Category Archives: deaths

The difficulty of finding friends

The past six weeks have been one deadline after another, which is my poor excuse for not blogging. I will say that my GoFundMe total is just over $2,000 although it doesn’t look that way on the GFM site. But kind individuals have privately sent contributions (that don’t get 7% taken off of them as happens on the site), so I have enough money – 25% of the total – to at least get started. Thank you, all.

Veeka relaxing in her new mermaid-shaped blanket she got for Christmas.

During the past two months, I’ve been substituting at local schools twice a week. Recently, I was teaching a class on primes and Eratosthenes’ sieve. The weird phrases kids have to muddle through with this Common Core curriculum include “identify the factors and product represented in an array” and “solve using the standard algorithm or the distributive property with a number band.” This was for FOURTH grade.
Christmas and New Year’s here was quiet; the first time my father has not been with us. This has been my grimmest year in terms of deaths of friends and acquaintances. Including my dad, there were six. One friend was 43 and two were in their 50s. All had cancer. An old friend from my Portland community days died at the age of 69. My mother keeps on saying that I’m at the age where my friends will start to die and sadly, she’s right.
I am in an à la recherché du temps perdu mood these days. Saw two interesting articles in the Seattle Times about why the natives are moving out and WHY the natives are fleeing. The comment sections in both are worth working through as many of them identify feelings I’ve been having for the past year re Seattle being not the place I once knew. One person talked about moving to the area in the late 1970s, renting an apartment for $220/month and there only being two rush hours. Serious crime was rare, people were friendly and there were actually Republicans (albeit moderates) in office. Sales tax was 5.4 percent.

This Flickr photo by Robert Martin shows the annual Christmas tree lights atop the Space Needle.

Now….(and I quote the writer) you  have traffic standstills at all hours in both directions, a U district to University Place drive in rush hour is way past 2 hours, drivers are rude, the sales tax has almost doubled and yet the services are no better. Politically, there is no opposition to one-party rule, political correctness has bred an arrogance, the friendly underbelly of the area has gone, crime is up, the gas tax has now about the highest in the nation but the roads are not equivalent to the price we pay, homelessness is accepted as a God-given right, no thought is given to how plan for growth (just throw up condos and the city collects more tax money), and yes, there is a bigoted side of the far left “progressives” that now inhabit King County at a far greater rate than they used to.  There is vile hatred of any non-far left viewpoint. There is no such thing as a “mainstream’ democrat like Scoop Jackson left.
I have to agree. Sometimes I feel like I’m back in DC, although at least there, people dressed nicely! One thing I did do recently was attend a banquet where Mike Huckabee was speaking. Someone gave me a free night of babysitting and told me to find an event to attend, so I heard of this pro-life dinner downtown. Huckabee was cool and he opened with saying he was bringing “a huge welcome from the basket of deplorables in the Midwest.” We all laughed ruefully. He brought up the “child is just an extension of the mother” argument that one hears from organizations like Planned Parenthood. But if that were true, he said, wouldn’t it always have the same DNA and blood type? (Of course we know that children have different blood types. I’m an O-, which neither of my parents are. Blood banks like me because O- is the universal donor and only 9% of the population has it.)

Mike Huckabee at the pro-life dinner in downtown Seattle.

Anyway, it was an interesting crowd and filled with the sort of folks one doesn’t ordinarily run into in this area. One of the speakers asked if there were any elected officials present. Seeing no one raise a hand, he said, “It takes real courage to run for office as a pro-lifer in the Sodom and Gomorrah that is the Pacific Northwest.” There are other places I’d apply the S&G label to faster than Seattle and Portland but it was nice to encounter people who are at least aware of local issues and politics.
I am still going through my scrapbooks and running across memories from high school in the halcyon Seattle of the mid-70s. When I was a senior, I organized Redmond High School’s first road rally, which amazingly got tons of students, faculty and local merchants involved. We even got a write-up in the local paper and even though it was raining heavily, 45 participants helped us raise $100 for the senior class (which was big money in those days). It took place on Oct. 6, 1973, and I plotted out the entire 33-mile route. Not bad, considering my parents wouldn’t let me drive until I was 17.
When my brother Rob accompanied me at one point, we got into a car accident on Avondale Road. (He didn’t see the stop sign, which WAS hidden). I came across a sheet of committee assignments that I’d typed up and I must say, I’m still impressed by my organizational gifts that were just starting to blossom. The road rally stunt helped get me chosen as Girl of the Month by the local Kiwanis.

Veeka strikes a pose while at the annual Christmas lights display at Warm Beach. It was in the 20ºFs, so we didn’t last long.

I also found photos from the July 1973 bicycle trip I took (with 32 other kids) that was sponsored by two Evangelical Covenant churches: Newport and Highland, both in Bellevue. We rode some 220 miles, with stops in Monroe, Lake Stevens, Mt. Vernon, La Conner, then to the Anacortes ferry which we took for 2 days of R&R on Lopez Island. Then took the ferry to Whidbey Island where we stayed at Fort Casey (which is filled with lots of World War II bunkers). Then rode to the Mulkiteo ferry, which we took back to the mainland. Spent the night in Everett, then biked home that afternoon. We appeared (and stayed at) Covenant churches and campgrounds along the way.  A magazine article I wrote about the trip for the Covenant Companion was my first published piece. That experience got me started on long-distance biking. The following summer, I biked with that same group to Victoria (BC) and a few years later, I was with a group that biked 800 miles from Washington, DC to Lexington, Ky., for the Bicentennial.
In high school, we had just moved to Seattle from Maryland, where there was so much social ferment. It even affected the Episcopal church we attended in Severna Park, which was close to Annapolis. I found a letter in the scrapbooks from a friend explaining she had left St. Martins (as had numerous other families) because of its emphasis on politics. The Episcopal church got really into the anti-war movement during that time period. What they missed was the burgeoning Jesus movement that was also happening. I returned to that church when I was a junior in high school and challenged the priest as to why, after 5 years there, I had not heard about the Jesus I encountered later in Young Life at Redmond High School. He felt the message had been there but I had not heard it. I didn’t challenge him at the time, but actually, the message wasn’t there. My scrapbook was filled with all the Young Life notices that I designed and helped pass out to other students.
Every so often I return to that world. There was a place out Union Hill Road that we called “Lewises” that had these wonderful Saturday night prayer meetings that everyone went to in the 70s. Tom and Gay Lewis, the couple who founded it, now have Thursday night meetings at their place, which Veeka and I have occasionally attended. They have lovely potlucks beforehand and the property is on a wonderful patch of woods that Veeka loves to wander around, provided she doesn’t encounter the local panther who prowls about. Other than the Lewises themselves, none of my old friends are there. I’ve had to make new friends during our now 17 months here and I can count them on the fingers of one hand. I drive along the freeways here and am so happy to see mountain ranges. And it is so nice to be close to family after 30+ years of living elsewhere. But if I want to be near good friends, I have to drive to Portland. But it beats flying there, as I used to have to do.

Seeing Vancouver Island – and another funeral

Veeka (in the red jacket) the day I dropped her off at camp on a rainy afternoon. Her cabin mates and counselor are off to the left.

Veeka (in the red jacket) on the rainy afternoon when I dropped her off at camp. Her cabin mates and counselor are off to the left.

