house-goneOn Saturday, they tore down the house where I grew up. It was never “my house,” but rather always “grandma’s house,” until she died in 1983. I really only lived there full time for six years, and even during those years I stayed with my mom most weekends. Still, those years are the only years I remember as “childhood.” Even though I was only 12 years old when grandma died, nothing after that felt like childhood. And that was the house I always returned to. An anchor in my drift toward adulthood and away from Idaho, and the place I find myself in dreams.

424422571_d24c6fb11c_oThe house was small. It’s hard to believe a family of five lived there when my mom was growing up. It’s also frankly amazing how much stuff grandma managed to cram in that house. Frosted glass, wicker furniture, Avon perfumes, glass sea floats, millions of old tins, mid-century “oriental” knick knacks… Most of her stuff was cleared out years ago, when grandpa updated the house with some amazing modern technology like an electric stove.

The wood cookstove was a benevolent iron monster in the narrow kitchen. Even on 100 degree summer days, grandma had to fire it up to cook dinner. The house smelled like dry wood, presto-logs, and smoke. A second wood stove sat in the middle of the front room, protected by a glazed metal shell that I would perch on top of on cold days, until it was too hot to stand.

The house was dark inside. It never quite seemed to get enough sunlight, and the front room had dark wood paneling that absorbed the weak electric light. The room centered around the giant old console television commanding all eyes to the corner of the room. Next to the TV, the telephone table held the clunky black rotary phone well into the 80’s.

2014-08-25 11.47.15-1My bedroom was a tiny room off of the breakfast nook, with a steeply sloped ceiling and an unusually short doorway. I could hear the murmur of the TV on the other side of the wall as I fell asleep. I slept with the door open, and light from the kitchen streamed in until grandma went to bed around one or two a.m. She was up again at six to boil eggs for breakfast. When she got sick, she felt a bit guilty that she didn’t have the energy to even boil eggs for my breakfast. I started staying with my mom more often during the week so I wouldn’t be a burden. Not that this improved my breakfast scenario. My mom kept yogurt, graham crackers, and Hungry Man dinners around so I would have something to eat. She subsisted on tofu, alfalfa sprouts, and kefir.

Grandma kept a small garden just under the kitchen window, where she grew parsley and tulips. I’m sure there was more than that, but I remember it as a fairly unambitious project. I would snack on the parsley, wild rose petals, chamomile flowers, nasturtiums, and the wild catnip that grew all around the house. I was a forager.

424416073_69dadf90f7_oThe screened-in back porch had a trap door to the cellar. There’s something altogether creepy about trap doors, and I didn’t like to go down there. The unfinished half of the basement was crammed with boxes of great-grandparent’s musty stuff, and one wall lined with shelves of canned food from the 1950s, in case of an atomic bomb. There was one finished room down there, where my mom and her sister lived as teens. Another staircase inside the house led to that room, but by the time I was around the way down had been blocked by still more boxes of old things. Going down to the basement was a rare and treacherous adventure.

The house was the color of pea soup, with a green tin roof that snow avalanched from in the winter. Snow days were the best, because grandpa would plow the driveway area with his backhoe and make a small mountain for my cousin and I to sled down and tunnel through. The house was also positioned at the bottom of the best sledding hill in town.

On Christmas eve, family and friends crowded the overly hot front room. The smell of smoke and Christmas tree were comforting. After grandma died we did one or two more Christmases at that house, but it never felt the same. Grandma made a big deal of Christmas, so it was always kind of her deal. We ate out on Christmas day (usually somewhere “upscale” like the Holiday Inn), because grandma only signed up for one feast preparation per year, and that was Thanksgiving.

On Thanksgiving we hauled the big table into the front room, because it didn’t fit anywhere else with all the leaves in. There were mis-matched depression era glass goblets, and the old China plates that came out once per year. Grandma made the best stuffing and her signature butterscotch pie. She loved food, but didn’t particularly enjoy cooking.

424585933_f103340b40_oMy grandparents had an unusually tall bed with a worn, knobby, blue bedspread. My collection of stuffed animals and raggedy Ann dolls lived at the foot of that bed, and sometimes I clambered up there to sleep if I had a bad dream. Grandma and I played many hours of “pretend,” Clue, and card games on that bed. It was the most social bedroom I’ve ever known, where the women and children often hung out after supper to avoid the evening news. If I was sick, I would stay in that bed all day, with grandma coming in to rub Vick’s Vap-o-Rub on by chest every few hours. During the remodel, they found a mountain of used tissues under the bed. Above the bed there hung grandma’s collection of sailing ship prints, and on the headboard there was always a tin cup of metallic-tasting water we all shared.

