Distraction: Magnolia Blossoms in July

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20150703_081751For the past week or two, the magnolia tree in our front yard has been blooming again. Not as many blossoms as in the spring, and not as noticeable because the leaves are fully formed. But still a treat.

I don’t know what has caused the profusion of blooms. Is it all the rain we have had? The changing temperatures?

Usually the tree blooms in March or April—one of the earlier harbingers of spring. Sometimes it is tricked by warm days in January, only to be cut short by the next freeze. Rarely does it have many flowers in the full of summer, even though it is supposedly a southern tree.

But the blossoms are welcome whenever they come. For me they are a symbol of abundance and promise.

20150703_081743So I sit this morning at my desk writing, and my view is full of hope. The fully-leaved magnolia obscures all neighborhood activity, though I hear a power saw across the street and a lawnmower down the block.

All I see are the huge pink flowers surrounded by gaudy green foliage. Occasionally, a bird lights on a branch, or two squirrels play hide and seek (or other games) and shake the tree. A profusion of nature in my suburbia.

And a welcome distraction from writing a blog post.

What distractions keep you from writing?

A Year of Firsts: On Losing and On Finding Again

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My mother died on July 4 last year, so I am completing a year of firsts—the first Thanksgiving without her, the first Christmas, her birthday in early March, St. Patrick’s Day (a big holiday for her), Easter, Mother’s Day, and now the anniversary of her death.

In many ways, I lost her several years ago, because of the long, slow deterioration that Alzheimer’s causes. When I sent her cards and phoned her on holidays and other occasions after her diagnosis, we didn’t really communicate. She didn’t write back to me. She didn’t speak well on the phone, making our conversations very brief. So the firsts this past year often have not felt like firsts—just more of the same, but with less effort on my part.

For the past several years, the only times I felt we communicated were when I visited in person. Even then, she didn’t talk much. And once she moved into assisted living, we had only an hour or two a day together when my father and I went to her facility, usually over breakfast.

On one visit about a year before she died, I sat with her after breakfast in a lovely sun room in her facility overlooking a bay on Puget Sound. She stared at me.

I remembered my mother’s stares well from childhood, when she glared as she chastised me. That morning in the sun room, I was uncomfortable with her hawk-like gaze fixed on me, just as I had been when I was five.

“What are you looking at?” I asked her.

“I don’t want to lose you,” she said.

I laughed. “You won’t lose me,” I said. “I’m right here.”

She kept staring.

Later I wondered whether she knew she was losing her memories, one by one, and was trying to imprint my image on her brain so she would remember who I was. (I think she knew me all the way through my last visit to see her just a few weeks before she died.)

With her death, of course, we have lost each other, at least for the time being, even if the “firsts” have not always hit home with me.

But through this past year, I have found my mother as well. Her laughter has sounded in my head like I hadn’t heard it in years, and I have felt her contentment, her freedom from Alzheimer’s.

My mother giving me an early reading lesson

My mother and me in my “Boom-Boom Bunny” days

I’ve read what she wrote in my baby book and those of my siblings. What she wrote seemed silly to me—she filled out my baby book from the point of view of me as a baby:

“. . . my very special pleasure was to laugh and ‘talk’ to the bunny rabbits on my bedroom curtains. Mummy named them for me: the yellow bunnies were ‘Sunny Bunny’, the pink were “Honey Bunny”, and the blue were “Funny Bunny”—but I was the fourth bunny—“Boom Boom Bunny”.

But then, she was just 23 when I was born, and still 24 when she had her second child, so I suppose she was entitled to be silly.

My youngest brother told me our mother used to sing “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” with him when he was a preschooler. I never knew that—or had forgotten, and I was glad to know she still had some silly left in her when he came along in her mid-thirties. My memories of her in those years were of the glaring disciplinarian, so I found her silliness again through my brother’s story.

I have also found her this past year in the travel journals she kept and in the paper she wrote on Eleanor of Aquitaine for her Questers group. I found her in notes she left in books. I found her in sympathy cards from her friends after her death, in which they wrote about how much they always loved getting her letters. I found her also in the stories my father told between her death and his, and in the many pictures of both my parents that I pulled together for first her funeral and then his.