Several months ago, I arranged to do some travel pieces for publications interested in northern British Columbia. Ever since driving the AlCan two years ago (this month!), I’ve been fascinated with the region and wanted to go back, especially if I could get some payment for doing so. The first half of my trip involved spending four days driving up Vancouver Island, a place I hadn’t been to in many years and even then, it was mainly to Victoria on its southern end. Which is where many people go, but the publications I’d contacted wanted stuff more off the beaten path. Now Veeka had just come off a week spent at Girl Scout camp, so she was a bit done with camping, but I told her we’d be staying inside and sleeping in beds, so she was game to go traveling.
The first leg involved driving from Seattle to the Tsawwassen ferry southwest of Vancouver, a three-hour ordeal. It was two hours to the border, a 45-minute wait there and then a half hour to the ferry. If you make reservations, you have to be there a half hour before boarding time, even though we didn’t actually drive on until about 10 minutes before the ferry pushed off. Finally arriving at the island just south of Nanaimo, I checked Foursquare (an app) for a place to eat.

Yes, those are goats you see atop this restaurant in Coombs, BC.

Yes, those are goats you see atop this restaurant in Coombs, BC.

It led us to an Italian bistro in Coombs, a small town on 4A west, about 5 miles west of Parkesville, but the place was packed and not taking walk-ins, so we repaired Billy Gruff’s Creamery nearby. Together with some Black Forest bread with lox and lemonade, that was our dinner. Across the way was the Old Country Market, where we saw billy goats literally standing on the roof of the place, contentedly eating grass. That certainly caught our attention as we drove up. It was a warm, lovely evening, the first of a four-day string of fabulous weather, which is not a given when you’re in that part of the world.
The next day, we drove to Port Alberni, which is on an inlet off Vancouver Island’s west coast and dropped by Cathedral Grove, which was 800-year-old strand of Douglas firs surrounded by loads of tourists. Port Alberni is surrounded by peaks and we headed toward Harbor Quay. The day was sunny, breezy, mid-70s; in other words, heavenly. We got oysters and clam chowder and sat outside. There’s a bevy of picnic tables where you can snack from several eateries selling seafood, sit next to planters of purple, white and magenta petunias and listen to a fiddler’s band playing nearby.

Qualicum Beach

Veeka @ Qualicum Beach

We drove back to a beach in Parkesville on the eastern side of the island, where the salty sea water was clear, and quite warm. The beach was strewn with logs and lots of pebbles and some rocks, but it was just right for my daughter to swim and it didn’t get deep until way out. The shimmering water, the Alaska cruise ship in the distance, the blues of the mountains, the water and the sky, the boardwalk that took one to a point out in the water; it was perfect for what we needed. There was a play area and tiny water park behind us, where my daughter frolicked plus there were food carts to grab a bite while you were covered with sand and wearing a suit. Parkesville and Qualicum Beach just north of that are noted for its nice beaches.
The next morning, we drove to the northern end of the island, passing through Courtenay, Comox and Campbell River. None of the tourism brochures cover this area, a huge disservice to the folks who live in those parts and have businesses there. We detoured to a huge provincial area – Strathcona Provincial Park – to the west. We ended up at the Strathcona Park Lodge and Outdoor Education Centre, which overlooks the shimmering Buttle Lake that goes on for miles with snow-capped peaks of the Elk River Mountains – even in August – in the distance. This was such a lovely area with beautiful vistas to the west and south. I asked the person at the lodge check-in counter for some brochures and she told me to look online, which I thought was a bit cavalier. I can see why tourism is a bit lacking in these parts when some of the institutions in the area don’t work too hard at promotion! There’s a lot of hiking and camping available in the area, but you have to almost be a local to know what’s available.

The view from the lodge in Strathcona Provincial Park.

The view from the lodge in Strathcona Provincial Park.

North of Campbell River is some 120 miles of wilderness and then two small towns: Port McNeil and Port Hardy. Our B&B was 19 miles to the west in Port Alice, an old pulp mill town, supplied by logging camps on nearby inlets. The folks at the Inlet Haven B&B were beyond helpful, driving us to nearby sites, letting us do laundry and – when it was clear there were no nearby restaurants in that tiny town where we could get dinner – fixed us a wonderful hamburger meal on their deck while the sun set over the mountains. At one point, 1,500 people lived there with about 500 employed by the mill. It finally closed in 2004, later re-opened, then shut down again in February 2015, which was unfortunately in that the mill provided 75 percent of the town’s tax base and half of its jobs.  One of the casualties was Port Alice’s one restaurant.
The area gets similar mild weather to its more famous neighbor, Victoria, to the south. It used to get copious amounts of rain, I was told, but not so this year; in fact, there was so little rain that the day we arrived, all open fires, even those on a beach, were banned.

Telegraph Cove in far northern Vancouver Island.

Telegraph Cove in far northern Vancouver Island.

We spent two nights in Port Alice, using part of our free day to see Telegraph Cove, on the eastern side of the island, which was packed with sightseers who were on whale watching expeditions or fishing boats. The cove is an antique sawmilling village with buildings dating back to the 1920s and 1930s. We wandered about the Wastell House, an airy place with a sun room overlooking the harbor. The place is surrounded by forest and that day, clear sunlight poured down. However, the place is a tourist trap; we had to pay $1/hour to park in a crowded dirt lot in a resort in the middle of nowhere. I was told the fees went for the upkeep of the access road to the resort. Our host told us that when he bought a fishing license there, they charged him $5 to merely print it out.
The next morning, we left Port Alice at 4:30 a.m. for the 45-minute drive to the ferry in Port Hardy. Boarding it was a disorganized mess. We got there just before 5:30, which I was told was the absolute hour one had to be there. The walk-on passengers were told the same thing. Drivers all sat, idling, in line for an hour. Starting around 6:30, we began inching forward. A lot of late-arriving cars were allowed in ahead of us, so it was quite arbitrary whether you were there early or not. When I asked the

The view from the balcony at Inlet Haven B&B.

The view from the balcony at Inlet Haven B&B.

reasons for the delay, I was told many of the people driving the campers had put given the wrong vehicle lengths on their reservations (one has to specify rough measurements), meaning they had to recalibrate how much room they had on the ferry. I was also told even children needed individual IDs. Being foreigners, we had passports, but what if we hadn’t? I explained U.S. kids don’t have separate IDs, which got me a stare from the ferry folks. Not only did they slowly check us in at the first gate, they re-checked us a few hundred feet later as we boarded, as if extra people had snuck into the car. The attendant explained the parking lot was unsecured, although the fencing looked pretty good to me. Maybe they figured terrorists had somehow gotten up at 5 a.m. to burrow underneath. We boarded around 6:55 and the ferry left around 7:40. Most inefficient operation ever.

The view from the Port Hardy-Prince Rupert ferry.

The view from the Port Hardy-Prince Rupert ferry.

Once on, it wasn’t a bad 16-hour trip. A public address system occasionally alerted passengers to bear and whale sightings plus historic tidbits about which early Canadian explorer named which cove we were passing by. The salmon were clearly running and we could see them soar out of the water in quick half-circles. The weather was clear and sunny – not a given in the Pacific Northwest by far – and the boat hosted a BBQ for lunch which was a pleasant break from the cafeteria. Many of us took refuge on the glassed-in sundeck on the 6th floor to gaze at hundreds of miles of forested mountains, occasional lighthouses, canneries, waterfalls and scattered settlements. We met the most pleasant family from London: Gordon and Stephanie and their 5-year-old daughter, Flo, who spent much of the day playing with my daughter.
We weren’t released from the boat until close to midnight and then I drove about Prince Rupert, which seems to fog over at night, searching for the Black Rooster, our hostel. I could barely read the street signs and either the lights were dim or the fog was heavy, but it was very hard to find my way about town. Even the next day, sans fog, I noticed a lot of the streets lack signs. As for the next leg of our journey, that comes in the next blog!

Julie Kay (left) and me in the early days after I'd gotten Veeka. We are standing at Great Falls in Virginia.

