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Crafting Your Own Life Story is ‘Like Therapy’

Life StoryNovember 14, 2007
by Pat Nelson for

©South County News/The Daily News, reprinted with permission

Write Your Life Story students learn from each other, and I was on hand November 7 in Woodland when Lower Columbia College English students learned from them as well. Carmen Webb leads the group of 19 writing students, who meet from 1 to 3 p.m. Wednesdays in the basement of the Presbyterian Church. Webb, a part of the group since 1998, has been its leader four years.

I was a member of this enjoyable writing class a couple years ago, and I recognized many familiar faces. Before the college students arrived, the class progressed as usual, starting promptly at 1:00. After deciding who would bring snacks to the next two gatherings, Carmen Webb asked classmates to read their work. Students had been prompted to write memories of stores and shopping, or a subject of their choice. Each, in turn, read one or two poems or essays. Margaret Hepola, age 90, read about learning to face the public by working in a store. “I was bashful when I was young,” she said. Living eight miles from Woodland in the country, she said she was too far from school to participate in extracurricular activities. When she started working, she worked at the bulb farm. “At age 19,” she said, “I worked at a Finnish store located where Classy Hair is today.”

She described how her shyness made it difficult to communicate with Finnish customers who spoke little English. Her workday was from 7:30 AM to 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. most days, but she worked from 7:30 a.m. to 11 PM on Saturdays. When she started work, she made $30 a month, and when she left, she made $120. Hepola told of not having much money, and living on potato soup, which she still likes today. Customer service was important in those days, and she told of sometimes working with a customer one or two hours.

When Margaret Hepola married a Finnish man who owned a thriving country store, he joked that he married her because she knew how to run a store.

Sherri Schievelbein told the class she keeps paper and a light-up pen by her bed to record writing ideas that come to her during the night. “I hate the computer,” said Schievelbein.

Jewell Ellila, a long-time class member, commented that a story runs around in her head five or six days and then it just flows out.

Maxine Rodman, another longtime member of the group, read an earlier writing about the mercantile where  she shopped as a child, and the ice man who would leave ice at her house and who would give the children slivers of ice on hot days.

Maxine Lester read a humorous piece about family sayings. She remembers that when someone would ask her dad, “How do you feel?” he would reply, “With my fingers.” Several people nodded and grinned, recognizing the familiar sayings.

One man read about his memories of the old Red & White Store in Battle Ground, Wash.

 “I always wondered how they got the big stalk of bananas to hang from the ceiling,” he read. He remarked in his story that during the Depression, clothing was purchased for durability, not style.

Dolly Bottemiller’s story was about remembrances of shopping in the 1940s for loafers, saddle shoes, anklets, pleated skirts, and dark red lipstick and nail polish. “Later”, she said, “I worked at Meier and Frank, where elevators were run by women who called out the floor numbers and told what was located on each floor.”

Asked what they get out of the Write Your Life story class, Molly Cowlisajaw replied “friendship and inspiration,” and  Sherry Schievelbein said it keeps her writing; Jewel Ellila jokingly said she’s there for the snacks.

 Maxine Rodman likes hearing about the varied life experiences from different age groups. For Margaret Hepola, “it’s like therapy. You can put your thoughts and problems on paper.”

When Maxine Lester lost her husband, she said it gave her a way to write away her grief. Sherri Schievelbein, who moved here from Wisconsin, said the class helps her learn the area’s history, to which Margaret Hepola replied, “today is history.”

At about 2:45, the Lower Columbia College students arrived. Aralie Niemi and Elias Warndahl interviewed Maxine Rodman about the flood of 1996. Rodman remembered President Clinton’s visit to the area, and remembered how sad she felt for people whose homes were affected.

Kahli Gillis interviewed Jewel Ellila about the possibility of a Wal-Mart in Woodland, and another college student asked about Harry Truman, remembered for refusing to leave his Spirit Lake Lodge when Mt. St. Helens erupted.

Tia Simpson asked Maxine Lester about forms of entertainment in the area from 1930 to 1970. Lester said most of the entertainment was dancing, and that some of the popular dances were the polka, schottische, waltz, and square dances.

Senior Danielle Rusk interviewed Carmen Webb and Dolly Bottemiller regarding the FFA Nursery Landscape program through the high school. The women were unfamiliar with the program, but learned that it is a contest between schools. Students identify plants, draw a landscape, answer questions, do a team activity, and brainstorm as part of the competition. The program runs November to May. Rusk was proud to say Woodland went to nationals in October, 2006.

Write Your Life Story students and young college students learned from each other during the interviews, just as the writing students learn from each other each week. For more information on the Write Your Life Story Class, phone Lower Columbia College/Woodland Center at (360) 225-4768.

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Filed under education, Family History, Family Memories, South County News, Woodland, writing

Unchained Doors…The Story of a Daughter Getting to Know Her Parents

A friend asked me a few years ago, “Pat, why don’t you write that book you’ve always talked about?”