So this year, a year of loss, has also been a year of recovery. As will be the next year and the next. I imagine I will feel both loss and recovery for many years to come. If some friends are correct, perhaps for the rest of my life.

How have you recovered from the losses in your life?

Dad’s Buttermilk Pancake Recipe

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My husband and I are creatures of habit when it comes to breakfast. I usually have Carnation Instant Breakfast and a Diet Coke; he eats hot cereal—oatmeal or Malt-o-Meal or something similar. When I’m in a hurry, I’ll eat granola bars, and sometimes he will have Shredded Wheat or another cold cereal.

But occasionally on a Sunday morning, my husband makes pancakes and bacon. I try not to mix up my instant breakfast until I see if we are having a pancake Sunday, because I wouldn’t want to miss out on my share. He uses a pancake mix—one of a variety that we have been given as gifts or that he has purchased to try out. His favorite is a mix from College of the Ozarks (buy it here), which is fine if you like a whole wheat flour that isn’t too heavy.

My favorite pancakes are not from a mix at all, but are my father’s buttermilk pancakes. On weekend mornings when I was a child, I’d stay in bed until I smelled the bacon cooking. No microwaved bacon then—my father fried it on the stove. One morning when I was about seven or eight, I leaned over the pan, and the grease popped and burned my forehead. I had a small round scar there for years.

After he fried the bacon, he mixed up the pancake batter. There was a variation of the batter for waffles, but I preferred pancakes, so that’s what I hoped for. These pancakes were light enough I could eat eight to ten. They were sweet, but with a little tang of buttermilk. Topped with maple syrup or sometimes raspberry jam. Mmm.

The taste still says childhood and weekend and comfort to me.

When I married and my mother typed up a box of recipes for me to have, the pancake recipe was one I made sure she included. Unfortunately, my husband prefers a heartier pancake to these light as a feather buttermilk ones, so we rarely make them.

And my father made them less often once the children were gone, preferring instead to make omelets to accompany the bacon. But he still fried his bacon on the stove, even after microwaves were available. I know, because when I visited, I had to clean the stove afterward. He never did like to clean.

Here’s the Buttermilk Pancake recipe:

pancake recipe 20150625_185334

It doubles well, if you have lots of people around. Sometimes my father had to make second batches, even after doubling it.

What foods say childhood and comfort to you?

An Almost Sixty-Year Love Story, or Sixty-Six, If You Start at the Beginning

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At the Snow Ball dance

At the Snow Ball dance

Shortly after Christmas last year, my father commented to me that it was the first Christmas in sixty-six years he had not spent with my mother. “Ever since I took her to the Snow Ball when we were sophomores in high school,” he said.

They started dating as fifteen-year-olds, “went together” through the remainder of high school, wrote many letters while they were at separate colleges, and married within days of their college graduations on June 25, 1955. Then they took a two week honeymoon in Carmel, California, near Pacific Grove, where my mother had vacationed as a child.

My parents at their wedding, 1955

My parents at their wedding, 1955

I came along nine months and ten days after the wedding. And more kids over the years.

My parents’ marriage was always at the core of our family life. My mother was a homemaker and stay-at-home-caregiver. My father worked long hours as he built his career. I remember fun times and sibling rivalry and punishments and long summer vacations. But always, my parents and their partnership were the foundation around which we grew.

No one really can see into another couple’s marriage, so I can’t be completely accurate in describing their relationship. And perhaps children are among the last to see their parents as separate people, each with his or her own aspirations and dreams. As children, we are too self-centered.

Also, as I got older, I came to realize that my parents had their differences. I’ve written before about how I had to parent the parents one summer to get them to talk to each other. My mother let things slip sometimes about her grievances against my father. In the months after Mother moved into assisted living, my dad told me stories about a depressing time for my mother, which I remember only as a young child.

They each compromised for the other, sometimes more one than the other. I remember my mother telling me shortly before I got married, “You know, marriage isn’t always 50/50.”

I, in my naivete, replied. “No, it’s 100/100.” Boy, was I wrong, because none of us can live up to that standard.

But still, whatever their differences, my parents were a matched set—in my mind, and in the minds of many of their friends.