424414418_64dfc8e057_oNext to the foot of the bed was grandma’s art table, where she worked on her meticulous old-timey watercolors. She never had aspirations for her art beyond giving them away to family and friends on various holidays. When she was young, she dreamed of being a fashion illustrator in San Francisco (perhaps married to her first love, Zip, who ended up in the bay area after the war), but three unplanned pregnancies rooted her in North Idaho for good.

The large, gravel “parking lot” in front of the house was the home for grandpa’s machinery. He ran an excavating business for over forty years, so my childhood playground was heavy equipment: a backhoe, tractor, dump truck, and crane. He kept the antique cars he collected in the two garages, and parked his light blue Ford F150 next to the back porch. Machinery has a distinct metal and diesel smell that I strongly associate with childhood.

It wasn’t worth trying to save the house. The foundation wasn’t sound, and it was full of asbestos. It was the family home for over sixty years, but it was time to say goodbye. My cousin will build vacation rentals where the house stood and eventually live on the property next door, so I will still get to go back… just not to that rickety old shack where my childhood happened.



I’ll Walk, Thanks

On hot summer days in Coeur d’Alene during my childhood, I walked to the beach barefoot. It was about six blocks from my grandparents’ house. First I had to get across the packed dirt and gravel driveway where grandpa parked his excavating equipment. Then there was a short section of unpaved road on Lost Avenue, with more sharp rocks and sticky oil spots, then it was just smooth, hot pavement all the way to Sanders Beach. Sometimes it was so hot that I had to scurry from shady patch to shady patch. The coarse, rocky, glacial sand that makes up the beach was the final obstacle. I had to run to the water to avoid burning my soles, all the while looking for broken glass. The relief of standing in that chilly, clear water is not something I can compare to any other sensation.

I didn’t much care for wearing shoes as a kid, much to the chagrin of my grandma, who was worried (rightfully) about splinters and broken glass and germs. She made a little tsk noise whenever she spotted the black soles of my feet. I used a pumice stone to rub off the layers of dirt when I took a bath.

My feet have always been my primary and favorite mode of transportation. There have certainly been times when walking was the only option and I would have preferred a ride, but for the most part I love to walk. Some of my favorite childhood walks were parts of annual rituals. On May Day, my aunt would take me and my cousin for a walk in the woods across from my grandparents’ house to pick wildflowers for May baskets. When the leaves changed in the fall, grandma and I would go out collecting pretty leaves to press between sheets of waxed paper and flatten in books. Grandma also liked to walk through alleys to see what people were throwing out, on the off chance she might find something good. And of course the most fruitful walk came on Halloween, when I would return with a pillowcase full of candy.

Neither my mother nor her mother ever learned to drive. My mom tried, a couple of times, but she gets panicky even as a passenger in a car. She ended her pursuit of a driver’s license after she ran her friend’s car into a telephone pole and totaled it while having a panic attack. Grandma seemed satisfied using grandpa as her chauffeur, and occasionally she would walk to the drug store, or even call a cab to go run an errand. She was a borderline hermit, so not being able to get around easily didn’t bother her. Ironically, grandpa Frank both ran an excavating business and collected vintage cars, so there were always about a dozen vehicles around that only he could drive.

The morning after my grandma died, in the pre-dawn sub-zero hours, my mom and I went for a walk. It was my mom who showed me that walking could be a form of therapy… and it was also a form of independence. In my teen years, walking downtown to buy a new novel at the Bookseller or a record at Total eclipse became my favorite pastime. I would sometimes buy a $4.99 paperback and take it to the little café where they sold French pastries and sit there on my own, reading and eating a Napoleon. I already had a pretty good idea of who I was at fourteen.

I did learn to drive. I made it through driver’s ed (barely), but since I lived in a car-free household I didn’t get to practice, and after I moved to Seattle I let my license lapse. I learned again in my late 20s, after depending on public transport and my ex-husband for many years. In retrospect, it feels like the driving lessons were part of my escape plan from the marriage. Things fell apart shortly after I got my license, and I left with my very first car: an old Toyota Camry. I’m a decent driver, but both traffic and freeways stress me out… so I prefer to walk.

The idea that every adult is entitled to — and in fact needs — to own a car is a new thing, and largely an American thing. If you think about it, it’s really pretty ludicrous. The resource usage is huge, health and safety risks are high, and it’s a financial burden for most people. And yet we convince ourselves it’s a “need” and not a ridiculous luxury. Of course, American cities were largely designed to accommodate cars (and not so much humans). If you can’t afford to live near your work, or if you have kids, it does become something close to a necessity.