Julie Kay (left) and me in the early days after I’d gotten Veeka. We are standing at Great Falls in Virginia.

One thing I did want to add is that earlier in August, a dear friend, Julie Kay, died of ovarian cancer at the age of 54. I was with Veeka in Quebec when a mutual friend called to say she was dying and if I wanted to see her, I had to fly to Florida right then. Of course that was impossible for me, so I called around to other friends, who told me that Julie had been so secretive about her illness, very few people knew that she’d battled this thing for 10 years. She certainly had not told me she was dying, although our last conversation – where she called to express sympathy on the death of my dad – was very odd and now as I think of it, she was surely thinking of her own impending death. Yet, she said nothing to me of it and I am of course kicking myself that I didn’t question her further at the time. Julie was one of those friends I knew from my Florida days. I’ve moved around so much in my life, most people I’ve known have ceased communicating with me. But Julie was amazing in that she pursued and kept long-time friends. She visited me in Maryland; I visited her in Florida and we shared trips together to Key West and Oaxaca, Mexico. Again, it’s the same lesson that man – and woman – knows not their time and when they may be called.

Farewell to the admiral

Veeka and I in front of St. Mark's Cathedral

Veeka and I squinting in the sun in front of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle.

I think one of the loveliest moments during my dad’s funeral last Sunday was listening to the organ play “Nimrod” from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. If you have never listened to it, do so by clicking on the link. It’s lovely and poignant.
We were fortunate in that although the day started out with rain, the sun was coming out as we approached the church. And during the reception, it was warm enough to leave the doors open.
The family had a brief Communion service just before the funeral, then all of us processed into the nave at St. Mark’s Cathedral. Coast Guard Admiral Mark Butt, who had just moved to Seattle three weeks before, showed up at my mother’s side to walk her down the aisle. I was so grateful for that. My mom had been married 65 years and she’s used to having my dad walk with her. I processed with Veeka, who was delighted with her sleeveless black dress and new high heels.
IMG_2111The funeral program came with two photos: One of my dad in full dress uniform and one of him relaxing during a vacation in Israel. He was sitting in a hotel garden in Jerusalem when a stray kitty wandered by and jumped into his lap and took a snooze. My dad loves cats and that photo was so him.
My brothers and I read from Scriptures that my father had selected years ago that he would like read when the time came. We sang his favorite hymns, including “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and of course “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.” Then after prayers and a short sermon given by the dean of the cathedral, a bugler played “Taps,” during which two US Coast Guard men in uniform unfurled a flag and held it up for all to see. Then Admiral Butt presented it to my mother.

Admiral Butt presenting the flag to my mom and thanking her for my dad's many years of military service.

Admiral Butt presenting the flag to my mom and thanking her for my dad’s many years of military service.

Adding to the drama was a congregant seated in the front row across the aisle from us who fainted at that point. As people rushed to his side, they could not find a pulse for a brief moment, but fortunately he eventually revived, right in time for the 911 medics who came dashing in. Never a dull moment.
Afterwards, the reception table was laden with a huge spread, including the wine and cheese that my dad insisted we have, because going to heaven is a celebration, right?
I am so grateful to some of my friends who showed up; a couple from Church of the Redeemer who lives just east of me and some friends who made the three-hour drive from Portland, which is true commitment! Three of my dad’s nieces flew in: One from California and two from Minnesota. There’s not much you can say during these times, but presence means everything. And for the 137+ who sent me messages on Facebook along with a few who sent personal notes, thank you as well. I’ve learned that when death happens, it’s important to say *something” even if it’s only a few words and nothing profound. Believe me, those grieving notice every kindness.
And so we adjust to the new normal, as my mother is now living alone, although her friends at the retirement home promise me they will keep her busy. And I live only 14 miles away; Steve is three hours away and Rob is moving back to the area in the fall. With us, there is little other news. A journalism/PR position came open at the last minute at university just south of me, but I lost out to someone with a PhD. In that I’d just gotten another MA to ward off such a possibility, it wasn’t enough.

In memory of my father

“Why is there death, Mommy?”

The memorial to my dad set up at the retirement place where my parents live

The memorial to my dad set up at the retirement place in Redmond where my parents live.

That’s the sort of questions Veeka has been asking me ever since my father – and her grandfather – died a week ago on June 24 at the age of 91. Mercifully, she’d been at camp all day but when I picked her up late that afternoon, she knew something was wrong right away. Much earlier that day, the nurses in the unit where my dad was staying woke my mom up to say he seemed much worse. She went downstairs to the unit and held vigil for a few hours, then returned to her apartment for a quick nap. Then my brother Steve arrived from Portland. He’d left at the crack of dawn to get there and he found a kind employee called Ron Cole who, not wanting my dad to be alone while my mother slept, had been sitting by my father’s side. Steve wrote about this encounter in the Oregonian this week.
Then my mother returned to the room. Also arriving was Jim Eichner, an Episcopal priest I knew from a nearby parish and someone who dropped by my parents’ retirement center to offer Communion every fourth Friday. Several days before, I’d asked him to drop by my dad’s bedside before going to the monthly service. So he showed up just after 10 a.m. at about the same time my brother and mom walked in. At this point, my dad was breathing quite laboriously and Jim quickly surmised that he didn’t need Communion; he needed Last Rites. He quickly prayed this over my dad, ending with the Lord’s Prayer. I think he left the bedside at this point and texted me, saying I’d better drive over as quickly as possible.
I’d just gotten out of the shower, so I texted Steve to ask how Dad was doing and to say I was on my way. He and my mom both noticed that after the Lord’s Prayer, my dad had visibly relaxed, as if the prayers had released him in some way. Or maybe he knew he could let go. His breathing slowed and then stopped. They called in a nurse, who listened for a heartbeat. There was none. It was just before 10:30 a.m. Steve called me to say not to hurry too much, as my father was already gone.

Veeka poses with her two counselors at the camp she was at last week. It was a few minutes after I took this picture that she noticed something wasn't quite right with me. It was then that I told her that Opa had died.

Veeka poses with her two counselors at the camp she was at last week. It was a few minutes after I took this photo that she noticed something wasn’t quite right with me. It was then that I told her that Opa had died.

I got there about a half hour later and the three of us held vigil by his body until the funeral home got there two hours later. We were dazed, not believing that he had left us so quickly. It had been such a grace that the priest had arrived at just the right time to say the prayers that helped my dad depart and that Steve had left Portland 180 miles away at just the right time he needed to reach my father’s side so my mother would not be alone.
I insisted about an hour later that we call my parents’ church so they could be looking for a date for his funeral. It will be July 10; a military funeral at the Episcopal cathedral where my parents attended for so many years. Two days after his death, the Compline choir at St. Mark’s kindly included my dad’s name in their prayers for the newly deceased. You can listen to it here at about moment 21. And many folks have been reading the column that Steve wrote last summer about my father’s last trip to his birthplace in New Ulm, Minn., and his farewell to his older sister. She died last December and now he’s followed her just over six months later.
Just a week before on a Friday, my father had been sitting in his apartment, there to see his beloved kitties. We didn’t realize it would be his last visit there. The following Sunday, Veeka and I went raspberry picking and showed up in his room with a flat of fresh berries. He ate one but at that point, he was hardly getting down any food. That was the last day I saw him alive. And so we’ve planned a service that has the hymns he wanted and a reception (wine and cheese!) he would appreciate.
At the same time, we go shopping today for the appropriate black shoes and clothing for a funeral. As I’ve thought and mourned, this Benedictus by Karl Jenkins has expressed the emptiness I feel. And so does the arrangement of “In the Mansions of the Lord” from the movie “We Were Soldiers.” I selected the version played at President Reagan’s funeral, which I thought was heart-breakingly beautiful, expecially the instrumental part when the crucifer team heads down from the main altar. When people die, you know they are happier and pain-free now. We mourn for ourselves, the dreadful loneliness that we feel when someone we’ve known since birth is gone. The older you get, the harder it is to form new relationships and the more you lean into the ones you’ve had when you were young. For instance, we’ve been back in the Seattle area almost a year now and I’ve made no friends. Oh, there are people who’ve helped us in various ways, but there’s been no new friends. Most of mine are in Portland or back in Washington DC.

