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Archive for March 2012

The Things That Hold Us

   In 2004, after writing a series of narrative feature obituaries for The Spokesman-Review, I began to notice how often women in their 70s and 80s—usually the surviving spouse—mentioned their service or work in a “Rosie the Riveter” type of job during World War II.


    Intrigued, I decided to do a larger feature on local women who’d been “Rosies.” My editor put a notice in the paper for a few weeks and I was inundated by calls. Hundreds of women contacted me asking to tell their story and I interviewed many of them.


    Time and time again the women talked about traveling to take a job at a shipyard or wartime factory. But I was left with the impression that their war work had been more than employment. It had been, for some, the biggest adventure of their lives.


     After the war most returned home or moved to another state with new husbands. Most left the workforce and stayed home with children. The dizzying whirl of sudden independence, graveyard shifts, USO dances was replaced with marriage, caring for young children and keeping house.


    Most didn’t seem to regret the choice, but I was struck by the fact that so many had never talked about the years before they settled down. Our interview was the first time they’d spoken of that time in front of family. Their children had no idea that the women they knew only as a mother, PTA president or Sunday School teacher had had any other kind of life.


    One woman said something that has stayed with me. I think of her words often.


    We’d finished the interview. I was packing up the portable scanner, the digital recorder, my laptop and my camera—the tools I carried to each meeting— and preparing to leave.  Almost as an afterthought, I turned to the woman who was still sitting at her daughter’s kitchen table.


    She’d traveled west to work at a California shipyard where she met and married a serviceman and at the war’s end moved to North Idaho with him to live on his family’s dairy farm. It was a life that was sometimes harsh with frigid winters, long hot summer days and the endless work of farm life. Like so many of the women I interviewed, she’d raised four or five children and then outlived her husband.


    “I’m curious,” I asked her. “How did the time you spent in California, not just the work but the things you saw and experienced, impact your life later?”


    The woman didn’t answer immediately. She looked down at her hands clasped as they rested on the table, smiled a small Mona LIsa smile, and said only, “There were times it sustained me.”


       Her daughter, a woman a few years older than me, reacted immediately.


      “Mother!” she said. “You know you were happy being home with us! You always said you loved living on the farm.” The woman continued to smile down at her hands.
   

    “It sustained me,” she said again.
   

    I said my goodbyes and left. But in the eight years since that morning, I’ve thought of her words at least once a week.
    

    So often I’ve imagined her, standing at the stove stirring oatmeal for the baby in his high chair, hanging laundry on the line, mending her husband’s work shirts, feeding the animals or working in the garden. I’ve imagined her taking care of everyone around her, but occasionally stopping for a moment to remember. To remember being a girl with a flower in her hair, dancing with a handsome sailor. To remember the camaraderie of lunches eaten out of a metal lunchbox in the company of other young women working to win the war. Remembering how it felt to be young and free and on her own.
   

   It doesn’t have to mean we’re unhappy with the choices we’ve made when deep inside there is a place or an event or even a scrap of memory we cling to.
    

   Those are the moments, after all, that bear the weight of the lives we’ve built.


    
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Home Planet , Treasure Hunting and  CAMera: Travel and Photo blogs, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

The Pull of the Moon and the Call of the Sun

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

 


    Following the main street through the center of Fish Creek, Wisconsin, on the western shore of the Door Peninsula, I stopped at the literal end of the road and stared out at the blue-white ice-skimmed surface of Green Bay.


    Sunset Beach Park is as far as you can go.


    A hundred yards or so to my right, out on the frozen shoreline of the bay, there were three people setting up cameras and tripods and occasionally their voices, scraps of conversation or a sudden burst laughter, carried to where I was standing. But for the most part, I was wrapped in cold winter silence.


    Of course, winter isn’t really silent at all. Even snowflakes make a sound when enough fall together. And as I sat on the curving stone wall looking over the cobbled beach, I began to notice the occasional sharp fracturing sound of the ice as it moved, edge against frozen edge.


