity throughout Europe, is a celebration of spring's arrival, and marks international victory for organized labor. In many countries, May Day is a national holiday.

May Day is rooted in prehistory and appears to have flourished with startling similarities everywhere. Written records show that in India and Egypt the first of May was always a festival celebrating spring. In Italy, the Romans celebrated Flora, goddess of spring flowers and fertility. One of our earliest origins was the Celtic and Saxon holiday celebrating spring's first planting. This spring festivity was dedicated to the blazing fire god Bel, whose nurturing heat and light brings into fruition the planted seed.

Beltane festivities began the eve before with games and feasting to officially mark the end of winter, the return of the sun, and fertility of the soil; and it culminated with torch-bearing peasants winding their way up the hills. Sun going down, they ignited huge wooden wheels, turned them loose and sent them rolling--ablaze--down into the fields below.

When the Romans conquered Great Britain during the first century they brought their six-day Floralia Festival--celebrated from April 28 to May 3. Their rituals were added to the old, and in time revelers across Europe began donning animal masks and costumes similar to our modern-day Halloween. By the Middle Ages, English couples decorated their bodies and braided their hair with flowers and went out to the countryside on the eve of May Day to go "a-maying"--a night of unbridled love making. Older married couples were even allowed to remove their wedding rings (and the restrictions they imply) for this one night. In the morning all returned home, gathering greenery and flowers and stopping off along the way to leave bouquets at neighbors' homes. Remnants of this tradition can be seen in the dwindling few who still collect flowers and leave anonymous may baskets on neighbors' doorsteps.

Every English village also had its Maypole, a phallic symbol of fertility decorated with greenery and flowers--fertility in fruition. Bringing in the May Pole was a collective, happy venture. On April 30th the young men chopped down the tree, lopped off its branches, leaving a few at the top. Neighboring villages vied for the stoutest, the tallest, and these were carried into towns amidst blowing horns and flutes and then "planted." Villagers wrapped their trees in violets, very much like the figure of Rome's ancient god Attis who, during Floralia Festivities, was carried in procession to Cybele's temple on Rome's Palatine Hill. In England, after the night of "merrymaking" in the greenwood, villagers kicked up their heels around their poles. Ribbons were added. Single men and women took up the loose ends to weave in and out in complicated steps, around and around the pole, sometimes in opposite direction, until the couples became short-leashed and entwined with (hoped for) new love. The May Pole? Encased in an elaborated braided sheath.

The goddess Flora, however, eventually became passe, and it was Diana, goddess of the hunt and Herne, horned god of the hunt, who sent the revelers shouting and singing up into the hills. The traditional wheels, set ablaze and rolled afire downhill, eventually developed into central village bonfires. Related rituals included driving cattle between the fires in order to purify them; sweethearts dancing through the smoke in order to see good luck; and burning witches in effigy. In Germany, at least, witches were believed to meet with the devil on the eve of May 1st--on the Brocken peak. The night became known as Night of the Witches and was dramatized by Goethe in Faust.

A tradition that emerged from this dark side of the holiday was the Beltane cake, cooked on the hot stones surrounding the bonfires. Whoever drew a sooty piece3e became the "carline" and was subject to a mock execution. When ovens came along, the unlucky person to drawn a blackened piece had only to jump over a fire three times.

But just as Flora was supplanted by Herne and Diana, Herne and Diana were in time overshadowed by England's Robin Goodfellow, predecessor of Robin Hood/the Green Man. The morphing of this tradition pops up in DC Comics and TV's Smallville. The goddess was eclipsed when villagers and guildsmen started electing eligible maidens from their communities to take over the guardianship of the crops until harvest--and it's not difficult to draw the correlation between "Queen of the may" and our beauty pageants.

The popularity and pagan pull of the holiday everywhere prompted the Medieval Catholic Church to outlaw Beltane--to no avail. The pope resorted to turning this pagan holiday into one that instead commemorated St. Walpurgis--a female saint who helped St. Boniface Christianize 8th-century Germany. Alas. Europe's Night of the Witches simply became known as "Walpurgisnacht."

The church's influence was not completely cast aside, however. Various trade guilds in Medieval England and across Europe began incorporating the patron saints of their craft into their pagan celebrations. Cobblers honored St. Crispin; tailors, Adam and Eve. Well into the late 18th century these trade societies and early craft unions were still entering floats in local parades--St. Crispin blessing the shoemakers, tailors fitting fig-clad Adam and Eve stand-ins. In 1644, the Puritan Parliament out-and-out outlawed May Day, but the May Pole simply became the Liberty Tree. In France, it actually became a symbol for the French Revolution.

Medieval trade societies evolved into guilds, guilds into unions. And on May 1st, 1866, the US Labor Movement began. From the Atlantic to Pacific, unions went on solidarity strikes, demanding that the standard twelve-hour-plus workday be shortened to eight.