My parents in 2005 on one of the cruises they took

My parents in 2005 on one of the cruises they took

Ten years ago, during the summer of 2005, much of our family gathered to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in Carmel, where they had honeymooned. All my family and my sister’s family were there. My brother’s wife was about to have a baby, so they bowed out. It was a joyous occasion, and both of my parents were healthy, active, and engaged.

After getting reacquainted with Carmel that summer, they rented a house there for a month or more each of the next several winters. They took cruises. They bought a new home on the Olympic Peninsula. “We had a good life,” my father told me often in the last few years.

“I never really minded taking care of your mother,” my father told me after she died. (I remembered some of his complaints as her abilities declined with Alzheimer’s, but I kept quiet.) “She took care of me for so many years. It was a privilege for me to care for her.” I know he believed that. And he cared for her well, first at home and then by faithful visits to her living facility.

Last summer, on June 25, 2015,  they spent their 59th anniversary together, alone in my mother’s room. She was in hospice care. She was failing, and we knew it. We didn’t know how long she had left. As it turned out, she died on July 4, just nine days after their anniversary.

My father was bereft after she died. But he seemed to rally as he planned his own move to a continuing care facility . . . in 2016, because he wasn’t ready yet. But he didn’t make it until 2016. He died this past January.

So this year—on their 60th anniversary—both my parents are gone. I mourn them both, but I am comforted to know they are together again. They do not have to spend their anniversary apart, as they did last Christmas.

Happy 60th Anniversary, Mother and Dad

Banking in the American West in the 1840s—Before and After the Gold Rush

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I’ve blogged about some boring topics related to my research for my Oregon Trail and Gold Rush novels, but this post may discuss the most boring—banking. Yet one of the biggest problems I had in plotting my novel was how my protagonist could move money from the East Coast to Oregon, and then between California and Oregon.

My hero is a wealthy young man from Boston. He seems to have money to spend whenever he needs it. He was the son of a banker in Boston, so he would have had a sophisticated understanding of how to move money in the 1840s. But how did he move it from place to place? And how did he keep it—did he carry coins or paper or something else?

1840-C_T1_5 gold eagle coinThe easy part of my research was determining what coins were in circulation in 1847-1850. The hard part was describing how emigrants in the West bought things or paid debts when they did not have coins or could not readily transfer them (from California to Oregon, for example).

In the 19th century, many citizens disliked banks even more than today’s citizens do after the Great Recession. It wasn’t necessarily distrust of financial exchanges that led to the distaste for banks. Rather, financial institutions were disliked as much because they were corporations as because they lent money—all corporations were distrusted. The agrarian society of the 1840s saw little need for corporations or for lenders, preferring to rely on their hard work and the produce of the land to pay their way through life.

In my research I learned some fascinating anecdotes of what people really did to move their money. Prairie schooners were sometimes built with false bottoms in the wagons.  Most people put food or tools in this extra space. But one emigrant to Oregon (a free black man, named George Washington Bush) supposedly filled his with $2,000 in gold coins and bullion. When I read that, I thought of his poor oxen which had to carry all that gold over mountains and through rivers.

Today we are in the middle of a revolution in our monetary system. We are moving from hard currency and paper checks to electronic transfers of funds and even exchanges via our smartphones. Soon we may have greater use of Bitcoin and other quasi-monetary forms of exchange.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the U.S. was moving just moving beyond the barter system. There was hard currency, but few people saw much of it. There were private letters of credit, but those often traded at substantial discounts.

There was no bank in San Francisco for several years after the Gold Rush of 1849. Oregon prohibited banking in its constitution until 1880, when the state constitution was interpreted only to prohibit bank notes being used as forms of exchange. (This was probably an erroneous interpretation of the Oregon legislators’ intent, but it did allow banks to develop.)

In the gold fields, gold dust served as a means of exchange, but it traded at different values, and was always subject to the purchaser determining its purity.

stagecoach11 wells fargoGold that wasn’t spent in or around the Gold Rush boomtowns had to be physically hauled overland. The prospectors took their dust and nuggets to express companies, which served as clearing houses of sorts, moving the gold from place to place. Wells Fargo grew out of one of these early express companies.

Determining even this much information took me months of sporadic research. I finally found a book I thought was on point, Banks & Politics in America, from the Revolution to the Civil War, Bray Hammond (Princeton University Press, 1957), but even that was not as detailed as I wanted.

