A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to teach a personal history writing class at an apartment complex for retirees. Even though I’ve taught quite a few composition classes, wrapping my head around the concept of writing a personal history was a daunting one for me. Don’t get me wrong: I love college students, and teaching young adults is invigorating in a way only college profs can really understand. But I knew I’d be talking to folks who’d lived through amazing transformations during their lifetimes. These are the people with truly amazing stories to tell.
Where does a person start writing a personal history, when they’ve lived through infections before antibiotics? A world war? The constant fear of contracting polio? Growing up in a one-room schoolhouse without electricity? The Depression?
I spent some time last week talking to our obituary clerk here at the Herald last week about the importance of history before I went to teach the class. Simon is a thoughtful person, and I knew he’d be able to help me nail it down a little better. He immediately brought up the same old quote that I’d been thinking about (“Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it”), but I persisted. “We can say that history gives us perspective, but what does that really mean?” I asked.
So Simon came up with a great analogy (which I knew he would, which was why I was pestering him). “Well, you’d want an architect to know what all sides of a building will look like before they start to build it, right?” he said.
One of the things we really don’t talk about much is how history drives a sense of gratitude. If you think about it, gratitude almost always springs mainly from knowledge that widens our perspective. And has there ever been a time when gratitude has been such an absolute necessity? Our culture’s current excesses are legendary. Americans feel pressured to consume, even if it means living on credit and ignoring what we’re doing to the environment. We stuff our landfills with perfectly good clothing and other items that our grandparents would have saved and reused many times over. We’re never satisfied with what we have…we always want more, more, more.
I remember some of my dad’s stories about growing up in rural western Kansas. They finally got a toaster (and electricity) when he was in high school. He recalls devouring entire loaves of bread; wolfing down piece after piece after piece of toast. Dad’s mom had died from a ruptured appendix when he was 12 years old, and he’d spent most of his adolescent years riding on a tractor and eating out of cans when he got hungry. I was shocked when I realized that something as ordinary as toast had been absolute ambrosia for him.
Of course when I heard that story, I’d never really given our toaster a second thought. The toaster was, for me—a suburban kid of the 1970s—something that had just always been there on the kitchen counter.
The things I do for this blog. I do happen to love toast for breakfast, even though I’ve always taken it for granted. Sourdough with plenty of butter, thank you.
When I met the nice folks at Orchard Park last week, we talked about breaking up a life history into smaller chunks, and starting out with a story that was life-changing rather than starting out at the very beginning. “Think about it like a puzzle,” I said. “You can work on the individual pieces and then put it all together when you’ve finished…add more to pieces as you go along, and maybe take out some different parts.”
We also talked about the significance of having something to write about. “When you’re a writer, it’s best if you have something to say,” I told the group. “And you guys have a lot to say. ” And then I said (like a real idiot): “You know, sometimes I wish I had been a part of the last generation and lived through something big, like a world war.”
But I was driving home after the class, I thought about how easy it’s been for me to romanticize the past and gloss over the unpleasant parts. I thought about the hardships people in my parents’ and grandparents’ generation went through: burying a treasured young adult daughter during the worldwide Spanish flu epidemic; how my father’s favorite uncle had been lost in the WWII. My dad had something like 17 addresses growing up because Grandpa had to travel to find work during the Depression and the war. My mom remembers wearing dresses made out of flour sacks. And I thought about how easy I’ve had it my entire life, how many opportunities there have been, and how few worries.
So I’d do well to listen carefully to the stories from those who’ve been there, and have my perspective adjusted a bit. History is, after all, a fabulous antidote for pure foolishness—like secretly wishing you’ve lived through harder times.
Besides, I never would have been able to survive in a world without toast.
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This is the time of year all gardeners need a little boost, and one of the most inspiring treats you can give yourself is a ticket to the annual Yakima Area Arboretum’s Garden Tour this weekend. We hear that several of the gardens will be also be featuring artists and plant and garden items for sale…so grab your hat and sunglasses (and your camera) and prepare to have your socks knocked off.
Tour tickets are just $20, and you can purchase a boxed lunch from Evie’s Catering for $10. Check for more details (and how to order online) by clicking here. You can also get tickets from: Cowiche Creek Nursery, Garden Dance, Garden Girl, Inklings Bookshop, Selah’s Helms True Value Hardware and Stein’s ACE Hardware.
