Sunday, May 29, 2011

Memorial Day: “Remember me with flowers”

We are celebrating more than a three-day weekend. On Memorial Day we remember all who have died, especially those who died for our country.

The death of Osama bin Laden brought back images of September 11, 2001. We witnessed so much of that bloody tragedy that it seems miraculous that since then, courageous men and women have volunteered to face similar horrors in war zones, to protect and avenge this country and all of us. Now, small flags fly above the graves of many of those courageous souls.

I remember such a flag, flying above the grave of my Uncle Irvin Bates, who was killed at Okinawa.  It flew in the windswept cemetery at Bates, Idaho.  My mother grew up as a neighbor of Irvin’s, and then in later years, Mom married Wayne Nelson and Irvin married Wayne’s sister, Ruth. Our parents instilled in us a solemn reverence for the American flag, especially the flag that flew above Irvin’s grave.

As a child, I looked forward to playing with cousins at the big Memorial Day family picnic. However, my favorite Memorial Day memories were placing lilacs, apple blossoms, tulips, iris, wildflowers and even dandelions on loved ones' graves—in recognition of my grandfather’s request to put “Any kind of flowers, even dandelions, on my grave, but never put plastic flowers there.” He was buried in the Bates Idaho Cemetery, and eventually, my grandmother was laid next to him, no longer a happy participant at the family picnic.

Death is certain for all of us. Living on after the death of a loved one is one of life’s most painful challenges. Memorial Day softens that heavy burden with its whispered message, “Remember me fondly, with spring flowers.”

The graves of Arthur & Thelma Holm, Shelley Idaho Cemetery,
Memorial Day 2010

Lt. Col. John McRae, MD, combined the image of flowers with the challenge to remember in his poem “In Flanders Fields.” When he wrote it, this experienced battle surgeon of the Canadian 1st Field Artillery Brigade had spent 17 days treating injured men -- Canadians, British, Indians, French, and Germans -- in the Ypres salient in World War I.

McCrae later wrote: "…Seventeen days of Hades! At the end of the first day if anyone had told us we had to spend 17 days there, we would have folded our hands and said it could not have been done."

One death particularly affected McCrae. A young friend and former medical student of McCrae’s, Lt. Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, was killed 2 May 1915. Helmer was buried in the little cemetery outside McCrae's dressing station, and McCrae performed the funeral in the chaplain’s absence.

The next day, sitting on the back of an ambulance parked beside the Canal de l'Yser, where wild poppies grew, McCrae vented his anguish by composing a poem.

It was very nearly not published. Dissatisfied with it, McCrae tossed the poem away, but a fellow officer retrieved it and sent it to newspapers in England. The Spectator rejected it, but Punch published it.    (Information from  Here is the poem:
In Flanders Fields

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Oliver Wendell Homes Jr. said, “It is a noble thing to do whatever we may. . . to keep our memories, our reverence and our love alive and to hand them on to new generations all too ready to forget.”

This year, may we celebrate the coming of spring with picnics, camping, swimming, boating, and outdoor sports, because we’ve waited a long time for good weather! But also, may we take a child to a cemetery and place some flowers, look at some flags, and remember. . .

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Family Reunions: “If baby ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!”

Once a grandmother (who shall remain nameless) planned a reunion while a son-in-law was studying to take the bar exam.  He couldn’t attend. Bad form.

Another time, she set the date right so her children and grandchildren could see each other after several years.  One young couple drove to Idaho from Texas with boys ages four and two years old, and three months; a couple with a pregnant mommy and an 18-month-old flew from Chicago, and a local couple brought children ages 6 and one.

Most of the family enjoyed camping, so Grandma had reserved campsites and planned menus and activities.  But two weeks before the reunion, she started worrying that the campsites weren’t big enough for the entire group—and then there was her husband’s aversion to camping. So she reserved a nearby cabin for her husband and herself.

I won’t attempt to describe what the three young couples and their single siblings endured that August night—the sulfur-scented lightning flashing on Redfish Lake, the thunder that shook the tents (though the babies did their utmost to block it out by screaming), the waterfalls cascading down the insides of tents (and sleeping bags), the curses that rang out against the grandparents sleeping peacefully several miles away, and I certainly won’t mention the truly miserable moments.