Still Hammond’s book told me how bills of exchange were traded and used as collateral for loans. These bills of exchange were discounted to reflect their risk, and purchasers of the bills had to be careful they weren’t counterfeited. (Think about taking someone’s personal check today, but not really knowing if there was a bank behind the printed check. . . . let alone whether the person giving you the check had funds in his or her account.)

Promissory notes were another form of exchange, and these were also traded at a discount.

Businesses not called “banks” also functioned as banks, by extending credit, exchanging notes or bills of exchange, and discounting the notes they took.

Mercantile establishments issued credit by running tallies for their customers, requiring that the account balances be satisfied periodically, either when the crops came in or when customers had currency. Often, however, these accounts kept going for years.

Also, these store account balances operated like bank ledgers. Someone with a credit balance at the store might transfer some of his account to another person in the community with a debit balance to satisfy a debt between the two parties. Cash rarely exchanged hands.

In fact, in Gold in the Woodpile: An Informal History of Banking in Oregon, by O.K. Burrell (1967), the author discusses how merchants acted as bankers, because money was extremely rare in pioneer Oregon. In fact, an Oregon law passed in 1845 made “orders on solvent merchants” legal tender. And “good merchantable wheat at the market price” was also legal tender. Farmers were more likely to have wheat and other crops to deposit than coin.

Thus, means of exchanging funds beyond barter developed, even in the wild, wild West of 19th century America.

At least, that’s how I’m depicting it in my novel.

There were times when these systems broke down, just like today. In February 1855, the Adams & Company Express Company had just declared bankruptcy. Louis Remme had just deposited his gold in their San Francisco office when he learned the news. But their Portland, Oregon, office didn’t yet know. If he could beat the ocean steamship that had just left for Portland with the news, he could withdraw his funds in Portland and save his fortune. He rode the 700 miles to Portland in six days, just beating the steamship. He gladly paid the 1/2 percent fee to withdraw his funds in gold. As he exited the Adams Express office, the man reporting the bankruptcy entered. (For a riveting description of Remme’s journey, see Remme’s Race for a Fortune.)

Any readers who see errors in how I have described banking and systems of exchange in the 19th century, please leave me a comment. It’s not too late for me to correct my book! Thank you.

Share a Diet Coke (or Pepsi) with Dad

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The Coca-Cola Company has an advertising campaign underway using the slogan “Share a Coke with . . . .” Their bottles and cans are labeled with such suggestions as “Share a Coke with a VIP,” or “Share a Diet Coke with your Soulmate.”

20150516_073752 Diet CokeA few days ago, I picked up a can labeled “Share a Diet Coke with Dad.” Memories of friendly arguments with my father immediately “popped” into my mind. He was a Diet Pepsi man, while I prefer Diet Coke.

I didn’t always prefer Coke over Pepsi, and I didn’t used to drink diet soda. I grew up in a Pepsi household and didn’t switch my allegiance to Coke until I was working and my place of employment stocked the vending machines with Coke products.

I didn’t switch from regular soda to diet until my second pregnancy, when I decided to save my calories for chocolate instead of sugared drinks.

In fact, I didn’t use to call it “soda.” In the West where I grew up, it was “pop.”

“What is ‘pop’?” a friend asked my freshman year of college. “You mean ‘soda’ or ‘cola’? Why don’t you say so?”

But while my tastes changed over time, my father’s did not. He always bought Diet Pepsi. Except when I came to visit. Then he stocked up on Diet Coke. And when he visited me, I bought Diet Pepsi for him. That’s what you do for guests, even when they’re family.

My father even bought Pepsi stock, while I bought Coca-Cola. My broker recommended Pepsi initially, but I told him I preferred to drink Coke. “Coca Cola’s doing all right, too,” he said. “You can buy it if you want.” So I did.

My dad’s Pepsi stock did better than my Coca-Cola over a several year period. He delighted in ribbing me about the stock returns. But when I became his executor, I noticed that he owned both Pepsi and Coca Cola stocks in various investment accounts, so I guess he wasn’t as partisan as he made it seem.

He died in early January of this year. After his death, I made several trips to stay in his house, sorting out his papers, setting aside family items for my siblings and me, preparing for an estate sale, and cleaning out junk. I found several twelve-packs of Diet Pepsi stashed in his garage. I drank his Diet Pepsi throughout my visits, thinking of him as I popped open each can. There were still a few cans left in his refrigerator when I locked the house after my last visit.

