Tag Archives: losing a parent

The People I Never Really Knew

In spite of their lifelong determination to live surrounded by nature rather than people, my parents attracted a rich variety of friends. When I was growing up the crunching of tires on our gravel road usually signaled a chance to sit in our sunny living room and listen to conversations that I now realize exposed me to experiences and ideas far beyond what most young people encounter. Mountain climbers came from all over the world to see the workshop where some of their favorite climbing gear was made. Grandparents, great aunts, and cousins came from New York, Michigan, and Idaho to spend a few weeks in the fresh air. Our most frequent visitors were the Hanssons and Metcalfs, two families who had met at Antioch College. They brought the world of universities, business, psychiatry, and wildlife management. Colorado’s first state botanist, Hazel Schmoll, ran a guest ranch just down the road from us.Local sheriff Roy Fling and his wife Goldie lived log cabin down the road decorated with white antlers that stood out starkly against the dark wood. They regaled us with tales of mountain rescues and Roy’s efforts to keep the peace as hippies, old mining families, and summer visitors intermingled.

Part of my experience of reflecting on Mother and Dad’s lives has been to realize how fascinating all these people are and how little I know them. As a child I took them all for granted. They fit into the context of my world, but I never wondered about the wholeness of their lives. The first time I realized this was when, in my early twenties, I realized that my Great Aunt Florence, who played a big part in my mother’s upbringing and sometimes brought me presents from her overseas travels, would be a very interesting person to get to know as an adult. I tried to visit her one summer, but she was out of town and she died before I had another chance. The more Mother has shared with me about her, the more I regret not knowing her better.

Today I started to write an entry about my father’s guitar playing. It was family friend Dolores LaChapelle who got him started, and I decided to try to contact her. I remember Dolores as a tall, warm, earthy woman with a long thick braid of hair hanging over her shoulder. She and her son Randy (later known as David) spent a few summers with us in Colorado while her husband Ed followed the ice and snow to Alaska. I also remember visiting them in Alta, Utah in the winter. Their home was a small chalet up the hill across the valley from the ski area and accessible in the snow only by a rope tow. Visits were warm and friendly and permeated with the smell of damp wool and warm ski wax. They had a howitzer on their front porch which Ed used to shoot down potential avalanches before the lifts started up in the morning.  A bit of Internet searching placed these personal memories in the context of three influential lives. Dolores wasn’t just someone who played the guitar and served us hot chocolate when we came in from a day in the snow. She was an internationally known pioneer in powder skiing technique, a scholar, a researcher, and a philosopher. Her husband wasn’t just a guy with a job keeping the ski slopes safe. He was a scientist who studied snow structure and glaciers and a pioneer in the development of the avalanche beacon. And their son Randy/David who was just a kid my age who shared my love of the outdoors when we were growing up made a name for himself as a wilderness guide and writer, following his mother’s deep love of and connection to the earth. And they are all gone. The Internet told me that, too. Dolores died in February, 2007, active until the end. Ed died just a few days after attending her memorial service. David died in the summer of 2009. Just like that, they are all gone, and I will never have a chance to sit and talk to them and get to know them outside the lens of childhood.

All this makes me grateful for the people from my childhood that I have spent time with as an adult. Meg Hansson, an astute businesswoman with a warm heart that welcomed a parade of exchange students into her home when I was young welcomed me into her home when I moved back to Colorado almost fifteen years ago. I call or visit her several times a year and through our conversations I have begun to fill in the context of many lives from my childhood. I have also spent time with Dad’s army buddy Bob Swartz and his wife Dorothy, and Stan and Ginny Boucher, old climbing friends of my parents. The memorial services we held on our old mountain home brought other people from my childhood into my adult life. As I close this entry (guitar playing will have to wait) I remember a promise I made to another family friend that since my last two phone calls to her were to bring the sad news of my parents’ deaths I would call her again just to talk. She lives on the West Coast, so it’s still early enough.