The next night, the baby and his parents slept in the cabin while Grandpa and Grandma took the tent. The morning-sick mommy was installed in a quickly-rented lodge room, and the third family spent another wet night in their tent, nearly resulting in divorce proceedings.

Three years have passed. The little ones are doing fine, aside from a few minor tics and the tendency to scream whenever they smell pine—ah, the resilience of youth! The parents are still in therapy, but perhaps by the time Grandma’s on her deathbed, they’ll speak to her.

The lessons: 1) Schedule your reunion around the most distant or busy family members, perhaps piggy-backed to another big event such as a wedding or a class reunion.  2) “If baby ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!” 3) Follow the Golden Rule and keep accommodations equal. 4) At reunions, Murphy’s Law is in force with a vengeance.  Excellent—not just good—planning is the only chance we have in the battle against everything that goes wrong.

Lula Sellers and Bonnie Badger, who have planned many reunions for their respective families, gave great advice on locations.

Lula suggested having a one-day reunion near home. (If renting lodgings is financially prohibitive, this is the best option. Or, have the reunion only every two or three years.)

You could fish local streams, or get a boat for water fun at Lake Lowell, Lucky Peak, Eagle Island or Black Canyon Dam.   Take in Treasure Valley tourist sites—Oregon Trail sites in Parma, Middleton and Boise, museums, Bruneau Dunes, the Snake River Birds of Prey area, the Idaho Capitol Building, the Old Penitentiary, and the Boise tour train. Visit local parks, pools or amusement and water parks.

If you want to get away, or if it’s a family tradition to go somewhere new, mention that you want a family discount as you try other options:  church, educational or youth camps; cabins, lodges, motels, resorts, guest ranches, condominiums, RV parks, cruise companies, community centers, convention centers, visitors bureaus and chambers of commerce.

Wherever you go, Bonnie says having water nearby provides instant entertainment for nearly all ages.  Bonnie is planning her family’s reunion at a unique Idaho site: Campus Grove, at Albion in Southern Idaho. The historic dormitory from the “Albion Normal School” accommodates up to 100 people. It’s 12 miles off of I-84, and the City of Rocks is a great side-trip. The building features 15+ bedrooms, a kitchen and dining area, large gathering rooms and a spacious lawn.  The nearby mountains are lovely.

So: use dates that work best for hard-to-schedule family members, and do your best to find the best possible spot. Then plan like crazy to make it work for everybody (not just for Grandma!)  

(And by the way, I’ve learned from my mistakes.  If anything like this ever happens again, I’ll be smart enough to get out before the kids find the tar and feathers!)

Friday, May 20, 2011

That cheatin’ smart phone is insaning me!

In my husband’s family, Scrabble is a sacred rite. When we’d been married a month, they ran me through two holiday gauntlets: Grandpa convinced me to try Swedish pickled herring (ugh!) and Grandma invited me to play Scrabble. Though I never acquired a taste for pickled herring, Scrabble was a different matter.

Ceremoniously, Grandma Holm set out her deluxe Scrabble set: the fancy, turn-table playing board, the wooden tile-holders, the pink bag full of tiles she’d embroidered with “Scrabble,” a pencil and paper for keeping score, and three thick dictionaries.

It was “game-on”—serious business. Any confidence I had in my college English-major status was quickly shattered. Scrabble is a game of strategy, intelligence and skill, all of which Grandma possessed because of her avid reading which added luster to her eighth grade education.  I didn’t win that night and have seldom won since.

Scrabble wasn’t poker.  You couldn’t bluff your way through with made-up words. Confident Holm Scrabble players were quick to challenge an iffy word, ever ready to look it up in the dictionary and make me lose my turn. I learned to play it safe, and used Grandma’s dictionaries to find words like “skeg,” “emu,” “kea,” and “pi” to use in tight spots.

After Grandma died, we inherited her Scrabble game and dictionaries. Now we run our kids’ romantic interests through the same gauntlet I faced. One girl beat the socks off of us—I hope that wasn’t the reason they broke up!

 Grandma Thelma and Grandpa Art Holm

We recently spent a week with my husband’s sister from Florida, who inherited Grandma’s Scrabble skills and reminded us that we’re getting rusty. So this week, my husband and I faced off in our first two-man game, only this time, we played on the iPhone.