When I recently picked up that Diet Coke can urging me to share it with Dad, I did so. Through all these memories, I shared that can with Dad.

And I’ll share a few more memories (and a few Diet Cokes) with him on my first Father’s Day without him this coming Sunday. I might even buy Diet Pepsi in his honor.

What advertisements bring back memories for you?

Sounds of Cicadas

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Many memories are triggered by milestone anniversaries—things that happened five or ten or twenty-five years ago. But this memory of mine returned because of a seventeen-year anniversary. The seventeen-year cicadas are back this summer. It’s been so rainy that I haven’t been outside to hear them much, but the news reports bring to mind memories of a long-ago summer nonetheless.

I had never encountered cicadas until I moved to Missouri. Like fireflies, cicadas were foreign to the desert of Eastern Washington. During my first summer in Missouri, I asked my husband, “What is that noise?” He explained it was bugs. I don’t fear insects the way I do spiders, but it still dismayed me that my summertime pleasure could be disrupted by an ear-piercing drone that made conversation difficult.

Seventeen years ago—in June 1998—our family was preparing to hike in the Alps. “We need to take a practice hike,” my husband said. “To break in your boots and be sure you’ll make it.” He didn’t have much confidence in my fitness, which was probably wise.

So he, our daughter, and I set aside a Saturday that month to take a hike near Lake Perry in Kansas. Kansas, as most people know, is flat. But it was the best we could do to prepare for our mountain hike. Our son was also coming on this trip, but he had other plans that Saturday. “He’s on his own,” my husband said. Our son had taken plenty of Boy Scout hikes, so at least he had more experience than I did.

Me, after the first day of hiking in Switzerland

Me, after the first day of hiking in Switzerland

We put on our boots and set out on the trail, but were deafened by the sound of cicadas. That year, not only were the seventeen-year cicadas out, but a bumper crop of the thirteen-year variety also. We couldn’t talk, and we crunched the insect carcasses under our new boots as we walked.

I survived the practice hike (there was never any doubt about my husband or daughter), and a couple of weeks later our family set out for Switzerland. I’ve written before about that trip.

Now, seventeen years later, I reflect on how much our family has changed. Our son has finished high-school and college. Since college, he has lived and worked in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York, then cycled through all three cities again (he just moved back to New York).

Our daughter went through high school, college, and law school, taking up crew along the way. She has been a lawyer in Washington State for five years now, and owns a house and a dog.

My husband and I have both retired. We are forging this new phase in our lives, filling our days with both joys and sorrows as we age.

But when I hear the cicadas, I return to that summer of 1998, when our children were still living at home—no longer dependent, but not yet independent either. The house was full, our lives were hectic, and the four of us seldom all headed in the same direction.

That week in Switzerland was an opportunity to build memories together. I treasure my memories of that week, and I hope the rest of the family does also. The noise of the cicadas this summer triggers my memories. And the memories fill the silence of our empty nest.

What sounds trigger memories for you?

Speaking of Regrets: A Mother’s Perspective

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It dawned on me recently that my son graduated from high school fifteen years ago this year. His graduation ceremony was actually in May 2000, but I missed remembering the milestone last month.

As I reflected on his graduation (once I did remember it), I thought about the different directions I could take in writing this post. I could write about how his passage out of high school was a big step in my realizing that my kids were growing up. I could write about how difficult his senior year of high school had been for kid and parents alike and how we were all ready for the next phase.

But what seemed most important to me at this point in my life—and his—was a regret I have when looking back on his senior year. I don’t usually focus on regrets, because by their very definition, they cannot be changed, and it is better to move on. But this is one regret I do admit.

20150609_181024My son was quite accomplished in debate and forensics, and he participated in many National Forensic League (now apparently called the National Speech & Debate Association) tournaments for his high school’s team. He lettered all four years, and was very proud of the letter jacket we got him during his sophomore year (though in later years, it apparently was not cool for him to wear it). His junior and senior years my son qualified for the national NFL competitions. He brought back a trophy both years.