My liberal education started early. I was in the gifted children’s program, and in our tiny weekly meeting we would do fun thought experiments like, “what would happen if every adult in China owned a car?” Bad things, it turns out. Like polar ice caps melting and cities so polluted it’s dangerous to go outside. But of course that’s just extremist… oh, wait. That’s happening now. The American way of life is spreading, and that is fucking terrifying.

We can’t afford for the rest of the world to treat car ownership like we have since the 1950s. In fact we can’t afford to keep doing it ourselves. And we’ve known that for years! But infrastructure hasn’t changed to support car-free living. There’s not a rail system like they have in Europe, and most cities struggle with public transportation. Car sharing is available in some areas, but if you’re stuck in the suburbs you’re pretty much living in the land of parking lots too big to walk across to go to the store across the street.

I don’t own a car anymore. My Toyota  was totaled about 3 years after my divorce. My neighborhood is about as walkable as you can get, and if I want to go on a road trip there’s a rental car place within walking distance. There’s also Zipcar and Car2go and Uber for everything else. And Postmates. And Amazon Fresh. The idea of paying for parking, insurance, car payments, gas, and maintenance sounds… not worth it. But I seem to be relatively alone in that point of view. Maybe because I never got used to depending on cars to get around? Even when I owned a car, I only actually drove it once every week or two.

I walk a fair amount in my daily life, but when I travel, I spend hours walking, sometimes randomly exploring, other times with a destination in mind. In Barcelona I sprained my ankle walking down the stairs to breakfast. I was in so much pain I wasn’t sure I’d be able to walk at all, but I pulled myself up and gingerly limped down to the dining room. The plan for that morning was to go to Sagrada Familia. After taking my time over breakfast, I decided to carry on with my plan. It was just one change on the subway.

It was a pretty bad sprain. Every time I put weight on that leg the pain was intense. I hopped down to the subway on one foot. Of course the connection to the second train required a quarter-mile underground walk that isn’t visible on the subway map. By the time I emerged in the shadow of that melting spire, my ankle was blue and swollen to twice its size. I would have given anything for a cane. But I hobbled through the breathtaking cathedral-in-progress… each step a religious experience in itself. I found a pharmacy, learned the word “aspirina,” and made it back to my hotel without crying. I spent the rest of the day wrapping cold cans of Estrella in a towel on my ankle, then drinking them when they got warm.

This was just a reminder of how much things change when you can’t walk (as much as usual). It was a painful inconvenience, but ultimately I healed and walked on. My biggest fear (well, top 5 anyway) is that I’ll lose mobility when I get older. Walking has always been my independence.

Tonight, I will walk to see a concert. Tomorrow morning I will walk to work. If I’m not too exhausted by Monday, I will walk home from work, too. Wherever I go, I’ll walk.

Quantified Love

Over the past couple of years I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, writing, talking, and…er…quantifying about the Quantified Self (QS). Last October I gave a talk at the QS global conference in San Francisco. In May I will be attending my third QS conference in Amsterdam.

While delving into QS is related to my work, this kind of personal science has been fascinating to me for years. I have a “optimized human” fantasy that I never quite live up to (and honestly, I never hope to — to be fallible is to be alive). I’ve used QS techniques of various kinds to boost productivity, change habits, improve mood, lose weight, and increase creativity. All before I’d ever heard of the Quantified Self.

For those who aren’t yet familiar, QS leaders define it as “Self-knowledge through numbers.” Basically, it means keeping track of something about yourself in order to learn about, change, or improve it. The classic example is weighing yourself when trying to lose weight, but QS goes one step further by doing some calculations to make those numbers more meaningful (oh look, I gain weight when I take in more calories! = bad example). Despite the fancy name and ever-advancing technologies, QS is nothing new.

When first introduced to the concept of QS, most people are puzzled. Why would someone want to spend time obsessively tracking some aspect of their life? Why turn a living, breathing human into a math problem? Isn’t this all a bit OCD and self-obsessed? It certainly can be. But then so can Facebook.

My grandma was a lifelong archivist of minutiae. She kept diaries, and wrote down details like trips the post office, who rode in the back seat of the car, and what she had for lunch. She started taking photographs when she was a kid, and created volumes of photo albums by the time she died. It was like she wanted to freeze moments and keep them forever.

I believe what she was trying to capture and preserve was love. Grandma started life with a crazy, abusive father. Her mother left him and became a single mom in the 1920s. Grandma’s yearning for love and attention is palpable in her teen diary. Her obsessions, her jealousy, scratching her first love’s name into her flesh — all speak to a deep need.