St. Mark's Cathedral on Capitol Hill overlooking Seattle.

St. Mark’s Cathedral on Capitol Hill overlooking Seattle.

And so family is all we have here. And it’s been so wonderful to be part of peoples’ birthdays and holidays and to no longer have to wait for strangers to invite us in.
Fortunately, three of my high school friends are in the area. All of us are turning 60 this year. If I live as long as my dad did, my life is only two-thirds done. The way ahead sure feels lonelier. At least I live close to my mother; Steve is still a three-or-four-hour drive away and my other brother Rob is moving back to Washington state in the fall, although he’ll be several counties away. I am so grateful that this year is not last June, when I was still in Fairbanks. I would have gone crazy knowing my dad was dying and not being able to be there and do things like get the paperwork filled out for the crematorium and just be there. I am glad we are back home at a place where I can see the mountains when I am driving down the freeway.
I keep on telling Veeka that our true home is elsewhere and that if at times we feel homesick, it’s a natural feeling that shows us we’re meant for heaven. C.S. Lewis wrote about this inconsolable longing in Mere Christianity:

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others do the same.”

The funeral before Christmas

The light show at Bellevue Botanical Gardens

The light show at Bellevue Botanical Gardens

This is the first Christmas in 32 years where I don’t have to climb aboard a plane to go back home. Instead, we drove 14 miles on E. Lake Sammamish Blvd. past gorgeous homes with flashy light displays against a dark lake. It’d done nothing but rain here recently, but it’s dumped 15 feet of snow in the mountain passes to our east which means GREAT SKIING as soon as I get my snow tires on next week. We spent yesterday with my parents going to Christmas Eve services at St. Mark’s Cathedral downtown and generally lazing about today.
It was nice being restful considering what the rest of my week was like. On Dec. 14, we got word that a beloved aunt, Alice Hinnenthal, had died at the age of 100. She caused an uproar when she showed up at my father’s 90th birthday party last year. Then my parents and brother Steve went to visit her in Minneapolis this July, a meeting that Steve chronicled so tenderly in a newspaper column as they all sensed it’d be the last time they would see each other.
Alice had some 39 descendants which, together with spouses, totaled about 51

To the left, Alice with four of her 5 children. To the right, a news clipping about my father. Below, from left to right: My father, Alice, Alma and Ed and Jerry (brothers). This was taken sometime in the late 40s.

To the left, Alice with four of her 5 children. To the right, a news clipping about my father. Below, from left to right: My father, Alice, Alma and Ed and Jerry (brothers) sometime in the late 40s.

people who were flying or driving in for her funeral on the 21st. Starting when I moved to Virginia 20 years ago, I had been seeing more and more of my father’s side of the family, all of whom descended from Siegfried Duin, who immigrated to Minnesota from northern Germany in 1903. He was the 11th child and only 17 when he came over, as he was due to be conscripted by the Prussians for the draft when he turned 18 and his family didn’t want that to happen. He already had two brothers over here and a sister named Gretchen who’d become pregnant outside of marriage and so was being shipped to the New World to not bring disgrace on the family. Siegfried married a young woman named Alma Engelbert and they settled in a small town called New Ulm, had four kids, the 2nd of whom was Alice and the 4th being my father. Unfortunately, my grandfather died at the age of 38 during a botched gall bladder operation, leaving behind a wife with four kids, the youngest being my dad, age 2.
The three sons grew up and all had military careers and moved away from Minnesota. Alice stayed, married the pastor’s son and moved to nearby St. Peter and had five children. When we would drive from Maryland during my childhood to visit them, I remember the hot summer evenings we’d spend playing with their kids and generally hanging out. For years, we all attended each others’ weddings and sadly one funeral – my cousin Anne who died at age 39 of breast cancer – until now. None of the Duins outside the Hinnenthal clan (Alice had 5 children, 13 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren) were coming to the funeral that I knew of, so after lots of thought (Veeka was off school and I wasn’t working), I decided to go. Who knew when I’d see a lot of these folks again and besides, Alice deserved it! I managed to amass enough frequent flyer miles to get us to Minnesota and back plus pay for a rental car and hotel.

Veeka (who fortunately had a black dress) and I at the grave site.

Veeka (who fortunately had a black dress) and I at the grave site.

So we flew there on the 20th, getting up before the crack of dawn and arriving at SeaTac (the local airport) to find huge crowds there at 4 a.m.! We got to Minneapolis by mid-day (thank God for clear weather nationwide), got to Alice’s viewing, had tons of conversations with people, then left for some down time at the Mall of America and the hotel pool. The next day, we attended the actual funeral at St. James Lutheran, where we marched in the procession (we were, after all, part of the extended family) and met folks who were descendants of another of the Duin sons (George) who’d emigrated along with Siegfried. From them and other folks, I pieced together more of my grandfather’s story. I had thought our family was basically peasant farmers but no, they were well-to-do landowners near Leer and Hasselt, small towns on the German/Dutch border. And my great-grandfather had traced the names of all 11 of his children in cement circles at the family farm. When Siegfried died, my grandmother had to do sewing and take in borders to make ends meet. Someone told me that the boarders got to eat butter with their bread, but not the kids, as Alma couldn’t afford butter for both. I can’t imagine not being able to afford butter.
Veeka and I had been through Minnesota 18 months ago when we were moving to Alaska and had connected with some of the clan back then, but many who were at the funeral were folks I’d not seen in since a 2008 reunion in Montana. We all then drove about 70 miles to New Ulm for the burial in a cemetery I had visited the summer before. It was so odd to have only been there the year before in the hot July sun and then to be so quickly back onsite on a cold December afternoon. Mercifully, it was not snowing, as I’m not sure that my rental Kia could have gotten through any white stuff without sliding everywhere. At the reception afterwards at St. Paul’s (these are all Wisconsin Synod churches), I had more conversations with many family members who, like old friends, I have known for many years. Finally, we pulled away.

Part of the Hinnenthal clan as they posed for a family photo.

Part of the Hinnenthal clan as they posed for a family photo.

Thankfully, our trip back the next day was problem-free, although we did have an eight-hour layover in Houston. But an old friend was in a nearby terminal at IAH, so he came by where we were camped out at one of the United Clubs. I only get 2 passes a year for those clubs and thankfully I had my two for this year, as it was a lifesaver for us to just relax there. And the BlackLivesMatter demonstrations that partly shut down the Minneapolis airport came a day after we departed on the 22nd.
The rest of our month has been quiet. I’ve taken Veeka to Christmas lights displays, a dinner party with old friends from Maryland, a gingerbread house decorating party at her school and a Lucia fest at a Lutheran church in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. There’s a lot of ethnic Swedish places in the area and this church had a service on Dec. 13 wherein a high school senior marches down the aisle in a white gown and a crown of blazing candles set atop her head. Other girls march down as well holding candles but the “Lucia queen” is actually balancing them. It was a rainy, nasty evening but the service was interesting and the treats afterward were quite the sugar high.