    The park, aptly named, faces due West and provides a expansive view of the sunset and I imagine in summer, high season for the peninsula, when small towns swell with tourists and part-time residents, there is always a crowd at the end of the day. But it was still an hour to sunset on a cold February day, when the temperature was dropping with the sun, and still the view was irresistible. Minute by minute the colors of the sky changed.


    Suddenly the quiet was broken by the chatter and squeals of three teenage girls. They’d been strolling shoulder to shoulder down to the beach but when they saw the way the clouds surrounding the sun were stained, and shafts of light were streaking across the water toward them or shooting straight up, piercing the cloud cover like searchlights trained on the sky, they forgot whatever they’d been discussing and ran headlong down to the shore and out to the dangerous edge of the brittle iceline. The mother in me reacted and I almost called out to them to be careful. I could imagine their response, noticing for the first time the woman they’d hurried past, rolling their eyes at my warning. I held my breath as they danced and laughed.


    “Ohmygod, Ohmygod,” they called out, posing for one photograph after another, taking turns behind the camera.  “This is so beautiful.”


    “ Take one of me like this.”
   

    “No, take one of me.”


    By then, as if summoned to a meeting, a few more people had joined me at the park and cars were pulling over. On the ice, half a dozen serious photographers jostled for position, some setting up in one spot only to abruptly move to another- a better-angle for taking the perfect photograph. Other people simply pulled out cellphones and held them up, ready for the moment when the color would peak.


    As we all stood there, watching the sun move slowly, inexorably, to the edge of the horizon, washing the entire western sky in a deep pink, I thought about what primal drive compels us to stop for sunrises and sunsets and to record them if only in memory. Whatever it is, spiritual call or instinct, I was, in that moment, aware of its presence and grateful for it.


    It has to be a good sign, don't you think? Evidence that no matter where progress and time are taking us, we are, at heart, still connected to the natural world. On a raw Wisconsin winter day, we are held by its gravity and pulled by its beauty enough to make our way down to the shore to stand and wait, to celebrate the gift of the sun that paints the sky with fire.


    
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Home Planet , Treasure Hunting and  CAMera: Travel and Photo blogs, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

We are so much more than ordinary

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

 


   Holding my newborn granddaughter, gazing down at her as she sleeps, I study her closely, mapping her with my hands and my eyes just as I did with her mother, my firstborn child. Just as I did with each of my children.

   Cradling her in my left arm, instinctively holding her close, pressed against my heart, I trace the curves and folds of her ear with my fingertip. It is as tiny and perfect as a seashell. With my hand I follow the already discernible swirl of her down-like hair as it wreaths her head. I take her  hand in mine, marveling at the strength of her grip, aware that each tiny finger is already marked with her unique signature. I rest one soft, wrinkled foot in my palm, imagining the steps it will take as she walks into the future. I fold into her, putting my face against her skin and breathing in the heady perfume of a sleeping newborn. I am lost in this child. Just as I was with her mother. Just as I was with each of my children.

   Most of us would, if asked, describe ourselves as ordinary. But the truth is, if we stop to think about it, there is no such thing as an ordinary human being. Even beyond temperament and personality, each of us comes into this world extraordinary in countless physical characteristics; in the flecks of color in our eyes and the way our brow furrows or our smile curves, in the imprint of each foot as we stride. Sculpted around a ladder of bones, draped in soft skin, we are unique and individual. Unlike any other living creature.  We arrive complete, an exquisite product of the complex and mysterious cellular shuffle that takes place at conception.

   But somewhere along the road, most of us forget this. We lose sight of the fact as we swirl in the crowd of humanity—a snowflake in the blizzard—that each of us is one-of-a-kind and like no other. Oh, we all secretly know it about the children we’ve created. We marvel at them even as they grow up. But we forget we are also wonderful.

   Perhaps this is why new babies capture and claim us. It goes beyond love. Beyond pride and a sense of fulfillment. When we reach out and take a newborn, when we bring a child close and look down on the miracle, we are reminded that each of us comes into this world, and leaves it, as a rare and beautiful thing.

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Home Planet , Treasure Hunting and  CAMera: Travel and Photo blogs, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

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Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country. She is the author of "Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons."

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