One of the events he participated in most years was dramatic interpretation, which I enjoyed far more than team debate. I judged a few local debate tournaments for his school, but the arguing over ridiculous tangents seemed totally unrealistic to me. As a lawyer, I wanted the debate focused on what was relevant to the issue under discussion. Like a judge would make me do.

20150609_181217In dramatic interpretation, two partners act out a skit. I saw the skit my son and his partner did his junior year. It told the story of two young men going through their military service. It ended with my son wounded and curled in a ball on the floor crying, “Mommy, mommy,” just as my son had done as a baby.

I was sitting in the front row, and my son was dying in front of me. It was all I could do to stay in my seat. I had to clutch the sides of my chair so I wouldn’t go comfort him—“I’m here, I’m here. I’ll save you!”—which would have embarrassed us both.

But I never saw my son’s senior dramatic interpretation skit. And that is my regret.

He didn’t much want his parents around his senior year, but I now believe it was my responsibility as a parent to insist that I go at least once to see him perform. I wish I had witnessed again his talent, as I had his junior year. I wish I’d had another opportunity to swell with pride and to think to myself, “I’m here, I’m here.”

Because, as a mother, I’ll always be there for him, at least in spirit. Even when he doesn’t want me to be.

What regrets do you have as a parent? Can you remedy them today?

A Twenty-First Century Visit to Fort Laramie

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On our recent drive from Washington State to Missouri, my husband and I detoured to Fort Laramie. We both wanted to see it, but for different reasons. My husband loves military history and was interested in understanding the strategic role Fort Laramie played on the Western frontier. I wanted to envision its role as a supply station on the Oregon Trail in 1847.

Reconstructed barracks at Ft. Laramie

Reconstructed barracks at Ft. Laramie

To some extent, both our purposes were realized. But because the fort changed significantly between 1847 and the current reconstruction of the fort (focused on what it looked like in 1888), my husband’s purpose was fulfilled more than mine. I didn’t find much that was useful for the novel I’m working on.

I’ve posted before about Fort Laramie.  As I wrote in that post, in 1847 Fort Laramie was the first sign of civilization that emigrants to Oregon found after they left Kansas Territory. It was a trading post at that time and wasn’t acquired by the U.S. Army until 1849. After the Army bought it, the fort was rebuilt and served as a military post until 1890.

In fact, in 1847 Fort Laramie was known as Fort John, although I call it Fort Laramie in my novel to accommodate modern readers. It was owned by the American Fur Company. There had been an earlier post at the site called Fort William which originated in 1834 and supported fur traders.

Reconstructed fort store, which dates back to 1849

Reconstructed fort store, which dates back to 1849

Laramie River

Laramie River

Although the buildings weren’t much help to me, I was able to stroll the banks of the Laramie River and envision the emigrants crossing it. I could imagine their wagons and tents on the fields outside the fort.

Laramie River

Laramie River

And I was impressed with the reconstruction of the fort. The National Park Service has done a remarkable job of restoring Fort Laramie to its 1880s grandeur. Officers’ quarters, cavalry barracks, a guardhouse for disciplining wayward soldiers, and the magazine have all been rebuilt.

In addition, a film at the National Historic Site describes Fort Laramie’s role throughout the latter half of the 19th century. The fort was an important setting both for negotiating treaties with the Native Americans and also for defending emigrants and keeping the peace in the area.

After the fort closed as an Army post in 1890, the buildings were sold at auction, and the area opened to homesteading. It was acquired by the National Park Service in 1983—almost a century later. The ruins of buildings as yet unreconstructed show what a century of decay can do. Nothing lasts forever, not even a fort built to withstand a war.

The National Park Service’s site at Fort Laramie is worth a visit, particularly if you can be there on a gorgeous spring day like we were. You will learn a lot of history, if you aren’t as finicky as I am about focusing only on 1847.

What historic sites do you like to visit?

Stories I Couldn’t Tell Before: The Communion Host

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I’ve known since I began writing this blog that there were stories I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) tell until after my parents were dead. But I thought it would be many more years before I could tell them. A year ago, both of my parents were alive (though my mother’s Alzheimer’s was advancing rapidly). Now they are both gone.

Here is the first of the stories I have waited to tell.

