Posted in Today's File

an Anniversary, without a Ribbon

People go to cemeteries to be with the souls of the departed and build private altars…”  ~Wikipedia, Day of the Dead


Today isn’t (quite) el Dia de Los Muertos, but it’s my day to miss someone.  To consider a life that ended unexpectedly a year ago today.  Al had a small altar in my heart already before he died, this flawed, fierce friend whose companionship helped me shape myself in a time of changes.  I’m sad today that I’ll never hear his “Hey, Mama!” when he answered my phone calls, and I’m sad that the laugh I can still hear in my head only plays in my head anymore.

I sent him a text on his birthday last October, but I didn’t pick up when he called me back.  I was coming down from my alcoholic relapse and detox (frankly, it amazes me that his birthday even crossed my mind, as deeply dug into my own shit as I was that week) and wasn’t ready to have a conversation.  I responded to his voicemail with another text, saying I would call him soon when my head was in a better place.  A few days later a traffic accident killed him.  I don’t know whether to kick myself bloody for declining that conversation, or tip God a thank-you note for whatever nudge helped me (improbably) to remember his birthday at all.  I guess since there’s nothing else to be done about it, I’ll go with the latter.

[I don’t know what my face has been doing these last ten minutes, but my husband just observed that I’m pausing at the keyboard more often than I usually do, and asked if I’m okay.  Told him what I’m writing about, or trying to. He and Al never met, but they approved of one another…]

Al lived three thousand miles away–we met at a conference and struck up an email-and-phone companionship in which I wrote him a novel’s-worth of words, and we often spent a couple hours a day on the phone (he’s the reason I invested in an earpiece–I’m generally the most phone-phobic person I know).  He was the only person with whom I shared that I was drinking like an alcoholic, long before friends or family or coworkers knew.  He was a companion–and on a couple occasions, when we met up in different cities, a lover.  I’d been with my first husband since I was nineteen–with that marriage ended, Al was the first person I entrusted with a mid-thirties post-pregnancies view of me.

Al’s funeral (photo from Hawai’i’s

I don’t have any particularly strong “claim” to grief–I wasn’t among the hundreds of people who gathered at Waikiki to scatter his ashes on the waves where he’d raced outrigger canoes.  His death didn’t leave a hole in my daily life, though it still feels “wrong” somehow that I can’t text him with something he’d laugh about…

I’ve written this much, and I’m still trying to think what it is I want to say… about Al? about death? I’m trying to dig out of my heart the reason why it means something to me that today is October 30, and WHAT it means to me.  (There’s the “obvious go-to thought” that Al’s age and my husband’s differed by only a few weeks–that’s still a generation older than I am, but far too young to disappear from people’s lives.  But that doesn’t seem to be what my mind is dwelling on.)  As much as I’d like to tie up my thoughts in tidy little packages with a blog-bow on the top, this isn’t one of those days.  Maybe the reason I’m writing about him today…  is nothing more complicated than the fact that I needed to write about him.  And maybe that’s my own lesson for today: human emotions don’t come packaged in cute little ribbons.

Posted in Today's File

“Honey, out here we pronounce that ‘Iowa’…”

I actually got that response once, from an older lady (you know, probably about the age I am now) at a campground on the east coast, when I responded to her friendly where-ya-from by answering “Idaho.”  Unsure whether a third-grader were allowed to correct a Grownup, I defaulted by abruptly removing myself from the conversation, and the presence of the Idiot Grownup.  A few years later, at a national conference of high-schoolers, I scoffed at some other kids who asked me (entirely in earnest) whether we had electricity or indoor plumbing.

the state's single north-south "highway"

Truth be told, though, I know a few people who live without either–and the public restrooms along some of our roads are hole-in-the-ground outhouses.  For that matter, the single road which connects the northern and southern halves of our state is a windy little affair (often impassable due to rockslides or snow) that might not be deemed worthy of the name “highway” by folks in other regions of the country.

So although I have no wish to feed any stereotypes about a rural state, I do have to observe that there are some admittedly humorous peculiarities to be found here.  Take, for example, the two-week “Spud Break” we had from school every September in eastern Idaho, when the older kids and most of the school staff were needed in the fields for potato harvest.  Or the fact that, when I moved into my first Boise home just half a mile from the capitol building, my next-door-neighbors had a herd of goats in the backyard, while a number of horses pastured just down the street.  Well within city-limits, mind you, in the state’s capital city.  (I’m debating whether to use quotation marks around “city” in that sentence.  If Idaho HAS a city, Boise is it.  I’ll leave it at that.)

My sister and I used to play a “Travel Bingo” game on car trips; it was a scavenger hunt of sorts, setting us to look for items in an ascending hierarchy of difficulty.  But the game must have been manufactured on the East Coast, because the “easy” level included things like a traffic clover-leaf (which we’d never laid eyes on), while the most difficult level included “covered wagon” and “outhouse”…  Not a game designed for Idaho, where the “tractor crossing” sign is commonplace.