The fight was long and violent, but eventually--at terrible cost--the eight-hour day was won. Labor leaders all over the world took this as a rallying point, and in 1889, in Paris, the International Working Men's Association declared May 1st an international working class holiday in commemoration of the martyrs to the cause, and as a solidarity date for demonstrations, parades, and speeches. It is now a major state holiday in several counties, with its own red flag to symbolize the blood of the working class in their historical and worldwide battle for rights.

Numerous attempts by the church and state have been made to uproot all aspects of May Day--redefining it as a religious holiday to executing political martyrs. During the cold war, Russia took a dim view of labor rights but made a big to-doo over the working class "happily" striving for the better good of all. Pope Pius XII in 1955 redefined the day as St. Joseph the Worker. Eisenhower, in 1958, designated May Day as Law and Loyalty Day. Such on-going attempts to recreate the old pagan holidays as a religious and patriotic one has, it seems, finally succeeded in undermining the old glory of May Day. Most of us have never really fully understood it raucous roots or historic value--or its symbol of hope.

Perhaps May Day, 2008, is as good a day as any to return to our collective roots and celebrate Spring's arrival. Why not? It's been a long winter--at least in the Pacific Northwest. And perhaps it's as good a day as any to be thankful for our eight-hour workday--and to think of those who do not yet experience human rights in the workplace. From the sex trade to free trade--universal battle is not yet won. In American and around the world many still (or once again) futilely whisper "mayday"--venez m'aide, come to my aid. Truly May Day is a holiday to reclaim, to celebrate...and to use as common ground for the common good of all.

As for me, right now, I have to put the finishing touches on my youngest son's birthday cake. He was born on May Day twenty-eight years ago and I made him a Beltane cake this afternoon. Oatmeal, ginger, cloves, cinnamon. How many great grandfathers ago did his ancestors celebrate this day with Beltane cakes around a roaring fire in the villages of Scotland?

Happy Birthday, Blake. And for everyone else, Happy May Day!

PS. If you want the recipe for this delicious May Day/Beltane cake, let me know. It's easy to make and deeeelicious. And don't forget to tell your May Day heritage stories. I'd love to hear from you. bw

February 29, 2008

Kay Dee: Guest

My friend Kay Dee sent me the following narrative in response to "In Love," which you can read after you read this (or before--just toodle on down to the next posting).

Kay Dee's snort-through-your-nose and split-your-gut narrative of her own skiing experience is so funny I just had to ask if others could read it. You can't help but enjoy my friend.

My Skiing Career
by Kay Dee Powell

Before we married, Bud used to drive ski buses in Colorado, so he skied every winter. We didn’t have a flake of snow in south Texas, but I used to be fairly proficient at water skiing as a kid, so I figured snow skiing would be rather similar. Our first opportunity to go skiing was about a year after we were married.

Bud had all the equipment, but I had to rent skis, boots, and poles. I didn’t have ski pants, so I scotch guarded some red knit pants to wear. My only real investment was a pair of thick red wool socks. I hate to have cold feet, so I splurged. I don’t remember the cost of the lift tickets or baby sitting. We didn’t have much extra money, so our ski trip was quite an extravagance for us.

We headed for Dodge Ridge in the Sierras. I was plenty nervous, but Bud assured me it was easy and fun. He said it was important to get my boots tight, so he laced mine so tight I could hardly walk. That was supposed to be good for my ankles. He then got me on my skis, pointed me toward the bunny slope, and that’s the last I saw of him.

I didn’t have the vaguest idea what to do, so I watched the other beginners. They got their skis uncrossed and grabbed the rope tow. I fell a few times trying to get to it, but I finally managed to hang on. Up, up we went to the top of the bunny hill. Then what? I hadn’t figured out how to walk in those darned long skis yet. I released the rope tow and took about two steps. Then down I went, backwards, ending in a pile of snow. Eventually I tumbled, fell, and skied backwards down the slope. The next trip had the same results. Every time I tried to “walk” my skis around, I only got half-way, and down I went. The third time I managed to fall on the other side of the rope tow, so I tried to step over the rope to get back. Straddling the rope, I saw a bunch of skiers holding the rope, heading toward me. “Get her out of here!” I heard one say, just before they all plowed into me like dominoes.

I actually got my skis pointed in the right direction once or twice and went like a bat out of hell for a short time before I fell on my fanny and slid the rest of the way in that position. After several other equally unsuccessful attempts at skiing down the beginner’s hill I was soaking wet, frozen, and my ankles were killing me. I thought to myself, “Who said skiing was fun?”

I took off my skis and limped toward the lodge where I sat shivering and alone at a table, sipping hot chocolate. I overheard some ski bums talking at the next table. “Hey did you see that girl in the red pants who kept skiing down the hill backwards?” They had a good laugh while I slunk lower in my chair and decided the torture wasn’t worth it; I was through for the day. I loosened the shoestrings on my boots and took them off. Bud had laced them so tightly that they actually wore a hole through the tops of my thick red socks. And you should have seen my ankles. They were swollen and already starting to bruise!