For my talk last year, I did an experiment using Grandma’s diary from 1942 — the year she turned sixteen. I wanted to see what could be quantified in all of the stuff she wrote down. There are three things that her diary centers around: food, movies, and boys. So it’s all about love. Being fed means being loved. Movies (especially in 1942) are fantasies of love. Boys…well, she’s hoping to be loved in the right way by the right boy.

Now, quantifying someone’s teenage experience long after they’ve died is not exactly standard QS practice. It is all about self, after all. But as I combed through the diary counting mentions of boys and pie, I began to see the roots of patterns in my own life. In my talk, I touch on a couple of superficial things: a compulsion to eat in restaurants rather than at home, and a minor lipstick addiction. These are striking tendencies that I can see in each generation of my female antecedents, starting with my great-grandmother and ending with me, but they are inconsequential. What I am still reaching for is love (to be fed, to be attractive).

Is love quantifiable? I’ve been interested in the work of John Gottman for years, ever since my ex-father-inlaw gave a copy of Why Marriages Succeed or Fail to my future-ex-husband and me in the 1990s. Gottman has spent decades quantifying the interactions of couples. It seems that relationships can succeed if there are 5 positive interactions to every negative one. He has tracked words used in arguments, body language, and facial expressions. He has turned coupledom into a science. And he can now predict with spooky accuracy which couples will stay together after watching a few minutes of interaction.

But coupledom — with all of its emotional complexity — is not love. Coupledom is an evolving agreement between two (or more, you polyamorists) people to invest time and energy into building a life together. They might be happy, or not. They might be in love, or not… or not all of the time… or not both. Becoming part of a couple does not equal “finding love.”

Okay, I guess if I’m going to say what love isn’t, I’m obliged to put forth what I think love is. The most accurate definition I can come up with is: You know it when you got it. It is a feeling-state, and it is highly personal. It may be triggered by or felt toward another person, but it can’t be given by one person to another. A common fallacy is that love comes from somewhere other than ourselves.

But what we can do for one another is act with love. You don’t have to “love” someone to act lovingly toward them, though it helps. And this is so important for children. The actions, the body language, the feedback that young children receive affects their ability to feel and express love — and just about everything else. When we act lovingly toward one another we nurture that lovey feeling-state and strengthen our bonds.

This has officially become a ramble. What was I talking about? Oh yeah, Quantified Self. What I’m getting at, is that it’s very difficult to quantify feelings. Feelings aren’t on a single axis from good to bad, and love is not a binary. We are complex emotional creatures, and what we experience as love is utterly mutable.

But I think this is what the seekers and quantified selfers are seeking: a formula for love. We strive for love and a kind of immortality by taking inventory of our lives and deciding what to keep, and what to change. We want to be better humans in order to love ourselves and feel deserving of being loved by others. Think about it. Are you going to count your steps because steps are really important to you? No, you count steps in order to work toward becoming the human you want to be.

Maybe I’m reaching, here. Maybe QSers really just want to lose 10 pounds or discover how many times they use the word ‘gladiator’ in their writing. But isn’t there something underneath those calculations? Isn’t the desire for self knowledge also the desire to be known by others? To be seen, accepted, loved?

I’ve watched dozens of QS Show and Tell talks, and the thing that is often missing is the understanding of this next layer. It’s not just what you learned, it’s why you wanted to learn it. While QS can come across as solipsistic, I think there’s an underlying desire to connect the “self” to others. Why else are these (mostly) introverted people standing up on stage and revealing intimate details of their lives?


The End of the Story… Or Is It?

In grandma’s 1942 diary, she added a note on February 6, 1944.

Up til the first part of June this book might as well not be — the 1st part just disgusts me — then came June — Zip — The Chicken Coop + good times + August + Zip again — I loved him — (maybe I still do) — oh — damn! — what good will it do!!!!!!!!!!!!

IMG_3149This was the month before she would see Zip again for the first time since he left Port Angeles in November 1942. In one of his letters, Zip mentions that it had been a year since he heard her voice (via telephone) and 15 months since he’d seen her. An eternity in the life of a teenage girl.

By March of 1944, grandma had lived in North Idaho for nearly a year. She writes to Zip that she isn’t going out and having fun, and he tells her she’s a fool not to. He encourages her to go out with other boys, too. In early 1944, he’s planning for his leave and planning to meet up with her. A telegram confirms their rendezvous.