At first it was typical—dribbles of two and three letter words punctuated with an occasional flash of four-letter-word brilliance. Then we noticed a “best word” option that produced fancy words. 

My husband, who dearly loves his iPhone, said it takes a pretty smart phone to come up with “whelm” and “putrid” to net 40-50 points.

I agreed, until “best word” started floating bogus words.  Did I say that in Scrabble, you can’t bluff your way through? No one told the producers of this game—the first word I questioned was “saned.” The dictionary for the iPhone Scrabble game doesn’t give meanings or parts of speech—it only tells whether a word is valid.  It says, and I quote, “Saned is a valid word.” I don’t think it knows what it’s talking about. (Not actually talking but—texting?)

How do you use that word in a sentence?  “Being around Jane saned John.”  It makes more sense to say “Being around Jane insaned John.” But no—according to the iPhone dictionary, “Insaned is not a valid word.” While I yelled that “sane” is not a verb, and thus cannot accept the past tense –ed ending, “saned” sat smugly in its triple letter spot at the bottom of the board.  And by the way—the iPhone also keeps score!

Here are some egregious examples of other “valid words”: fidged, emanant, jun, el, al, eh, ka, yurta, chi, ar, re, za, er. I could go on, but you get the idea. 

Another annoying feature is the “teacher.”  AFTER you post a word, it shows you a better, longer, word that could have been formed with your letters.  I was proud of “super” until the teacher showed me “pursier.” Grrr! If it starts jeering at me, I’m chucking the phone!

These shenanigans bring out the worst in me and I try to beat the phone at its own game, bluffing with all kinds of nonsense—but no luck—bosc, bosn, puh, zet, cubious, and crazied are NOT valid words. (The only thing that makes this remotely acceptable is that I scored with “kiter, zee, zin and quin,” words I never would’ve tried in the old days! Are they actually words? I don’t dare look in Grandma’s dictionary!)

Can we go back to how it used to be—two puny brains duking it out in a feeble battle of vocabulary? Or will we become despicable cheaters, allowing an arrogant machine to palm off phony words to bump up our scores?

Our only hope is to put away the technology and get out Grandma’s Scrabble board!

Horse thieves in my history

My grandmother, Rhoda Moulton Furniss, remembered a serious crime that happened when she was a little: thieves stole the family's team during spring planting. Next to murder, stealing horses was the most despicable crime in the Old West because horses were farmers' property and pets, and their means of making a living from their land.  If those thieves had been properly prosecuted, they would have ended up in the penitentiary in Boise, Idaho. However, because they were friends with the sheriff, they were allowed to go free, and Grandma didn't tell whether the horses were returned. Even if they were returned, her family was hurt by this crime: a delay of a few days could make a critical difference in the notoriously short growing season of Teton Valley, Idaho. 

This is Rhoda around 1910, when she married William Furniss, below. He was an upstanding man who would have chased down a horse thief if necessary. 

I recently entered the Old Idaho Penitentiary Poetry contest. (It is now a museum.)  The poem had to be about the prison, so I imagined the plight of a young man, easily led by friends, who gets caught after stealing a horse on a lark.


Maybe four times a year
Bob saw the full moon
Floating above his cell window.

Days were full of sweat and swearing
night-- fatigue, his smelly wool blanket
his memories
sometimes sleep.

Bob loved the faithful stars
but when he saw the moon, he fought to follow it
standing on the broken chair
craning, peering,
soaking it in
'til it was gone.

He remembered a full moon night,
not the night he and Charlie took the horses
galloping, whooping
so stupid.

This other night was a fancy dance
in his aunt's town, in Twin,
his cousin Edna's first dance
His, too, though
no one said a word about that.

Her dance card was pink with yellow roses:
hanging from a golden cord,
the tiniest maroon pencil
skinnier than a twig.

The handsome young blades of Twin
signed their ame on Edna's card
with that tiny pencil.
He didn't dance, nor sign.

He dreamed he had that pencil
pinched tight, writing small
on the white moon,
his circular bit of shining paper.

If she looked up in Wendell
maybe she'd see the words
he wrote in Boise:

Dear Ma
So sorry I drank with C. and stole horses
Yr loving son,

(The poem won first place in the adult division-- you should see my T shirt and mug!)