The last picture of my mother

The last picture of my mother

This story happened just a year ago in June 2014, on the last visit I made to see my mother. She lived in a dementia care facility, and my father visited her daily. I went to see them every few months from my home halfway across the nation, and on my trips I made the daily visits with my dad. My mother had been hospitalized a couple of weeks before I saw her in June, and she was not doing well after her hospitalization.

Every Sunday morning the local Catholic parish near the facility where she lived sent lay Eucharistic Ministers to conduct a brief prayer and communion service for the residents. They held a group service, which my mother attended for the first year or so she lived there. Then they visited the rooms of Catholic residents who could not come to the group service.

On the Sunday last June during my visit, a woman stopped my my mother’s room while I was there to offer her communion. Catholic practice is that as long as dementia patients might understand the significance of a consecrated host and can physically consume some small portion, the host is offered to them if they want it.

Mother could still say the “Our Father.” My dad and I weren’t sure she knew what it meant, but she recited the words with very little prompting. After all, she had probably been saying them since before she started school—a long-term memory that was still with her. So the woman started the prayer, and we all—including my mother—prayed along.

Then the woman gave my mother a small piece of consecrated host. One symptom of late-stage Alzheimer’s is that patients have difficulty swallowing, and this minister knew that my mother could not handle a whole host.

About thirty minutes after the minister left, I noticed my mother fidgeting. My dad had left the room to talk to a caregiver, so I tried to figure out what was wrong. Soon it was clear Mother had something in her mouth she didn’t like, and I got her to spit it into a tissue for me.

It was the fragment of consecrated host, which she had not swallowed.

Now what did I do?

Catholics revere the consecrated host as the Body of Christ. I knew it couldn’t just be thrown in the trash, but I didn’t know the proper disposal method. So I folded it carefully in the tissue and put it in my pocket.

I didn’t tell my father, because it would distress him. He would worry both because my mother wasn’t swallowing (she’d had trouble eating since her hospitalization) and because he’d also want to do the right thing with the host. I decided to take responsibility for this problem myself. What could I do that honored both my parents and the consecrated host?

When we got back to my dad’s house, I researched proper disposal of the host. My first discovery was that Catholic Canon Law automatically excommunicates anyone who knowingly discards the consecrated host improperly. As with civil law, once one knows what the law is, one is bound to follow it. Though apparently ignorance of the canon law could be an excuse.

Nevertheless, having taken on responsibility for the host, I would have to handle it correctly, so I could sleep at night. I discovered three options:

Option 1: I could consume it myself, which didn’t sound very healthy, particularly since my mother had been sick recently.

Option 2: I could dispose of it in a dedicated sacrarium (a special sink in the sacristy at a Catholic church), but that would require me to talk to my father and get him to drive me to the church, where we would have to find someone to let us into the sacristy. He might well have chosen to undertake Option 1 himself at that point.

Option 3: I could dissolve it in water until it was no longer recognizable as bread and dispose of it in the ground.

Statue of St. Francis, after he handled my problem

Statue of St. Francis, after he handled my problem

I chose Option 3 as the choice that was most likely to treat my parents with respect and still be congruent with Catholic expectations.

I dissolved the host in water overnight. The next morning I poured the water under a statue of St. Francis of Assisi in a garden in my parents’ front yard. I figured St. Francis would take care of the rest. He’s a compassionate fellow, known to be gentle and kind. I thought he would understand my need to be sensitive to my mother’s disability and my father’s concern for her. And I said the “Our Father” as I poured out the water for safe measure.

When I began to tell my daughter this story some weeks later, she interrupted me with, “Just put it in the ground.”

“How’d you know that?” I asked.

“That’s where the sink at the sacristy goes. It doesn’t go through the sewer, water exits straight outside to the earth.”

Apparently, her Catholic education was better than mine. Of course, she started in a Catholic preschool when she was three months old and stayed in Catholic schools through her undergraduate degree. I guess twenty-two years taught her something.

I now chuckle thinking of the story, which worried me terribly at the time. A part of me wishes I had chosen Option 2, so I could have shared the story with my father. My mother’s difficulty swallowing meant we put her into hospice within a week or two after she spit out the communion host, and she died less than a month after this last visit of mine.

Then my father died suddenly six months later.

Which is why I can write this story now.

What family stories do you have that you can’t tell yet? (You don’t have to tell them in the comments, but you might start writing them down for yourself.)

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