And then silence. There’s not another letter from Zip until December, and then just a Christmas card signed “Bob” — maybe it was harder for him to write after he shipped out to the Mariana Islands, or maybe they decided to call it quits after their date. I wish I knew. But whatever happened, it wasn’t the end. There are only 5 letters from Zip in 1945. On January 2 he writes from “somewheres in the Marianas”:

Seems a long time since I last heard from you + you had my address when we were back in U.S. didn’t you?… We have just arrived on this island, but have been working + such down by Equator a long ways from U.S… Always glad to hear from you Pat + often think of you.

Grandma wrote a long letter and enclosed a picture at the end of January. Zip writes on Feb 6:

Not much to write about Pat after a person is overseas, but I enjoyed your nice long letter + if you get any more pictures I would appreciate them. I doubt if I can get any for some time of myself.

The last three letters from Zip come from California in August of 1945, where he had some reconstructive surgery after being injured on Saipan. On August 13, Zip writes:

Yesterday I received your enjoyable letter of July 5th. I often wondered what had happened to you. Quite a bit has happened to ol Zip since I wrote last. As you can tell by address I’m in the states + have been since May. I got fouled up on Saipan + sent me back to states to hospital. I’m getting plastic surgery on a few scars on my face + will be fixed up about as good as ever in couple months… Well Pat if you want to write me I’ll be glad to answer. Sorry but at present time I don’t care about having any pictures taken!

After such infrequent letters previously, grandma seems to have picked up the pace in the summer of 1945. On August 23, Zip writes:

I received your very nice letter + picture today. Very cute picture. First picture of you I’ve ever had of you smiling. Like it also. So three years ago I was out with you eh? Lot sure has happened since our last date on my leave…About caring whether I want to hear from you or not, well Pat that’s up to you. I do enjoy your letters + pictures… I get this weekend off. Don’t know where I’ll go yet. Maybe Coeur d’Alene! How about that Pat. Don’t worry about your letters sounding silly as they never did… Well Pat nearly time for lights out. Like that picture. Nice legs also. Like to see more of that!

Since this is the last letter from Zip, here’s the whole thing. Sept. 6, 1945:

Dear Pat,

I received your very nice letter of Aug 28th. So you think this hospital looks nice eh. Well honey it looks like a prison to us + furthermore it is a place worse than a prison. Guess you know how I love this place. Well Tues. I expect to go up before the survey board + if everything goes okay I’ll be a civilian inside of couple months. What do you think of that Pat?

About Calif. the only part I like is the beaches. Course I’d be a liar if I didn’t say I have had lots of fun. I go to Santa Monica + L.A. once in a while. Went to dance at Ocean Park Sat. nite. Harry James was playing. Had pretty good time. Do you go to many dances where you are? What do you do for fun? Still like to give beer to cattle Pat?

It has really been boiling last week. Even nights are very hot + I do mean hot. Give me good ol Wash. weather. Might have a little rain but beautiful country.

How’s Ginny? Tell her I said hello. While I’m writing a hot poker game is playing. More noise. What a deal eh?

Well Pat sure would enjoy some more pictures + maybe if I get time I’ll have one made. Look much better than I did a few months ago. Practically good as new!

Enjoy your letters Pat. Love, Bob

Norco Naval Hospital
Norco Naval Hospital

As far as I know that’s the last letter grandma ever received from Zip. Did she stop writing? Did they ever see each other again? Who knows. It sure seems like they wanted to see each other again. Would he have made the trip over to Idaho after he got out of the Navy? Maybe he did.

I don’t know if I will ever know how this story ends. But I do know what happened to grandma. She had her first baby in December of 1946 — my uncle Phil. She started dating grandpa Frank before, during, or after her pregnancy (he wasn’t the father). I’ve never figured out exactly how that went down. In any case, my aunt was born in 1948, and my mom in 1949. Grandma was a depressed, resentful housewife. Grandpa Frank was a drunk. And he cheated on her. But he was never abusive and always took good care of the family. He quit drinking sometime in the 50s and he was there with her when she died in 1983

And what about Zip? My research shows that he owned Zipse Paving in San Jose from 1962 until he died in 2008. He had a wife named Lydia (also deceased) and a son named Bob Zipse, Jr. who appears to be retired and still in San Jose.

68 years have passed since that last letter from Zip. The war ended. Life marched on. Grandma loved grandpa Frank is a way. But he was never Zip. He didn’t write letters. He didn’t dance. He wasn’t her one true love in the way Zip was during the war. However her affair with Zip ended, it’s hard for me to believe it just petered out. They spent three years longing for each other. At some point grandma removed all of the photos of Zip from her photo album. She was hurt, somehow. Maybe (probably) he started dating another girl after the war.