One more press conference

Before I got into the second half of the snake handling saga, just want to say that I’ve started yet a second blog for my social media class. This one is called Single Christians Adopting and it’s still very much a work in progress. (I was going to create a separate blog about serpent handlers, but I just couldn’t find the right combo of colors and formats, so I switched to another pet cause: the nasty way that so many singles are treated when they want to adopt. And some of the worst treatment comes from one’s fellow church-goers.)

My little Kazakh beauty with the former Kazakh ambassador to the US - now I'm encouraging others to adopt

My little Kazakh beauty with the former Kazakh ambassador to the US – now I’m encouraging others to adopt

And I have also been reading about the way social media influences events in our class text by Clay Shirky. He used the example of the Boston Globe’s 2002 series on abusive Catholic priests and why that caused so much buzz whereas previous articles on some of the same topics didn’t get near the reaction. The reasons? Because by 2002, people were able to email copies of the Globe’s work to other Catholics instead of having to cut and paste and send copies via snail mail. The former took a few seconds. The latter took 10-15 minutes not including a visit to the post office. By 2002, nearly everyone had email and some had blogs, which they could use to call others’ attention to the abuse. That was not the case with the Globe’s similar stories back in 1992. Starting in 1993 when I took over the religion beat, I covered the abuse phenomenon so a lot of what Shirky wrote was quite familiar. And yes, blogs, email and instant transmission of one’s articles made all the difference in the world.
Back to this week, which got unexpectedly busier when I heard that Andrew Hamblin, the other half of the serpent handling team on the reality show Snake Salvation, wanted to give a press conference. He wouldn’t do it by phone; we had to drive to east Tennessee for it. So I woke Veeka at the crack of dawn for a 347-mile trek across the state. Seems that I’ve worn ruts in I-40 from driving back there so much: Four times in the past three months.
When we arrived at the church, Andrew was dressed all in black.

Andrew at his church talking with reporters.

Andrew at his church talking with reporters.

“How are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m here,” he said flatly.
“Who’s your mentor now?” I asked.
“I have me,” he said. I asked him what God was telling him. “Keep on going. Don’t stop,” he replied. He seemed so bereft.
He went outside to make a call and I went outside to absorb some sun rays. Two or three other reporters eventually sauntered in, all from local media. Andrew sits forlornly on a bench in front of the pulpit. It’s chilly inside and someone turns on the heat.
“When I was depressed and lonely, I’d call him,” he said of Jamie. “No one will ever know the pain. He called my children his grand kids. No one will ever know how much I miss him.” His little church has elders, he says, but “I have no elder now.”
I pitched the first question. Considering what has happened to Jamie, what’s Andrew’s position on seeking medical help if snake bit?
His answer was round about. What did it say to the world, he asked, when someone dies an agonizing death? “There is your appointed time to die,” he said. “So what does it mean to get bit and go home and swell and suffer and lose limbs when you were inside a service where God has moved on you?” Obviously he’d been doing some thinking about some of the unsolvables in his movement: If God is controlling the service, why such messy deaths?
“Would you seek help?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. Jamie had made a vow to God he’d never seek medical help, he said, “but I never made a vow that I’d never go to a doctor.” He went into some detail about the first time he was bit in July 2010; his twins had just been born; he had major reasons to keep on living and he had been airlifted twice to two hospitals in Kentucky. His lungs kept filling up with blood and doctors told him that unless the meds they were giving him kicked in, he wouldn’t make it.

The ultra-cool atrium area at the Gaylord resort at Opry Mills

The ultra-cool atrium area at the Gaylord resort at Opry Mills

“I lay there and thought of my options,” he said. “I prayed, ‘Lord, if you want me to live, let me hear Jamie speak in tongues.’ Two-three minutes later at the hospital, the curtain flung open and there was Jamie speaking in tongues.”
I kind of wondered if the reporters were understanding all this but that was their problem. Andrew went on about how he and Liz have worked out funeral arrangements if he gets bit; how he’s already chosen the funeral home, planned his wake (12 noon to 7 pm) and an all-night vigil and a church service the next day.
“So if you’re bit and die, does that mean you’re not anointed?” someone asked. Andrew mulled that one over.
“Jamie had three snakes in his hand,” he said. “The one that bit him had been handled by us all.” Two of the snakes had been handled to the point they were just limp, he said. And then suddenly the third one turned and bit Jamie.
“As long as I’m under the anointing of God, I won’t be hurt like I was in July 2010,” he said. “I know people who’ve been bit and walked away from it. These are puff adders, vipers; some of the most deadly snakes in the world we’re handling.” Adding that he had been bit four times, “I’ve seen Jamie go elbow deep in snakes or laid them around his neck. And then what killed him was a 2 ½-foot snake. Why that little bitty serpent, I’ll never be able to answer. But there is God’s appointed time to die.”
Yes, I thought, but usually not when you’re 42. It was clear Andrew was still working through why this and why now. We asked him to run down what happened that dreadful night one week ago. Andrew said he wasn’t usually at Jamie’s Saturday services but he felt moved by God to get off from work at the grocery store he was running a cash register for. Jamie had been handling three snakes in front of the pulpit and then he flexed his hand. The snakes fell to the floor. Jamie scooped them back up.
“Dad’s been bit,” Cody told him. Andrew, who himself was handling a snake, put it down and accompanied Jamie as he headed to the bathroom along with Cody. Jamie was rubbing his face. “I feel like my face is on fire,” he was telling them.
“He was real red,” Andrew told us, “because we’d been singing and shouting.” Cody offered to end the service. Jamie lifted his arms up as Andrew loosened his clothes.
“Lord, come by,” Jamie said. Then, “Oh, God, no.”
“He turned around and looked at me,” Andrew continued, “and said, ‘Sweet Jesus’ calm and peaceful. Then his eyes set and he started to slump. I yelled ‘Dad!’ and then he fell.” Andrew felt something wet and realized Jamie’s bowels had loosened as those of dead people do.
“He died right there,” Andrew said. “I was smacking him but he never opened his eyes again.” I knew exactly what he meant about the eyes. The moment my favorite cat died in my arms, I saw the eyes glaze over and harden.
“I believe in the last 30 seconds of his life, Jamie knew he was dying,” he said. “He was not looking at me, but past me. And then his eyes set. I believe he died standing straight up. There is no anti-venin that could have saved a man that night. A serpent’s fang is like a hypodermic needle. It goes in that quick.”
No one knew who called the medics, but, “You could tell he was gone by the expression on their faces,” he said. Jamie’s pulse was down to about one every 30 seconds. His body was nearly shut down. They took him to the house, changed him out of his urine-soaked clothes and laid him in his chair. Finally it was clear he was completely gone.

Veeka and I at the NRB convention laden with stuff.

Veeka and I at the NRB convention laden with stuff.

I asked if they had raised enough money to pay expenses. Andrew didn’t know the answer but the funeral home demanded a $1,000 downpayment, which the Coots didn’t have, he said. He got his own church of about 50 people to come up with that amount during one offering that Sunday morning.
“Do you sleep much now?” I asked.
“No,” said Andrew. “We’re all just up and down. You don’t sleep at night and you wait for his phone call.”  My heart went out to him. We drove back towards Nashville that night, then met some friends the next day who were at the National Religious Broadcasters convention in Nashville. They let us use their hotel pool, I got a press pass and Veeka and I wandered about the exhibits and filled our bags with all sorts of freebies. And Veeka was beyond delighted at the venue, which was at the Gaylord convention center at Opry Mills. Overarching the hotel rooms and an island of restaurants was a huge glass dome, which delighted her to no end. It’d been hard for her to sit through the press conference and put up with all the driving, so I was glad that she found something to be merry about.