Bud eventually returned after a fabulous day of skiing. When I told him my tale of woe, he said the best thing for me was to come again the next week. Get back on that horse, you know. Oh joy…it was like looking forward to my own hanging.

I hobbled around on my swollen ankles all week, dreading the next weekend. More money, more pain and misery…when would the sport and enjoyment begin? We drove back to the same spot the next weekend, and wonder of wonders, there were no skis left to rent! I took this as a definite sign from God and thanked Him from my heart. I retired from skiing that day, and I never looked back. Thus endeth my skiing career.


In Love

I'm in love. I was forty when I learned how to ski. Well, okay, thirty-nine, but my friend Peter—who knew I was depressed about turning forty come spring—suggested I think of myself as being forty when I was still thirty-nine. That way, I wouldn’t be in for such a shock when May rolled around. So I was forty for about two years—and in that space of time Peter taught me how to ski.

You don’t become Olympic material when you’re such a late bloomer, but you do get just enough know-how to waltz your way down the easy slopes with nothing but silence and snow. This is elixir for at least my soul. What is it about mountain peaks, powder, blue skies, and sunlight glimmering off turquoise glaciers that stops the frenetic absurdities of the brain? For me, a woman who lives inside her head, the relief is nothing short of a miracle. I escape myself.

This year I treated myself to new skis, long overdue
; and in January my youngest son and I went up for an afternoon trial run. Me to test my skis and knees, he to “limber up.” He'd converted to boarding a long time ago—anyone under the age of 35 up here does. Mt. Baker is the world’s snowboard capital and skiers don’t go up on weekends if they can help it because we’re liable to become someone’s baloney sandwiched between two boards--hopefully without the ketchup. So Blake and I went up on a Friday.

I do have a bit of a problem. Ever since my last car accident , I have little strength in my hands, so it’s difficult, if not impossible sometimes, for me to buckle on and tighten up my ski boots. This proved to be an “impossible” day and so Blake had to help me out. With people milling around us or clumping on by, he got down on one knee to manhandle my boot buckles and knobs, and I flash-backed to Laurentian Lodge--a delightful memory of my father tying on my skates. The winter I was ten we lived at a ski lodge in the Laurentian mountains of French Canada (no, I did not learn to ski then, but I also lived at a horse ranch the summer I was ten and did not learn to ride horses). Back to the lodge. I loved the sensation of Dad tugging on my feet, my foot bouncing up and down a little as he pulled up hard on each lace, working his way up my ankles until at last he did the bow and gave me a smile. I loved the sense of being taken care of, of being loved, of my feet being tucked in snug and tight. Life is good in such moments—time a blur, your dead father and your twenty-seven-year-old son simultaneously wanting to give me a good time.

Blake babysat me for a few runs until I got my “ski legs.” He then toodled up Chair 8 to the summit and over to the Canyon. I stuck with Chair 7 and fell in love with my skis. We went home aching head to toe but satiated with happy exhaustion.

This month Blake’s girlfriend Beth treated all three of us to a day on the mountain, the finest in history. I’ve never seen Baker so beautiful. I managed to get my boots on all by myself, and only had to get Blake to tighten the knobs a few ratchets. Ach, but my first run down I spun around and toppled over backward on the slope coming down into the ski lift basin.

Try as I might, I could not get those lovely skis back on. There I was, balancing on one leg, slapping the snow off the boot of the other, placing my foot just so when…. slip, the ski slip-slid away from me. Over and over. And over. It’s a little humiliating to be in such a fix in plain sight of all. I was doing my best, though, to get my ski back on and block out the humiliation when what should silently appear but a snowboard boot, toe edging up against my ski to keep it from angling off. I looked up. Blake. He’d tromped up the hill to rescue me. He did not say, “You’re embarrassing me down there.” He just gave me a smile that went to his eyes and said, “Try angling your heel more.” Life doesn’t get better.

I’m in love with my skis, my son, my dad, and the snow and silence that envelopes me when I slide off the brand new chair lifts at Baker and waltz down the slope, detouring over to the “armpit” and heading up chair 4 to the “dead tree” run that ain’t dead anymore but alive with new green growth and wearing scarves of lamb's wool snow to keep itself warm.

I slide on by, thrilled with my skis cutting the snow, turning on a wish--delightfully warm in a space of time, mind and soul free.

Blake and me at Sunshine, just outside Banff, AB
Thanksgiving to New Year's, 1999

There is a sad ending to my story. Blake broke his foot last week playing soccer and won't be on the slopes any time soon. I'm on my own, which isn't a bad thing. But I'm sad Blake can't toodle up Chair 8 and then meet me in the lounge for a chocolate chip cookie dunked in hot chocolate. C'est la vie. Oui?