It makes me sad that they never got the chance to find out if they could be happy together. If I turn this story into a novel, I will at least let them meet one more time after the war… before life takes them in different directions.

A love story with missing pieces

This week I received the final batch of letters from Zip to my grandma, all the way up to August, 1945.

It’s been heart-wrenching to read them. They’re not so much love letters as they are loneliness and longing letters. Zip wasn’t one for the “mushy stuff” as grandma complained in one of her diary entries.

Grandma was in a weird place at the end of 1942. After Zip went off to Camp Endicott in Rhode Island in early November she was bereft. She mentions him in every entry, whether she’d received a letter or not. The gist of grandma’s feelings for Zip was: I love him, I miss him, I wish he liked me.

She couldn’t enjoy anything. After spending a couple of months house-bound with an infected toe (I know, ew. This toe prevented her from finishing high school), she finally started going out again in November. There was no shortage of interested boys, even as a lot of them were shipping out. But she found herself thinking only of Zip. On December 18 she went out with a boy named Daryl, and writes:

…said he loved me — fooey! — he’s nice but — if only I had been with Zip — all the time with Daryl I was pretending it was Zip — (trying to).

Daryl wasn’t the only male proclaiming his love. There’s the somewhat creepy appearance of a guy named Bill Clark. It’s implied that he’s a friend of her mother’s, and therefore most likely a grown man:

Mom got a letter from Bill Clark — and he said to forgive him for loving ME so much — but he can’t help it — I think maybe he’s getting me a watch.

Bill Clark shows up on New Year’s eve, and goes out to the Blue Danube for a NYE party with Ethel (grandma’s mom). But not before once again declaring his love:

Bill Clark came — he had wine — Birdie + I got feeling good… — I kissed Bill Clark — Happy New Year — He said I’m the only one he loves.

Grandma spent New Year’s Eve at home with her sister’s best friend Birdie. They put on Ethel’s formal dresses, sang Auld Lang Syne, and kissed at midnight. (Grandma kissed a girl!!) But she couldn’t have a happy New Year without Zip.

Despite the pining away for Zip, grandma wasn’t exactly piously waiting for the war to end. And neither was Zip. He spent New Year’s Eve on leave in NYC. He writes:

Sammy Kaye’s Orchestra played on the roof. There are 6 girls to every boy, and none want civilians. But who cares. You know them today and no more. The crowds on Times Square were so thick you couldn’t even stop once in them. All the time there we only ate 4 meals, but 16,000,000 gallons of whiskey.

I’ve done a bit of digging on the internet and figured out that Zip was part of the 51st Naval Construction Battalion, a “Seabee.” They trained in Rhode Island before they were assigned to the Aleutian campaign in early 1943. There wasn’t much fun to be had in Dutch Harbor, and even less when they were living in tents on some barren island, building roads and churches and housing for the troops.

Zip was miserable in the Aleutians, and became as obsessed with grandma as she had been in her 1942 diary. Her lack of frequent letters bothered him a lot. And frankly it bothers me, too. I don’t have her side of the story after 1942, but Zip wasn’t getting letters from her for weeks or months on end. And then they were often disappointingly short. A lot of his writing is complaints about not getting letters from her. He needed those letters, it’s pretty clear. He writes this from Dutch Harbor on February 26, 1943:

Well honey it’s been a long time no see no hear from you. I’m beginning to think you don’t want to write, if so let me know. I sure wish you were here honey, this without a doubt is the place for confirmed bachelors or men that hate women. As there isn’t a girl here.

After multiple requests, grandma sends Zip a photo of herself, which he puts up next to his head in his bunk, so she’s the first thing he sees every morning, and the last thing he sees at night. Zip wrote 38 letters to grandma in 1943. There were a few gaps, but he sometimes wrote several days in a row.

Meanwhile, there was some upheaval in grandma’s life. In the Spring she and Ethel (her mom) and Ginny (her sister) moved to North Idaho. Ethel had been offered a job with the railroad (for which she was qualified), but when they saw she was a woman, they retracted the offer. So she got a job in a drugstore. Meanwhile, her daughters had a whole new crop of boys to test. I don’t know much about grandma’s life in Coeur d’Alene between 1943 and 1946 (when my uncle was born), but I know she was making new friends and having pouty photos showing quite a bit of leg taken. I’ve seen the photos.