Jamie’s death

Most of the people on our bus trip at Reelfoot Lake wanted to see the bald-headed eagles nests. A ranger (in green) was showing us how

Most of the people on our bus trip at Reelfoot Lake wanted to see the bald-headed eagles nests. A ranger (in green) was showing us how.

The forecast for President’s Day Weekend said it might be in the 60s, so I made a reservation with a bus tour at Reelfoot Lake, a large body of water in the far northwestern corner of Tennessee. Veeka and I would drive there right after church – it was about 74 miles away – snag the early afternoon tour and hopefully see some eagles’ nests. The place was known as a huge sanctuary for many bird populations, including bald-headed eagles that made their home there.
We were bouncing along on an old school bus through snowy fields – apparently this section of Tennessee was somewhat colder than Jackson, I was learning – when I glanced at my iPhone and just on a whim clicked on my email. I saw an email from a friend with a newspaper headline: Jamie Coots was dead.

Not the most complimentary photo, but this is what my daughter took of me as I was frantically working my iPhone on this trip.

Not the most complimentary photo, but this is what my daughter took of me as I was frantically working my iPhone on this trip.

Now I know what they mean about your world going temporarily black when you get bad news. Jamie Coots was one of two co-stars on the reality TV show “Snake Salvation” and an elder statesman (at the age of 42) of the serpent handling movement. I had interviewed him several times and visited his church. As the other people on the trip chattered about seeing various flocks of snow ducks and the occasional eagle, I sat there in a fog.  I could not think. We were 30 miles north of Dyersburg, the nearest city of any size and a good 70 miles north of Memphis, so the Internet was agonizingly slow. I was getting flashbacks to Memorial Day 2012 when I learned that Mack Wolford, another famous serpent handler, had died the night before of snake bite. I called the Washington Post, for whom I’d done a story about Mack several months before. Yes, they wanted a story on the death. I sent them the story Monday night; by Tuesday morning everyone in that newsroom was back from the three-day weekend and someone had decided the story would go atop their Style section. I was told to rework the story. I got it in early that evening and they had it up by 9 pm. For the next 36 hours, it would sit atop their web site. It went all over the world and so did my byline atop it. Only me and the photographer who’d shot the earlier story had contacts in that region, so all the rest of the media could do is quote the Post. It was probably the biggest story of my career. But this time was different. My decision to take Sunday morning “off” from social media had really cost me as tons of reporters were already on the story about Jamie. Because of “Snake Salvation,” images of Jamie were plentiful and lots of media had interviewed him when the show premiered last September. I managed to find a story from WATE TV on my iPhone plus a Facebook post by Cody Coots, the 21-year-old son. Counting backwards, I figured he posted it at about 3 a.m. his time.

This Cody coots dad past away yesterday I’m miss him so much and love him please pray for use we have no live insurance on him if any one has anything to give to help would be greatly appreciate RIP dad i love hope to see you on the other side on day.

Here's a photo I shot of Jamie, in a red blazer, with his wife, Linda, to his left in black. The other folks are friends. This was taken Nov. 15 during Andrew Hamblin's first court appearance.

Here’s a photo I shot of Jamie, in a red blazer, with his wife, Linda, to his left in black. The other folks are friends. This was taken Nov. 15 outside the Campbell County courthouse after Andrew Hamblin’s first court appearance.

The WATE story said that an ambulance had shown up at the church some time after 8 but that Jamie was dead by 10 pm. My goodness, I thought, this was nothing like the agonizing eight to 10 hours it took Mack to die. And what is it about these folks that they always choose to die over a three-day holiday weekend?

I emailed the Wall Street Journal, for whom I’d done four stories September-December about the reality show and the arrest of Andrew Hamblin, the young snake handler who co-starred with Jamie. Sure enough, they wanted a story on Jamie. By the time the bus tour ended and I got home, it was 6 p.m. and the story was nearly 24 hours old. TV crews had shown up at Jamie’s church that afternoon with quotes from Cody and another member known as “Big Cody” Winn. For the next four hours, I worked the phones and combed through Facebook. None of my contacts were answering their phones. Andrew, who had been there when Jamie died, was refusing to do interviews. I’d spent months getting cell phone numbers for folks at these churches, only to have them not pick up when I needed them to. From various media I quickly learned that Jamie had been bitten by a cane break rattlesnake on his right hand; the same hand that had lost a finger several years ago. I called the Middlesboro police and learned they’d gotten the first call around 8:24 p.m., but whoever made the call was not a member of the family. Jamie’s services usually started at 7 p.m., so it’d been well underway by then. According to the Knoxville station WBIR, which seemed to have the most details, Jamie had been bitten on the back of his hand. He dropped the snakes at that point, then picked them back up. After a few minutes, he headed toward the men’s room with Andrew and another handler because he was sick. And then after exclaiming ‘sweet Jesus’ to Andrew, Jamie passed out. At this point, the service must have come to a halt with Jamie being packed up to go home. It took five men to carry him. Cody told the TV station they thought it’d be like before with the eight other bites Jamie had gotten. He’d go home, feel sick for awhile and then get better.

The one photo I shot of Jamie's church - from the front - in August 2012.

The one photo I shot of Jamie’s church – from the front – in August 2012.

Jeff Sharpe, the local police chief who happened to be working when Jamie died, returned my call at about 9:40 p.m. his time. He was plainly exhausted. One of his lieutenants had told me he’d been answering press calls all day, so I was probably #70 at this point. He had some interesting details I’d not gleaned from the TV. When Sharpe arrived at the Coots home, it was full of church members and family holding vigil. Jamie was seated – even though he was unconscious and dying – in his favorite chair. Meanwhile, Linda Coots – his wife – and Cody were signing a form waiving medical treatment.
“He’d already said before they took him home that he didn’t want to be treated,” Sharpe said. “He’d made his feelings very, very clear about what should happen if he was bit.” Officers left the house at 9:10 p.m., he said, and less than an hour later, they were summoned a second time. Coots had died. And so the chief returned with Jason Steele, the local coroner in tow, he told me. I had a feeling that the chief knew that Coots’ death would be a huge deal, which is why he showed up twice at the house but he said that he made it his practice to show up at the scene of every unusual death.
I told the officer a bit about Mack’s death. Sharpe said, “Something made this happen faster than normal.” I asked him how many press have called. “Lord,” he said, “I have no idea.”
I went back to the Facebook feeds. of Andrew and his wife, Liz. In need of prayer, Elizabeth had posted some time around 11:30 p.m. Saturday. I looked at jamie like a daddy figure he has always been good to me and my family.I love u and miss u so much already.
She got several dozen replies and grief-stricken expressions and 227 likes.
I honestly feel like I’m in a bad dream and can’t wake up, she then wrote.

Bumpersticker from car in front of Jamie's church.

Bumpersticker from car in front of Jamie’s church.

Late Saturday night, Andrew posted: really needing everyones prayers tonight. I was there for the last service with him. he was like a dad to me. everyone just keep us all in your prayers. and there will be church tomorrow at 1:00 at tabernacle church of God. remember us when you pray.
About 6 a.m. Sunday Andrew posted: as I set here this morning I try to think of what dad would have said. I miss him so bad. I will never forget how God moved on us last night together for one last time. everyone please keep all of us in your prayers. everyone remember service today at the Tabernacle at 1:00. Mark 16:18 is still forever real. Now Mark 16:17-18 are the verses that serpent handlers quote about believers picking up serpents. The verse does not say they will not get hurt.