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A reading family, bookplates for inherited books

My parents were avid readers. We read at the table, family members walked with open books from the dining room to the living room, we read while eating popcorn or ice cream sundaes for dessert, and we read in bed until we fell asleep. For us kids, that often meant a flashlight under the covers. My niece, knowing this about her grandparents, asked for some books that they had found interesting. As my brothers and I went through their bookshelves we also found some that other grandchildren or great-grandchildren might like. I placed a book-plate in each book that explains why it was chosen to be passed on. Here is the text of a few of them:

  • In Escapes and Rescues compiled by Margaret C. Scoggin (Knopf, 1960): This book is special because it shows how a Gerry tent played an important pert in saving the lives of some of the climbers of the 1953 American attempt to climb K2, the second highest mountain in the world.
  • In A Treasury of Mountaineering Stories edited by Daniel Talbot (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1954): From the time she was a young girl walking alone across the frozen St. Clair River to Canada to planning a world climbing and biking tour with her husband Gerry, Ann Cunningham loved adventure. The world tour never happened, but other adventures came her way. As this book shows, her appetite for adventure extended to her reading.
  • In Two Under the Indian Sun by Jon and Rumer Godden (Viking, 1966): Ann Cunningham was always fascinated by books about India, both fiction and nonfiction. This book was one that introduced her and her daughter Penny to the author Rumer Godden. Over the years they read and talked about many of Rumer Godden’s books.

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The Empty House

It’s evening now and outside is nature’s quiet slightly punctuated by awakening night birds, and a distant barking dog. Since I arrived on Saturday this house has been filled with talk: making decisions, sharing memories, exclaiming over objects we had forgotten ever existed. Now it is so quiet. David and Jeanne have flown back East to resume their travels for another month or so before returning to work on getting this place ready to sell. Peter is off at a meeting for the evening. Now is the first time I have really experienced the absence of Mother and Dad in this beautiful earth-sheltered freeform concrete dome that they built over the course of thirty years. Yet I am not overwhelmed with grief the way I thought I would be. It feels a bit sad, but the beauty around me is such a legacy to two lives well lived. My greatest hope is that we can find a buyer who will honor this legacy as well as the wonderful couple who now owns the Colorado mountain home that I grew up in.


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Not the First Hike I Expected

On Saturday, May 15, I was just 5 minutes away from leaving for our first TNT group hike when the phone rang. It was my brother Peter, telling me that our father had died early that morning. The news was not unexpected. Dad had had a heart attack a few weeks before and just hadn’t been able to bounce back. At age 88 that’s not surprising. Up until a few days before, though, I had still hoped I would be able to see him on the trip I had planned for right after school was finished. (I am a teacher.) Now I would have to make some decisions about that trip, but the first decision was whether or not to go on this hike. By the time I got off the phone with my brother I was running late for our rendezvous. Did I really want to go hiking with a group of people I hardly knew just after hearing news like this? On the other hand, I really wanted to be an active part of this hiking group, and I already knew I would miss the following week. Besides, going on  a hike was such a fitting way to remember my father, who had in his lifetime invented the ubiquitous spring-loaded drawstring clamp and a variety of other innovations in climbing, skiing, and backpacking gear. Half the families in our country hauled a few generations of kids around the malls and hiking trails in a Gerry Kiddie Carrier, and my father was that Gerry.

So I decided to go. I grabbed a few last-minute things, including the wrong kind of shoes for the muddy hike I was about to experience, and drove off. I had to call partway there to let Zoe, our hiking coach, know that I would be a few minutes late, and why. I finally pulled into the parking lot and joined the group. My decision to go on the hike turned out to be the right one. What a great group of people. Everyone was friendly, sympathetic, and willing to listen to stories about growing up with Gerry. Being able to remember and share in the context of the natural world helped me gather strength for the week ahead.

After hearing that my brother David would arrive at our family home on Wednesday, I decided to continue teaching through Friday, our last student contact day, and leave for Arizona right after school on Friday, taking off the last week of school, which for me would be mostly meetings. That way I could stay ten days before returning to teach summer school. After accomplishing the nearly impossible task of wrapping up my school year in one week instead of two, I drove to Arizona. My brothers and I have been talking and sorting and sharing ever since. As I delve into the boxes and boxes of writing, letters, and documentation of my parents’ lives that I am hauling back to Colorado I will be sharing some of that with you, my readers. I guarantee it will be an interesting story.


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