As Zip’s stay in the Aleutians drags on, he gets more depressed. This letter from August 10, 1943:

Dearest Pat,

I’m laying in my bunk writing this so excuse bad writing. I received your July 24 letter. It really is a rare moment when I receive a letter from you. I’m glad you liked my picture, but you’ll never know me when I ever get back. My morale right now is really low. If you were here you’d know why. I don’t like to hear that you aren’t going out + having fun. You’re foolish if you don’t. Better get yourself a 4-f’r or sailor, but be careful. A guy gets to thinking too much up here. I think I’ll be here till March or April, maybe later. Too damn long for anybody in a place like this. I don’t blame you if you don’t write, but I hope you have a good time + always thinking of you. Well maybe I’ll see you in a few years at least. It seems damn long here. Don’t mind me tonight just down in dumps.

Love, Bob

But grandma could still cheer him up. On August 21, 1943 Zip writes:

Well sweetie I’ve read your Aug 11 letter about 4 times so I guess I’ll start answering it. I’ve got 3 days to write it in as boat won’t be in till then. I noticed your letter cost $.12. It was worth $1,000,000.

And then in early 1944, they start talking about meeting. Grandma wants to come visit in Alaska. He says he might see her in Idaho, or Seattle, whenever he gets back to the lower 48. On January 8, 1944, Zip writes:

Pat when I get my leave I’m going to spend a few days with folks then if everything is okay I’ll probably come over + see you. Have you ever been to Kellogg, Idaho? I heard that is a swell place to go. Also no sailors for a change. A couple could have a perfect time.

On February 7, he writes:

Here it is Saturday nite again. Oh for a Sat nite in U.S. Would be somewhat different methinks… It is snowing a bit on the table. Gives you a mild sort of idea of weather. A little sunshine sure would be wonderful. Of course if you could arrange to make a visit up here everything would be okay. Bring up morale + such. I’ll see if I can’t get back to the U.S. + visit you. Excuse me if I’m off the beam. Little Harbor Happy I guess. 12 months too long or something.

On March 25, after a letter from Zip in Port Angeles, grandma receives a Western Union telegram:

Okay see you Tues 7:30 = Bob

To be continued….


Thirty Years


Thirty years ago today, life as I knew it ended. The last night of my childhood was frosty and silent. A deep cold that settled into bones.

Today I sat down and read grandma’s final diary: October 9 – November 28, 1983. It’s the same as all of her diaries, an accounting of comings and goings and meals and TV shows. But this one is the end of the story, which is hard to read.

Grandma hadn’t been able to breathe properly for months. She got short of breath, then panicky, which made it worse. Her doctor sent her for all the tests and eventually put it down to her “general state” (body destroyed by cancer, chemotherapy, and radiation). She got an oxygen tank and a prescription for Librium.

I don’t remember doing it, but in grandma’s final diary she mentions me giving her oxygen on several occasions. I was still technically living with my grandparents, but I spent less and less time there. I didn’t like seeing grandma sick and weak and miserable, so I stayed at my mom’s apartment until it was nearly time for bed most days. A couple of weeks before her death, grandma writes that “Kitty doesn’t care if she sees me at all.” Of course I cared. It was just too hard.

She writes that I “did everything” for myself in the morning on several occasions. I think this means I toasted a pop tart and brushed my own hair. She hated not being able to do things for me. On October 20, she writes,”Got up this morning — couldn’t breathe — panicked — couldn’t finish getting dressed — Kitty did everything for herself — told her I loved her — she got up + hugged me.”

On October 29, she opens her diary entry with the closest thing to a prayer I’ve ever heard from her: “I wish I could stop feeling so horrible — help me to get through this. Please.”

She didn’t think she was dying — that’s clear from reading her final diary. She was scared and miserable, but she believed there was a future. She was going to Spokane to get her lavender chemo injections, which she was tolerating well. Her blood counts were good. She just couldn’t breathe. Or sleep. Or eat.

November 28 is the last entry. Her last sentence is a bit mysterious: “I have to stop. Something to do with nerves — I suppose.” The following page is dated “Tues. Nov. 29, 1983” and the day’s astrological squiggles are drawn into the top margin as usual, but the page is blank.

On November 30, 1983 I went home to grandma’s toward bedtime as usual. She was sitting at the kitchen table in her chair where she did her late night reading and writing. She hadn’t been out of bed much, so it was rare to see her sitting. My uncle had made custard, and I helped her eat a small serving. She couldn’t really eat more than a few bites of anything.

I got up to go to bed, and she said, “give grandma a kiss.” This wasn’t a typical request, but I kissed her soft cheek. Even as sick as she was, she smelled of face powder and jasmine. I don’t remember whether I told her I loved her that night.

She woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t breathe. Grandpa Frank was there, trying to help her, but her heart gave up.