Tributes had poured in all day Sunday on Jamie’s Facebook page, which had mushroomed to 2,685 ‘friends’ after ‘Snake Salvation’ ran. At one point, Cody Coots posted a message asking for funds.
Dad passed away yesterday, he wrote. I miss him so much and love him. Please pray for us. We have no life insurance on him. If any one has anything to give, help would be greatly appreciated. RIP dad. I … hope to see you on the other side one day.
A support page for the Coots family had 1,106 “likes” by Sunday night. Fortunately I had been interviewing Jamie here and there over the past two years and had developed quite a respect for him. Those quotes formed the basis of my article, as his home in Middlesboro was 400 miles away and there was no chance I could get there to report from the scene. We had talked in November, which is when he’d told me of the new jobs that he and Cody and his daughter Trina had gotten. He seemed so happy then. He was driving a school bus part time. I got through to the National Geographic spokeswoman who sent me their statement on Jamie’s death. They are planning a tribute to him, she said. I filed the story at 10 pm Sunday and by the time I was up the next morning, it was on the Journal’s web site.

A few more details poured out that Monday, including this report from the Lexington Herald-Leader about Jamie’s last minutes. I realized that reporters must have gone to Jamie’s church on Sunday, then nabbed Cody after the service. That’s the only time I spotted him talking with the press. I got an email, then a phone call from CNN, asking for names and phone numbers and hinting they might need me to speak for one of their broadcasts. I did one radio interview in the midst of a busy day, then sat down that evening to read through Facebook. Liz has posted at about noon that:
the next news media who writes or calls my phone I’m fixing to show them my bad side.sorry jamie is not going to be ur big story and pay day. leave his family alone already !
And … the family asked us not to do interviews or release any info i have to respect his wife son and daughters wishes.
About an hour later, she posted: as I turn over to mark 16:18 its still written in red.the word of God will stand forever. just because jamie is gone doesn’t mean its still not real.I’m still a believer.

Liz Hamblin is the woman in the grey sweater holding a pile of poisonous snakes during this New Year's Eve service six weeks ago. Andrew, her husband, is in the white shirt beside her.

Liz Hamblin is the woman in the grey sweater holding a pile of poisonous snakes during this New Year’s Eve service six weeks ago. Andrew, her husband, is in the white shirt beside her. This is the best I could do with an iPad.

The big news on her mind and that of the 124 people writing on her feed is Westboro Baptist Church’s announcement that they’d be picketing Jamie’s funeral. People discuss which bikers or “good ‘ole redneck boys” they can get to block WBC from getting close to the funeral home.
I know how to scare WBC away, says a truck driver from western Kentucky. Lets all go approach them and offer to hand them a nice fat rattler!!! He then adds: if they go messing with country folks in eastern Ky they will get worse than a beating, Watch the movie Next of kin.
Then, a nurse said – Praise the Lord!!! We just heard back!!!! There are people in route to protect the Coots and the Hamblins from all these horrible people associated with the Westboro Baptist Church!!!
At this point, I switched to Twitter to learn more. Westboro had tweeted: Westboro Baptist ‏@WBCSays Feb 17 WBC will picket funeral of charlatan “Pastor Jamie” Coots, tomorrow, 2/18/14-7:30pm @ Creech FH, 112 S 21st, Middlesboro, KY. Isa 47:10-13.

Tweets poured in, including:
• bo silcox ‏@bosilcox Feb 17
@WBCSays i hope you do come here we the people of middlesboro will run your ass off.
And this one: @WBCSays This is absolutely ridiculous. You pretentious assholes better think twice. I know Middlesboro people won’t put up with this.#smdh.

Of course I was dying to be in Middlesboro for this showdown but I didn’t want to drive 400 miles to the wake and then have someone decide I was only “media” and shut me out of the funeral. I am more than that, but when people are upset, they lash out at whomever’s convenient. Plus, I had an 8-year-old to think of and no one to leave her with. I contacted someone at the Chattanooga paper and they told me they were sending up two reporters and one photographer. I later found their piece on Twitter about what happened Tuesday evening. It sounded like all of Middlesboro turned out for the wake with people lining the main street partly to eviscerate the Westboro people if they dared to show up. They never did. TV crews stayed a respectful distance. WATE wrote this and WBIR filed this report. I got just about all the coverage of the funeral off of Twitter, actually. One thing I’ve found truly bizarre is the near-absence of the Knoxville News-Sentinel from covering this story. All they had from the funeral was this Associated Press story. I couldn’t even find a Twitter presence from them.

The sad conclusion to all this is that Jamie is gone. I can’t say I knew him very well, but he took my calls and clued me in on some of the background stuff going on in his movement. He was compassionate and seasoned; a real pastor. His presence was deeply sought in churches all over Appalachia and I saw the reverence that other people showed him in churches in Alabama and Tennessee; churches he took the trouble to visit even though it was a long drive. I specifically remember one evening in June at the Sand Mountain church where he stood in the middle of the platform and handled several snakes for at least 10 minutes while the rest of us just stared. He had a regal presence and such class. It is not for nothing that the town came to his funeral. As someone called “Poetry Share” said on Facebook: I remembered something brother Jamie Coots once said. He said I had rather die and leave this walk of life from a serpent bite with people standing around me praying as to be in a car wreck with people standing around me cussing. Soooo sounds like Jamie.

Remembering Catherine Marshall

Thirty years ago yesterday (March 18), one of the most interesting women (in my view) in the 20th century quietly died. She was Catherine Marshall, the wife of Senate Chaplain Peter Marshall who, after her

Catherine herself

Catherine herself

husband’s untimely death in 1949, reinvented herself as an author who had a writing ministry that reached millions. Many babyboomers and people over 40 remember the Marshalls, including Catherine’s only son, Peter Marshall, Jr., who died not long ago. Catherine is best known for her book “Christy” (which was also a TV show/movie), “A Man Called Peter” and many other books. There are enormous amounts of Catherine Marshall fan bases on the Internet plus the people who attend the annual summer “Christyfest” in east Tennessee. I even stumbled upon a Diane Sawyer essay that told of how she first met Catherine Marshall when Diane was 17.

Gravestone for Catherine Marshall in the Ft. Lincoln cemetery in NE Washington.

Gravestone for Catherine Marshall in the Ft. Lincoln cemetery in NE Washington.

I felt a kinship with Catherine as it was her book, “Beyond Ourselves” that I read in 1972 that so changed my life. And years later I happened to visit her family home in Lincoln, Va., a lovely place 50 miles west of DC, while a friend was renting it. Back in 2011, I got the bright idea of writing a biography of Catherine Marshall, as the centennial of her birth (Sept. 27, 1914) is next year. My agent was super excited about it, as he knew publishers who were looking for good bios for the evangelical Christian market. I went to the University of Maryland library where I got a ton of info about this remarkable woman. First, when Peter Marshall Jr. died in September 2010, there were 15 pages of tribute on the Boston Globe’s web site. Included in those tributes were notes from people who still remembered “A Man Called Peter” more than 50 years later.  One biographer called her a ‘reluctant feminist’ because she would have preferred to stay home as a widow and watch her 9-year-old son, but she had to work and so she began to write best-sellers. So many people remembered Catherine’s legacy. OK, she had written an autobiography, “Meeting God at Every Turn” in 1980, but I had a feeling there was a lot more to her life that had not been written about and that would fascinate people in the 21st century. I had never known, for instance, there was a 12-year-age difference between her and Peter Marshall Sr. And I always wondered how Catherine felt about the Community of Jesus, the Christian community in Orleans, Mass., that drew her son in to where it could have caused he and his wife, Edith, to divorce. One of my reporter friends wrote about the CoJ’s cultic tendencies years ago, so I’ve always been suspicious of them even though Christianity Today magazine did a puff piece on them in more recent years. But how that must have broken Catherine’s heart. She wrote about her own life in much detail but to my knowledge never mentioned that community.
But I digress. First I discovered that Catherine’s grave site was a mere two miles from my door. She had been buried at Ft. Lincoln Cemetery in NE Washington back in the days when whites were buried in one place and blacks were buried in another. One of the workers at Ft. Lincoln told me back in the 1940s, this was considered the white cemetery for that part of town and sure enough, it was not that far from the Capitol where Peter Marshall Sr worked. Knowing her grave was so close to Hyattsville (where I lived), I thought maybe this was a sign I should pursue this project further. I started seek out members of the family. Her stepdaughter, Linda Lader, who lives in the DC area, was very hard to reach and when I did reach her, I got the royal brush off. Linda referred me to a relative who was the family lawyer who in no uncertain terms told me that if I wrote about Catherine, I was inviting myself in for a very expensive lawsuit. She even cited a law saying I would need their permission to write anything about Catherine as they didn’t want anyone – except themselves apparently – making money off Catherine’s memory. After all, they’re still selling stuff off Peter Marshall Jr’s web site plus getting royalties from Catherine Marshall’s 20-something books. I told this attorney I’d written a huge biography a few years back (of Graham Pulkingham who she’d never heard of) and knew how to do research and would love to take a new look at Catherine but nooooo, she was not convinced and in a nice way told me to keep my hands off Catherine’s name. Sure made me wonder what was up, but I was a freelancer at the time, so was in no financial position to hire a few lawyers myself and go after this story. I tried contacting other family members but couldn’t get anywhere. Their loss. Catherine was such a special woman and her life and works deserve to be known in this century as well. Read the entries in her cemetery guest book and see how many people still remember her.