“I already wrote a book,” I replied, “the one for credit union members.”

“No,” she responded, “I mean a book about the tuberculosis sanatorium where your parents met. You’re so passionate about that story when you tell it. I don’t mean to just write any book, Pat! I mean you should write about the lifelong friendships and relationships that were built because of that place.”

I understood what she meant. The Lake Julia Tuberculosis Sanatorium really had become a community. All my life, I had heard my parents and my two older brothers talk about the San and Dr. Mary. As a child, I had grown tired of hearing about those times when we lived back in northern Minnesota, before we moved to Washington. What did those times in the past have to do with my life, I wondered. Dr. Mary this, Dr. Mary that. I often thought, what was she, some kind of a saint?

When I finally visited The San with my mother, my aunt Bernice, and two of my cousins in 1980, nearly thirty years after our family moved away, I finally understood. The doors were chained shut, so Mom walked along slowly outside the abandoned building, peering into basement windows. She stopped at one, wiped the crusted dirt away with her bare hand, and pressed her face close to the glass. “There’s Daddy’s little bed,” she said. A small metal bed frame, bricks from the nearby furnace room strewn around its legs, sat in the center of the room.

“That was Daddy’s bed?” I asked, in awe. Dad had died only a year before, and I missed him.

“That’s right,” Mom replied. “Daddy was janitor and when we met, he lived right down there in that room. I worked in the kitchen and lived over there,” she said, pointing to a two-story house nearby.

“You lived in that house?” I asked, thinking the house looked much too new to have been there in 1930.

“No,” my mother replied. The nurses’ home sat on that same site. All that is left of it now is those front steps where we used to sit and visit. The nurses slept on the upper floors, and the kitchen crew, laundry help, and maids slept in the basement.”

I started imagining my parents as young adults, meeting at this place. I’d always before thought of them as old. This was the perfect setting to fall in love, on the shores of sparkling Lake Julia, thought by some to be the source of the Mississippi River. It was too bad, I thought, that the patients were not able to get out and enjoy swimming, boating, and fishing.

As we stood outside the San, my aunt Bernice approached with tears in her eyes. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“There’s Lovers Lane,” she replied, pointing to the driveway leading from the steps that had once belonged to the nurses’ home. “Norman and I used to take walks there.”

Norman was Mom’s younger brother. He didn’t work at the San full time, but he helped with the haying. Mom introduced him to her friend Bernice Bakke, who worked downstairs in the laundry, and they fell in love. Mom’s brother Reuben was groundskeeper at the San for many years; her brother Louis married Inga Lomen, a patient who later became a nurse at the San. I hadn’t thought before about the many family connections to the place.

I glanced up at the high windows of the wards and sun porches where patients had lived, sometimes for many years, while “taking the cure”. I recalled a picture in Dad’s album of a beautiful young lady. On it, she had written, “Elida. Lest you forget me.” Mom said Elida died shortly after that picture was taken. My father kept the photo, and Elida was not forgotten.

That day, I finally understood why my parents talked so much about the San and Dr. Mary. I had been bored because I didn’t understand, because I had never tried to understand. Now I “got it.” This wasn’t just a place to work; it wasn’t just a place to recover or to die; it was a community.

Selfishly concentrating only on my young life, I had closed my ears to hearing about the community where my parents met and fell in love, where they married and had their first child, then their second, where they struggled through my father’s illnesses and his efforts to make a living, where they lived through The Great Depression, and, finally, where I was born.

After our visit, I knew I had missed something important by not acknowledging that time in their lives. I treasured that trip with my mother, my aunt, and my cousins and I hoped to one day return.

That didn’t happen for another seventeen years, shortly after my mother passed away. My husband and I attended a family reunion in White, South Dakota where my aunt Bernice and her three children live. My husband Bob, my cousin Paul, and I decided to drive to Puposky, Minnesota so Bob could see where my family had lived. Nostalgia was tugging at me, telling me to return.

While there, we visited Dr. Jim Ghostley, a retired dentist and son of Dr. Mary Ghostley, the superintendent of the Sanatorium. He had grown up in a log house behind the San along with his sister Cathy, both adopted by Dr. Mary Ghostley. He told loving and remarkable stories of his mother, some that I had heard before, but many that I had not. I learned that she was called a witch for studying medicine, that she campaigned for women’s right to vote, and that she delivered more than 2000 babies, usually receiving only a chicken, a quart of cream, or a promise in payment.

I said to Jim Ghostley, “Someone should write a book about your mother.” Already, I was thinking that someone could be me.

“People always say that,” said Jim Ghostley, but no one ever does it.”

Five years later, we returned again. This time, the sanatorium door was not chained shut. We went in and toured the building, imagining what it must have been like when the facility was open, with its huge windows and high doorways, its terrazzo floors, and the large fireplace in the entry.

