Posts Tagged ‘deceased’

Remembering Mickey, a true free spirit.

Remembering Mickey, a true free spirit.

My grandma said Mickey Gulla was mouthy. Mickey said my grandma should lighten up. My grandpa didn’t say anything because he was married to one and liked the other.

Mildred “Mickey” Gulla died last week at the age of 94. She was a fiery Scandinavian sprite who was married to my grandpa’s friend, Joe, a big strapping Italian cop. They all met in the late 1970’s when my grandparents sold their farm and moved to town. I met Mickey not long after that during a visit to my grandparents’ house and saw her frequently when I was in the neighborhood.

Small in stature, big in voice, Mickey was the first adult that I called by name instead of “Mrs. Someone”. That was unheard of for us kids but she told us to and it was easy to comply because she was such a kid herself.

When I left for college, my parents moved and Mickey went from being my grandparents’ friend to my parents’ neighbor. Often when I came home to visit, she’d be puttering around the yard of her big brick house and we’d share a wave and a called greeting. The last time I really talked to her was Christmas of 2010. On a whim, I bought her flowers and my dad and I tramped across the street in the snow for a holiday visit. She was the perfect hostess, serving refreshments, sharing stories and pictures. At the end of the evening, she walked us to the door, squeezed my arm and said, “You’re full of piss and vinegar, just like your grandpa was.”

The following February she sent me a Christmas letter, unapologetically late with a good excuse: she’d tripped and fractured a hip, putting her in the hospital for nearly three weeks. The letter raised a good question (“When you were putting away your Christmas decorations, did you notice when you strip away all the tinsel and glitter, God’s real truth shows through?”), shared her favorite Charles Dickens quote (“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”) and revealed the secret to her long and happy life (“I’m having the best days of my life and I appreciate having everything I need. They are: my faith, family, friends, fun and food – lots of comfort food on cold days! That’s food for thought and thankfulness.”)

The letter ended in much the same way a conversation with Mickey always did, with her hope that I would explore the year ahead with good health and gusto. Like she did, right up until the end. We should all be so mouthy.

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It took me eight years to run out of pictures. Today would have been my mother’s 70th birthday and I can’t find a single picture of her that I haven’t seen a hundred times already.

They stop at Christmas 2004, the year before she died from cancer. That’s one of the things you don’t consider when someone dies; there will never be more pictures of them. Sometimes another face takes their place in the line-up and sometimes those left behind just huddle closer for the camera to close the hole. Either way, the photographic evidence of their existence just…stops.

The camera loved my mother, at least the back of the camera because that’s where she usually was. The willing wielder of Polaroids, Instamatics, Minoltas and Sureshots. The camera-toting chronicler of holidays and road trips, family gatherings and the mundane moments of our everyday lives.

My sister and I, acting like we like each other, 1970's.

My sister and I, acting like we like each other, 1970’s.

“Come on, stand closer and act like you like each other,” she’d direct as we posed on street corners and mountains, by road signs and historical markers, on the rocks by the Atlantic, on the sand by the Pacific, in my parents’ living room for graduations, my grandparents’ dining room for birthdays, and in front of 39 years of Christmas trees.

It’s no wonder it only took eight years. My collection of photos with her in them is small though the archives of those she took are immense. I never have to wonder where I’ve been or who I am because she laid it out for me in photo albums and picture frames. So today I’ll start over with a fresh eye to a familiar face, beginning again with one of my favorite pictures.

Happy Birthday, Mom. Here’s looking at you.

My mom does Bogie in her dad's favorite hat.

My mom does Bogie in her dad’s favorite hat.

On June 9, 2011, the Missouri River was steadily creeping over its banks into Pierre, South Dakota , where I live. On June 9, 1972, Rapid Creek was careening through Rapid City, South Dakota, where I briefly lived.

The floods in these two communities are separated by so much more than 40 years and 180 miles. Last year’s flood drove people from their homes, shuttered businesses, and caused millions of dollars in property damage. But we saw it coming. In fact, many watched helplessly as the Missouri River rose and rose, flowing unheeded over a span of weeks and months. There was some time to evacuate (as I related in “What Do You Take?”), fill sandbags, and construct levees.

In 1972, the residents of Rapid City didn’t know what hit them. A storm dumped 10 inches of rain over a 60-mile area, flash-flooding Rapid Creek which winds through the city. Water roared over the creek banks, sweeping buildings, vehicles, trees, and people, ahead of it. Throughout the night, residents clung to whatever they could to survive – fences, trees, light poles, the roofs of houses. They heard the screams of others being swept away, the crack of beams splintering, the groan of metal as cars collided. And above it all, the deafening rush of the water.