Thanksgiving in Tennessee and requiem

For awhile there, I thought we’d be having Thanksgiving at Cracker Barrel, as I was not up to cooking a large meal and my brother (with whom we had Thanksgiving last year) now lives 800 miles away. Fortunately a faculty member from the music department heard of my situation and invited us over. And so we had a good time, good conversation, a very filling meal and lots of playmates for Miss V.

Veeka with Ariel, the little mermaid

Just tonight I thought I’d call a friend – Laurie Paffhausen, who was such a great source for a piece I did almost two years ago for WaPo on her brother, Metropolitan Jonah, then head of the Orthodox Church in America. Imagine my shock when he picked up her cell phone and said she had died last week. We had a long conversation, he and I, about the stress she was under because of his ouster from the OCA last July and how it affected her pancreas to where the bleeding would not stop. She was admitted to Georgetown Hospital in early October. I so wish I’d known that when I was in DC back then, as I would have tried to see her somehow. She was only 50 years old when she died. You know, when you’re a reporter, there are some interviews that stay with you and all the conversations we had when I wrote my Metropolitan Jonah piece often made my day. She saw through all the politics, was very discerning about where the landmines were and was worried about her brother’s enemies. Which as it turns out, she had good reason to be. She had wanted to be by his side in early 2011; she only got to move to DC last winter and we tried for months to get together and finally I took Veeka to see her in mid-May at a lovely home in northwest Washington. We spent the afternoon together and had the nicest time chatting. I remember what a gorgeous spring day it was and how all the flowers were out. She too was looking for a job and we commiserated over how hard it was to find work in your middle age. When I heard in early July that her brother had been relieved of his duties, I called and emailed her but we could never connect. I could not imagine the stress she was feeling now that her brother was out of work, she had no work herself and their aged parents had just been uprooted from San Diego to spend their last years near Jonah who presumably would be leading the OCA for the next few decades. And then I moved. Now, of course, it is too late. Surely she never dreamed that Washington would literally be the death of her. Jonah did say he received her into Orthodoxy before she died.

It’s sunny and cold here, so I’ve been chopping down my banana plants, of which I have at least four in the backyard. Am trying to figure out how to best care for them in cold weather. After chopping away the leaves, I found little green bananas underneath that never grew to full size. Our growing season is not quite long enough for them; a surprise in that it seemed quite hot here for many months in a row. It’s been suggested I take them inside for the winter, but I don’t exactly have a built-in green house with which to do so. Ideas, anyone?

The photo is from a local craft fair last week where several students dressed as fairytale characters. Seeing them was Veeka’s big moment of the day.

Land between the Lakes

Last Friday was the opening convocation at Union, so I got to suit up in a borrowed master’s gown, hood (mine is packed away) and mortar board to march in the faculty procession. Quite the unique experience for someone who’s been in a news room all her life. When I got my master’s degree, they made us march in wearing albs and surplices, so this is the first time I’ve worn a graduation gown since leaving college more than 30 years ago.

Cap and gown

There being nothing for Veeka to do over the weekend, I decided to go seek out *some* natural beauty in this part of the country plus amuse her. I arranged to go visit Land Between the Lakes, a national recreation area of two enormous lakes and a peninsula created when the area was dammed up many years ago. The peninsula is known for having no lights on it at all at night, thus being a great place from which to view the stars. Saturday night was cloudy, so didn’t get to see the Milky Way from where we were staying at the inn at Paris Landing State Park which happily for Veeka, came equipped with a nice pool. During the drive there, I turned on the local radio, which was full of ads for the local soybean festival and a gun show in Paducah, which is not that far to the north. Other stations had country music and one dedicated to NASCAR racing. I finally found one tuned to oldies from the ’70s, which is what we listened to all weekend.

Veeka at Paris Landing

Our first order of business on Saturday was meeting up with some friends from my Washington Times days. She was Amy Bushatz, who was an intern at TWT a number of years ago and who married an Army guy who’s now stationed at Fort Campbell, not far from LBL. We met at Fort Donelson National Battlefield, a most interesting site where the Confederates in 1862 bungled what should have been a victory into a defeat that basically gave the Northerners access to Nashville and many of the railroads that kept the South going. It’s where Ulysses Grant made a name for himself and where two Confederate generals fell into infamy (they fled the field of battle instead of fighting). The Union had lost the battle but the Confederates, instead of pursuing the Union, pulled back their men, basically because the Southern generals didn’t have a clue as to what they were doing. Grant seized his opportunity and turned defeat into victory, forcing the Confederates back over ground they had taken. We visited the hotel at Dover where Grant met with Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner to arrange for the Confederates to surrender and of course the cannon batteries above the river. By this time, kids belonging to both families were howling for lunch, so we headed for a burger joint, then they left for home.

Mother and daughter as twins

Oddly, I found LBL a little disappointing. Maybe it was the drought conditions that made everything in late summer so dry. The bison fields only had one place where the buffaloes and their young were congregating and they all looked hot, uncomfortable and covered with bugs. The visitor center was so-so although it was interesting to see how the Tennessee Valley Authority flooded so many thousands of fertile acres way back when and pushed so many people out off their property to create the two lakes. I expected to drive along more waterfront but it’s the folks who stay in the campgrounds who get to see all that. Drivers stay on the “trace,” which is the highest point of land inland. I also guess the northern part is prettier and that it’s a better place to visit when it’s cooler. And so Veeka and I repaired back to the swimming pool at Paris Landing.

Veronica is in the blue princess outfit

A bit of updates: Veronica Tirador, the little girl I wrote about a few weeks ago, recovered fully and left the hospital last Saturday. They thought she’d need a walker or some kind of aid but apparently, after some physical therapy, she does not. She fared far better than Patrick Burgoyne, another child in the same neighborhood I lived in who somehow got into his parents’ van on Aug. 14, then couldn’t get out. He was barely alive when they found him and for four heartbreaking days, the medics at Children’s Hospital in DC tried to save him. I was following the whole thing on my iPhone non-stop as I know the parents and he had just turned 6; almost exactly the same age as Veronica. They finally declared him dead on Aug. 19. His funeral was yesterday (Aug. 25).