My other car-trip memory is my mother attempting to read aloud to us from books by Idaho outdoorsman Pat McManus.  As I wrote to him decades later, when I was setting up an internet chat with the students of my “Idaho Literature” class, my mom would get to such a point of wheezing, choking laughter that she’d have to pass the book to the backseat so one of us could continue the reading.  I still have my treasured copy of “They Shoot Canoes, Don’t They?“–signed by him at a Young Authors’ Conference in my gradeschool years.  If you’re up for some classic Idaho humor, his books will make any fisherman howl with laughter.

live bait vending machine
the Live Bait vending machine in front of our Grocery

With a nod to Jeff Foxworthy (whose Redneck observations are so funny because of the truths behind many of them), I offer the following observations on my home state:  

You may be in Idaho if…

  • The local car dealership offers a free rifle with your new truck-purchase.  (Not joking.)
  • Back-yard-chicken classes are advertised on your street corner.
  • There’s a Live Bait Vending Machine in front of your grocery store.
  • The roadside signs along the highway sport bullet-holes.
  • A man who loses his leg to a thresher buries it in the local cemetery, with the rest of him joining it later.  (Not joking.  You can visit Ben Waldron’s headstone AND his, er, legstone in Samaria ID.)
  • Participants in a mountain-man rendezvous, Indian pow-wow, or cowboy-poetry fiddle-fest are not people “dressing a part.”

When it comes down to it, though, how I REALLY know I’m in Idaho is that people don’t lock their doors, and strangers smile at each other.  (In fact, there’s still a law on the books in Pocatello ID that “a person may not be seen in public without a smile.”)  And on that cheery note, I’ll leave you with a little bit of hard-earned Idaho Wisdom: Don’t squat with your spurs on.

My (quirky) Home State!

Posted in Today's File

Cemetery Census

My sister and I grew up with a shared fascination for cemeteries. We loved “browsing” headstones, intrigued by the family groupings, the ages to which people lived (graveyards are no doubt responsible for my earlier math skills, as well as my “fluency” in Roman numerals), and the given names that were popular at different times.

St Andrews, Scotland. Notice the drainage holes? That’s for “body juices” when the occupants decomposed. Ew.

I confess our fascination was heightened by the eerie idea of bones beneath our feet–though the entrancement did not extend to enthusiasm when faced with our mother’s suggestion that we should pose for a picture in a pair of excavated stone coffins in the churchyard of St Andrews, Scotland. Mother–being Mother–prevailed, but I imagine the photo showing the pair of us sitting as gingerly as if we were ready to jump out of our skins as well as the coffins. To round out the experience, we found the gates locked when we tried to leave at dusk, and our none-too-nimble father had to climb over the wall and find someone to rescue the rest of us from the locked and darkening graveyard. All in all a traumatic evening (or would have been, had our “trauma” not been soothed with ice cream directly afterward)–but even that adventure failed to dim our fascination for cemeteries.

My high school biology class once undertook a “census” of our hometown cemetery, plugging dates into spreadsheets and tracking the spikes in death-rates concurrent with wars and flu epidemics.  It was an exercise in statistical analysis, but brought to light the things that had always intrigued me: the stories lurking in cemeteries.

Yesterday, driving from a doctor appointment (verdict Benign–thank you, God) with a few hours to kill before my next engagement, I passed Boise’s Morris Hill Cemetery and impulsively pulled over for a browse.  Even a drive-through visit tells a lot about Boise’s history; there’s a huge section of Basque names (Boise is the largest center of Basque population outside of Spain), an area marked off for the Ahavath Beth Israel congregation (the oldest operational synagogue west of the Mississippi), a “Chinatown” section (laundries and Chinese gardens along what’s now Chinden Boulevard served Idaho’s early miners), and a heart-rending parcel comprised of dozens of children. (One four-year-old’s headstone here includes a peculiar notation: “James Hong, Korean.” I’m curious what perceived necessity led to the inclusion of that particular footnote.)

As I wandered down an older stretch of headstones, I pulled out my iPad on a whim and began a “census” of my own. No idea what I meant to do with it, but I arrived home later, still wondering about these 150 people I’d “collected.” Some days, Google is my best friend.

There were some locally famous folks in the row (though you wouldn’t know it from their headstones)–names I recognize from Boise’s street-signs, building-lintels, and business.  But it’s more thrilling, somehow, to uncover tidbits about the folks who hadn’t left a lasting public impression…

“Police Gazette” illustration, courtesy of the Idaho Statesman

Allen Webster rode for the Pony Express. Anna Paine remained a “spinster” and taught music.  Robert Nourse was descended from the Rebecca Nurse who hanged at the Salem witch trials.  Della Daly Evanstad is buried between her two husbands, and among offspring from both unions, though at least two of her toddlers are buried near her mining claim at Placerville.  O.D. Brumbaugh, after involvement in some Indian skirmishes near the Silver City mines, donated the remains of Chief Buffalo Horn to the Idaho Historical Society.  (These were returned to the tribe 85 years later.)  Jane Brasie was a noted Southern belle, daughter of a Confederate soldier. “Nif” Sullivan (whose dad called him “Nifty Ed”–a nickname that stuck even to his headstone) owned a candy store, and Ludwig Stephan (whose wife, beside him, was “mail-order” from Bavaria) ran a bakery.  Alice Beaumont was arrested several times, after her husband abandoned her in a mining town with small children, for  “altercations & vulgar language and wielding a knife,” but was released to care for her children.  Her daughter, Bonnie McCarroll, grew up to be a famous rodeo bronc-rider.

So many stories!  And so few of them hinted at by the headstones.  This has me wondering what my own memorial marker might say, when the time comes.  Something properly pious, of course, suitable for a cemetery’s seriousness…

“God has always had my back.

Now he’s got the rest of me as well.”

St. Andrews, Scotland. Creepy place to be locked in.