When the floodwaters receded on June 10, 1972, 238 people were dead. More than 1,300 homes were completely destroyed with 2,800 more damaged. Thirty-six businesses were lost with another 236 sustaining heavy damage. Five thousand vehicles became scrap metal. The recovery took years.

In the summer of 1985, I was an intern at a radio station in Rapid City and even thirteen years after the horrific events of that day, a heavy rain could still instill fear and dread among the city’s residents.

On the 40th anniversary of the Rapid Creek flood, Rapid City is a community resurrected, risen from the floodwaters that still flow in the memory of so many. And while the devastation caused by last year’s flood in my own community should not be minimized, I can’t help but think of just how lucky we are; it could have been so much worse.

In 1972, the Rapid City Journal gave the country a firsthand account of the Rapid Creek flood. Forty years later, they’re doing the same with an impressive series of interviews and images. It’s well worth a look, especially the collection “The People of the 1972 Flood”.

Headstones are the name tags the deceased wear to the afterworld. They tell who and what we were, how long we lived, and sometimes, how we died. Their epitaphs are literature’s shortest biographies and they serve as reminders that this was once a real living person worth remembering.

I’ve wandered a lot of cemeteries. My birthday is May 28 and regularly falls on Memorial Day which means as I was growing up, sprays of artificial flowers and 21-gun salutes often preceded cake and presents. In spite of, or probably, because of that, I like cemeteries. They’re quiet, peaceful, and have great stories to tell.

The headstone that, for me, started it all.

The headstones that speak the loudest to me are the children‘s. As a kid, it never dawned on me that some children never grew up, that they existed as perpetual Peter Pans in old photographs and the memories of the people who loved them in their all-too-brief lives. The first child’s headstone I ever saw was in the Presbyterian cemetery in Bancroft, IA. It’s an old cemetery by Midwest standards, with graves dating back to the 1800’s. This was one of them and what drew me to the headstone was the little lamb carved in the top. Why it sticks in my memory is because the child it honors was just over four months old.

I can’t imagine how the parents felt picking out that headstone. I was unable to have children long before I was of an age when I thought about having one so I will never be faced with that kind of loss. But so many others have, and I wonder how they ever deal with it. Here’s how one family did.

Jack and Marj Thompson are young parents, one still in college, the other a Masters graduate in 2010. They have two children, a four-year-old named Lily and a one-year-old named Cash. And in between the two, there was once another named Tehlula Lee. She died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) in 2010 before she was even two months old.

One day Jack and Marj were walking through Greenwood Cemetery in Brookings, SD, where Tehlula Lee was laid to rest and they noticed something unusual. Many of the gravesites for children had only temporary markers, some of them decades old. They decided to do something about that.

In July of 2010, Jack and Marj formed the Tehlula Lee Foundation. Its goals are simple: to provide permanent headstones for the graves of children and to educate people about SIDS. To date, they’ve purchased 90 headstones for children’s graves at Greenwood Cemetery, and are now working on doing the same for cemeteries in other area communities like Volga, White and Toronto. In addition to the name of the child buried in each grave, each headstone contains an image of Tehlula’s footprint and the epitaph “Every soul leaves a footprint”.

The Thompsons never questioned why the temporary markers at Greenwood Cemetery were not replaced before with permanent stones. Brookings is a college town with a somewhat transient population set in a rural area with an economy that booms and busts. Nor did they judge the parents and families, some of whom have thanked them for the gesture. Jack and Marj just saw a need and made the effort to fill it, creating an incredible legacy for a special little girl and honoring generations of lost lambs before her.

It’s a Sunday morning as I post this and while the urge to get all preachy is there, I won’t. Instead, I’ll say this: There are people in this world doing amazing selfless things, and thank God for that.

To find out more about the Tehlula Lee Foundation or to make a donation, visit their website or the foundation’s Facebook page.

Originally published in 2010, I wrote this story in memory of my mom, lost to breast cancer in 2005. Here’s a remix in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month (see the original version at “The Work I Do“). Ladies, if you haven’t been professionally felt up yet this month, get it done. The life you save may be your own. kt

A LITTLE OFF THE TOP (2011)

by Kelly Thompson 

With her hair pulled straight back from her forehead, the Evie in the mirror was old, tired. She hastily shook the bangs back into place. I might not lose it at all, she reasoned. Some people didn‘t. It was the not knowing if she would and the waiting to find out that were driving her crazy. For Evie, patience wasn’t a virtue, it was an impossibility.

Mina stuck her head in. “Are you ready? They’re waiting.”

“Ready as I’m going to be. Do I look all right?”

“Same as you always do.”

“Just once, Mina, you should lie and tell me I look fabulous.” Evie ran her fingers through her hair one last time and pursed her lips at her reflection. “Let’s do this thing.”