And now it has been 30 years. Grandma has come back into my life this year, in the form of diaries. It’s weird, her writing in 1983 is not very different from 1942. At 16 she was longing for her love, and in 1983 she was longing for her life. In both cases there was a strong sense of why me? Indeed, why?

There was a lot of unhappiness in her life from the very beginning. But there was still joy. There was the summer of Zip, and the elation of first love. There were her camera and her watercolors, and the peace she found creating art. There were holidays and grandkids. Her rituals of Christmas decor and present wrapping. There were the Sunday drives and the meals in diners. Even when she was sick and dying that October she stopped to note “a pretty blue and gold October day.”

I’ll never really get over the shock of that morning 30 years ago when she was just… gone. But her words survive, and I’m glad that I can still get to know her a little better.

Letters from Zip


I admit it, when I got a packet of photocopied letters from my grandma’s first love on my birthday last weekend, I was a bit giddy. I’ve been transcribing grandma’s diary from 1942, and thereby living through the terrible longing for Zip… for letters from Zip… for anything Zip. I felt like — FINALLY — the letters from Zip had arrived.

What I’ve missed — in reading grandma’s 16-yo obsession with Zip — is Zip’s voice. I could never tell from grandma’s diary whether he was really interested. She certainly didn’t think so. She doubted him and hated herself, said she was jinxed.

Zip was not exactly the master of romantic prose, but he was less of an oaf than I had imagined. Each letter is signed “Love, Bob” and implores grandma to write soon.

When love is interrupted by things like war — and lovers are forced apart, unable to consider any kind of future — there can be a lot of emotional static. Does he really like me? Will he ever write again? Will he live through the war? It’s a kind of sweet torture. Intense longing riddled with doubts.

It’s painful to read the longing from both sides, especially when grandma was so certain he didn’t really like her at all…

GRANDMA (Nov 23): “I love him + miss him so much — guess he likes me a little or he wouldn’t write at all — but maybe he’s just doing it cause he said he would — oh — but I just love him — Probably writes to Phyllis all the time — she couldn’t think so much of him as I do tho”

ZIP (Nov 24): “I sure was glad to get your note. That was cute stationery. I miss you too. But will see you again. If you care… If you haven’t anything to do wish you would write bout six times a day, well maybe just once if you still love me, or did you ever?”

GRANDMA (Nov 27):  “I miss Zip so much! — he probably writes to half a dozen other girls + I hate to be the only one who really likes him when he likes them all — specially that Phyllis bag!! — Wrote a letter to Zip to-nite — (said he misses me — but he’ll see me again — if I care) — he knows darn well I do!”

ZIP (Nov 27): “Well as I lay here in my bunk thinking of you it’s raining like hell! Oh I hate this dam weather… I bet right now there’s a dozen Slys or that kind of dopes in your house… Seems as though I’m thinking of you a lot. If I don’t get some letters soon I’ll stop writing letters to you for good. You probably don’t care — you can have more time to sleep.”

GRANDMA (Dec 6):  “I wrote another letter to Zip — I printed it — went to bed — what a life — I’m just jinxed — I just love Zip — but there’s so many other girls where he is — he’ll probably stop writing to me + just write to Phyllis — I despise her — ugh!! — They played ‘At Last’ in the show and I almost cried — just makes me so lonesome.”

ZIP (Dec 12): “I just received your letter and card. I can’t remember when I have received anything so nice and thoughtful. I sure wish I had been to the dance the other night at Black Diamond. We sure would have had fun… I sure look forward to your letters. No kidding.”

GRANDMA (Dec 14):  “guess Zip quit writing me letters — course to Phyllis or somebody — that’s probably different — don’t think he gets mine — oh well — he wouldn’t care if he did or not — wish he did tho.”

ZIP (Dec 22): “I don’t know where you get the idea I don’t like you a lot. Because if I didn’t I wouldn’t write or enjoy getting letters from you so much. So you regret going out with me eh. Well I don’t blame you. I’ll bet you have fun just the same.”

GRANDMA: (Dec 27): “I hope I get a litter from Zip tomorrow (letter not litter — but I wouldn’t mind a litter of letters from him)”

ZIP (Dec 28): “You sure are lousy on sending letters. I thought you were going to write often.”

GRANDMA: (Dec 28): “I suppose Zip stopped writing letters — to me but of course not to other girls.”

ZIP (Dec 29): “I’ll take a drink for you on New Years and be thinking of you. I would like to be in P.A. on New Years. We could sure have fun… You know something. I guess I write to you as much or more than anybody.”

GRANDMA (Dec 31): “I won’t even say happy New Year. It couldn’t be. I love Zip.”