I visited Jim Ghostley again, and this time I said I would like to be the one to write the book.

Little did I know when I started the project that my mother would still be telling me about Dr. Mary and the San even after her death. One day while gathering information, I decided to look through my mother’s genealogy papers, a collection of many boxes full of notebooks and photo albums. In those papers, my mother told me all about her job at the San, even how high she washed the walls when she first went to work there as a maid, as well as her later duties as dishwasher. Her notes were rich with detail.

This time I listened.

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Happy Halloween: Cormorants Bob for Fish

I write a weekly newspaper column about my community, and that means I have to keep my eyes open. I don’t like writing the same old stories that are written every few months, so I have to be even more alert, and I have to be ready to go when the story shows itself to me. The hardest part for me is locating my camera and car keys. Most stories don’t wait for absent-minded writers to make three or four trips from room to room on a scavenger hunt for glasses, pen and paper, keys, and camera.

Looking across Horseshoe Lake one day, I noticed activity in the water. I grabbed the binoculars and spotted divers. That became the story that appears in today’s paper: http://www.tdn.com/articles/2007/10/31/southcountynews/news05.txt

A few days ago, I saw hundreds of Canadian Geese in a field north of town, next to I-5. I could have missed a good story that day because even though I had my car keys (hey, I was driving!) I didn’t have my camera. Big mistake for a writer! I dashed home, grabbed my camera, and drove out the dirt road that parallels the freeway, where I photographed the geese and took notes. I was lucky that day, but I’ll lose some good stories if I’m not prepared in the future.

This morning presented the perfect picture of Halloween, with orange leaves stacking up at the edges of the patio and walkways. Fallen leaves rested on the tops of autumn-red Barberry bushes, waiting for the strong November winds to fly them to new homes. Crisp leaves, safe for now, had funneled down through the sharp green swords of dwarf Pampas Grass, near the plant’s thick base.

The surface of the small lake I see from my desk through the top of the Pampas Grass is covered today with a misty Halloween fog. As a dozen low-swimming Cormorants, their necks sticking out of the water, swam in font of me, I reached for my camera to capture the eerie scene of black-hooded creatures swimming through the fog. I focused the camera. Twelve Cormorants became three, then six, then four, then eight. They bobbed, dipped, surfaced, and submerged again, staying underwater sometimes for more than a minute, acting out their own version of bobbing for apples. Snapping the shutter, I thought they just might bob into my next column. Happy Halloween.

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Ahh, These Things Soothe My Spirit!

I’m so excited! This has been a good week. If you read my “about me” page, you saw that my story Blind Sighted was slated for inclusion in a Chicken Soup book that had to be canceled. Blind Sighted was the first story I submitted, so I was proud that it had been chosen and disappointed to learn that the book wouldn’t be completed. Dahlynn McKowen of Publishing Syndicate, and co-author of that book, assured me that she would try to place my story in another title. Two days ago, I received the email I’d been hoping for, the permission form to use my story Blind Sighted in the upcoming title Chicken Soup for the Soul: Stories to Soothe the Spirit.Another piece of good news this week as that I walked out of the realty office with three, not two, signed leases (see “Please Re-Lease Me” posted October 13, 2007). Join me in having a great day.

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Four Walls…Four Different Walls

Every day, I planned to write. Every day, other demands got in the way. Writing had become something like dieting…I never got past the “good intention” stage.

I longed for a place where I could be completely alone, with no telephone, no responsibilities to anyone except myself, and no email to distract me or to add to my daily burdens. One morning, I surprised myself with the answer. We own an office building thirty minutes away with several empty spaces; one could be mine.

I decided on an upstairs unit with a large window overlooking the street, but before I could put my folding table in place, someone had rented the space. Don’t get me wrong; that’s good news because renting the space pays better than writing at this point in my career. I thought to myself, well, I didn’t want to carry my table and office chair up the stairs anyway. My second choice was a tiny office on the ground floor at the front of the building.

I moved in Monday after going to water aerobics. I got out of the gym at 9:15, and found reasons to avoid starting work until 12:30. I ate breakfast, bought a birthday gift, dropped off the laundry, purchased an office chair, ate lunch, and could finally think of no more excuses to avoid the new office. What was I afraid of? The quiet? The backpack full of papers from my writing drawer, papers I hadn’t taken time to look at for months?

Finally, I went into the office and locked the door behind me. I suddenly felt free. No one could barge into my thoughts. Today, my thoughts would be mine. There would be no interruptions. As soon as I had built my chair (with three nuts and bolts left over!) I wrote for thirty minutes. Next, I organized the bag of papers. By 5:00, the end of the pile was in sight. I stayed another half hour and could say, “I finished the project I set out to do today.”

Ah, what a good feeling…like taking a long, deep breath. I can’t wait to go back and breathe again.

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