“Clark’s Park…” one of the featured gardens on the 2014 Garden Tour. Photo courtesy Yakima Area Arboretum.
The tour will be held both days this year (on both Saturday and Sunday) so you can take your time. One ticket is good for both days (10-4 on Saturday and 12-4 on Sunday) and don’t forget that the proceeds all go to an excellent cause—our fabulous arboretum!
Here are the featured gardens on this self-guided tour. I especially got a kick out of the “We support a 12-step program for rock addicts and plant lovers!” quote from Linda Knutson and Ron Sell. Sounds like I better make sure I meet them, because I have some of the same issues.
A Garden for Our Corvettes
Nancy exclaims, “Earl plants even and I plant ‘abstracts’ which I believe offers brilliant contrasts.”
Nancy & Earl Williams
12705 Douglas Road
The Clark’s Park
“Way before the internet I would study garden design by bringing home stacks and stacks of books from the library,” states Patty.
Chris & Patty Clark
14771 Summitview Extention
The Knutson-Sell Garden
“We support a 12 step program for rock addicts and plant lovers!”
Linda Knutson & Ron Sell
15280 Douglas Road Yakima
Rocky Mountain High
“Rocks, rocks, rocks everywhere we put a shovel to the ground, more rocks!!”
Nelda & Keith Bruner
605 Pioneer Way
Barn Girls Garden
“Hot pepper flakes keep the cats out of our flower beds.”
Cheryl & Ron Miller
12307 Douglas Road
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My beau R. and I were lucky enough to get over to the June Art Fest this year, and we had a fabulous time. The weather was perfect on Saturday morning–sunny, not too warm, and, best of all–not windy. (We noticed the massive weights holding the tents down just in case.)
The event brought back a lot of fond childhood memories for me. My mom was a freelance metals artist for many years, and we’d often be put to work helping her set up her “shop” at different events. For years she had a booth at the “Western Welcome Week” parade in Littleton Colo. where I grew up–my dad, sister and I would watch the parade and then walk downtown to find Mom and her display. I remember a few years she had to be down there by three a.m. to compete with the other artists for a good spot.
R. and I arrived at Chalet Place after going out for breakfast at Waffles Cafe (best French toast in town, by the way) and some of the 21 artists were still setting up, like Bob Fischer.
Bob Fischer putting some final touches on a display
Since R’s father enjoys woodworking as a hobby, R. was naturally drawn to a couple of gorgeous pieces from High Desert Designs. He wound up running over to a nearby ATM so he could buy this dyed piece as well as a gorgeous black walnut vase.
R. enjoyed visiting with Lou Toweill about this blue and green bowl, which now sits on the mantel at our house.
More of Lou’s fine work
And then we were stopped in our tracks by John Barany’s exquisite designs. Carol (who writes the Master Gardener column for Yakima Magazine every month) was pulling booth duty since Bob was busy. We couldn’t stop admiring the colors and range of John’s work. I was really pleased I had the chance to finally meet Carol–like a lot of publications, we often communicate with our writers almost exclusively through email–so it’s lovely to meet the folks who do such great work for us.
The photos really don’t do justice to these pieces. Bob also had an immense bowl on display–Carol remarked that the machine Bob uses for turning his large pieces was made by an engineer in Colorado. There are only a few like it in the U.S.
Some of Gary Moon’s intricate metal work was on display over in the breezeway.
Gary (right) talks about one of his sculptures with visitors.
My handsome beau with one of Gary Moon’s buddies
Naturally Penn O. Shelton (below) was in the mix, as were some other amazing local artists. They enjoy talking to people about how they create their work, and it was clear that everyone was enjoying the day. If you missed it this year, definitely plan to attend next June. Not only is it a lot of fun, but there is something really inspiring about being around creative people who love what they do.
Penn O. Shelton (in blue) talking about her work
R. admires Jane Fassel’s astounding raku (a glaze firing technique) pieces. Jane also creates intricate geometric designs on some of her flat pieces.
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We’re all looking forward to the June Art Fest event at Chalet Place again this year, including Josey Fast, the owner of Oak Hollow Gallery. She’s the organizer again this year, and says that there will be new artists along with former participants to come out and enjoy.
The juried event will be held from 9-5 on Sat., June 14th. The 22 local artists will be displaying their work “all over the grounds,” at Chalet Place, Josey said. “This is really the premier arts festival in the Yakima Valley.” It features local artists selling their own work.
“There will be an opportunity to meet the artists and purchase their work,” she said. There will be a range of art for sale from $15 art cards to works worth many thousands of dollars.
“It’s always fun to have new people in with different work,” Josey said. She’s expecting several hundred people to attend the event. See you there!
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When I’m in a bad mood, a visit to the cemetery always cheers me up.
This is a habit that formed when I used to live near a cemetery in Royal City—our house was just across the field—and whenever I managed to anger the community with some story we’d printed (which was, unfortunately, something that happened on a fairly regular basis), I would walk on over. People in town already thought I was weird, so I didn’t mind the farmers driving by on Road 12 and rubbernecking as they tried to figure out why the newspaper editor was hanging around with dead people again.
Due to the fact I knew so many people in town, I had a lot of insider information about this particular cemetery. I was friends with one of the cemetery district board members, so I knew that the handwritten blueprint for the names and graves was a kept on a battered sheet of posterboard that he slid behind his couch in his living room. I also knew that due to the steep grade of the hill, the cost of being buried in the Royal City Cemetery required the purchase of a concrete crypt to house the coffin…so the coffins wouldn’t shift around underground, like kids sledding downhill in the snow.
But my strongest memory of the cemetery doesn’t stem from one of my solo sojourns, or even one of the funerals I attended there. For Labor Day one year, I was working on a story about people who’d had strange jobs, and someone told me that one of our older local residents had been a pin-setter in a bowling alley when he was growing up. Everyone in town knew that Jack had terminal cancer, so I felt awkward about just popping up at his house to talk to him about a bowling alley job he’d had when he was a kid. But since I couldn’t reach him on the phone, I called his wife (who was a city clerk at the time). She told me that he was likely up mowing the cemetery—a job he’d done with patience and care for many years, climbing on and off the mower dozens of times to gently move graveside mementos aside so the mower wouldn’t chew them up.
So I showed up at the cemetery and interrupted Jack on his riding mower that late August morning. I remember him wincing as he struggled to get down (it would be just a couple of weeks before I would be running a help wanted ad for the cemetery district as they searched for someone else willing to mow and water the grounds). It was a warm day; I remember him wiping the sweat off of his face while he grinned and talked to me about earning 10 cents a night setting bowling pins at a bowling alley in Yakima when he was a kid.
It was a gorgeous morning. The sun was warm on my back and the fresh smell of cut grass rose around us as I took notes and joked around with him. But I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like for Jack. He waved at me as I drove away, already back on top of his mower. We both knew he was toiling in the very cemetery that he’d be resting in just a few months later. When I went to his funeral, I didn’t cry until I wondered whether or not he was thinking about dying the last morning I talked to him. Of course he was, dummy, said a little voice in my head. But Jack had kept a smile on his face that morning, and kept mowing. What else could he have done?
So other than the obvious benefit of quietude, cemeteries have always served to remind me that no matter how crummy my problems are, things could be worse—after all, I could be in the ground without any problems at all. I found myself at the Tahoma Cemetery near my house this week, feeling depressed about a tangled problem that’s mostly tangled from my own doing (which, as you probably know, are the absolute worst kind of tangled problems). But I quickly became engrossed in the way a person’s entire life could be summed up in a few words—or even just one word.
These kinds of stones always make me think about how important it’s been to be a mother…even more important than my own name. It’s certainly been the biggest accomplishment I’ve ever tackled.
Many of the veterans’ graves list their last position along with their name.
I found the headstones with photos especially heart-wrenching. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a big cemetery, and so the use of photos and other permanent colored decorations on the headstones surprised me.
I’ve always wondered about the piano keys on the stone below, since I see it all the time from the road. Now I know that Mr. Weary was a preacher.
Another preacher’s headstone just begs for backstory. He was a laborer for Christ. His wife, on the other hand, “did what she could.”
Some of the headstones have the power to break your heart.
Some of the markers and mementos are quite elaborate.
Others are quite simple.
At some gravesites, there is even a touch of whimsy.
But nothing has as much impact as the veterans’ part of the cemetery.
I suppose on the one hand it’s rather ghoulish of me to take such comfort from visiting a cemetery. But the truth is that we can’t celebrate death without also celebrating what it means to be alive. Just like death, life comes with its own host of issues. I wasn’t able to solve my problem as I walked around with the quail and magpies the other night among the graves. But I’m very glad I have the privilege of having problems.
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