The crush of bodies outside the door was startling. Making her way through the throng to the stage, she confidently strode into the spotlight. The screaming intensified, joined by piercing whistles and pounding applause. The lights warmed Evie to a sweat, and when she reached for the mic, the shifting backdrop of waving hands and floating faces erupted.

“Hello, Briarton!” Evie shouted. Hundreds of voices echoed it back. “Are you ready for a good time?”

They were more than ready; the pre-party had started an hour earlier.

“Evie! Evie! Evie!” the crowd chanted.

She stood below the draped banner with the two-foot-high hot pink letters reading “The Evie Weston Head Off Cancer Benefit” and waited. At a break in the din, she laughed and said, “Got your tickets?”

Five hundred strips of Astro Pink paper waved in the air. Evie nodded to Mina who started to crank the drawing drum stage right, turning the ticket stubs inside into a pink pinwheel. Evie began to talk quietly, and the crowd hushed to hear. “First, I want to thank you all for buying tickets. And second, thanks for coming. Guess you think you’re really going to see something tonight, huh?”

Laughter rippled across the room.

“There’s a lot of us out there, you know. Some are winning, some aren’t. When I got cancer, I decided to do what I could to beat it and if I could help others beat it, too, I would. No matter what it took. The $10,000 we raised tonight should help us put up a pretty good fight, don‘t you think?”

Evie led the applause and when the clapping waned, she said, “Now let’s get down to business. Mina, will you do the honors, please?”

The crank on the drum was stilled, and Mina opened its metal gate and drew out a ticket. When she handed it to Evie, the older woman smiled. “Bart Severyn, come on down!

A rounded, middle-aged man whooped near the back and the crowd parted as he came forward, his arms raised victoriously. He grinned as he crossed the stage and gave Evie a hug.

“Are you ready for this?” She asked.

“Are you?”

She nodded. Mina carried out the stool and placed it center stage in the beam of a soft pink spotlight. Evie sat and fastened a barber’s cape around her shoulders while Bart took the electric razor that was handed to him.

“I can’t believe you auctioned off chances to shave your head,” he said to the slight, gray-haired woman seated before him.

“It’s just hair, Bart,” Evie said softly. “But if it’s going to go, it should go for a good cause.”

The razor hummed. “So how would you like it, ma’am?”

“Just a little off the top, please!”

Minutes later, as the newly bald Evie stepped to the edge of the stage, Mina threw her arms around her and said, “Mom, you look fabulous!”

“Oh, you liar!” Evie said, and smiled as she walked out into the cheering crowd.

He lit into town in the summer of ’86, a stranger from back East. The shopkeepers and townsfolk watched him drive up the dusty Main Street, past the faded facades of stone and brick. Even the miners left their barstools and stood in open doorways as he passed. The Homestake Mine was still open then, would be for another 15 years, the last one still operating from the Gold Rush of ’76. But the stranger wasn’t there for gold. He’d come to Deadwood, South Dakota for one reason only: he aimed to find himself a dead hooker and he wasn’t leaving without one.

His name was Norman Gauthier and he was an investigator with the New Hampshire Institute for Paranormal Research. Yep, Norman was a ghost hunter. And the ghost he was hunting was a prostitute who’d lived and died at the Green Door.

The Green Door was one of four whorehouses that had occupied the second floors of connecting buildings on Main Street in Deadwood since the business district had been rebuilt after the fire of 1879. The courts knew the brothels as the Pine, Shasta, Cozy and Frontier Rooms; everybody else knew them by the colors of their street-level entrances: the Green Door, White Door, Purple Door and Beige Door. All were closed for business by the time Norman came to town, the result of a raid by law enforcement in 1980.

But Norman had a personal invitation to the Green Door and he was bringing us along as his special guests. “Us” being the local media which included myself as a news intern and Steve, the assistant news director at the Rapid City radio station where I worked. Newspaper reporters and a television crew rounded out the group.

That evening, we went through the infamous Green Door, up the steps to the men’s parlor where clients for decades had waited their turn. There, the owner of the building gave us the 50-cent tour, past the bathrooms and the kitchen, storage areas and finally the “cribs”, the business end of the operation. The one where we would spend the night was on the front of the building, with an alcove that overlooked Main Street.

We waited as Norman set up his recording equipment, each finding places to hunker down for the next several hours. When everything and everyone was in place, the owner told this story:

“In this room in the 1930’s, a hooker was strangled by a man of questionable reputation. They’d fought about the evening’s business, a matter of price, it was thought, and the hooker had come out on the wrong end of the argument. Thing was, she was nearly dead yet wasn’t and without finishing the job, the john had thrown her in the closet. Where she finally died.”

Except that she didn’t know she was dead. She was still walking and talking around the Green Door and that’s why Norman had been called in, to prove it. Back 25 years ago, a paranormal investigation was nothing like you see now on “Ghosthunters” (which incidentally, is one of my favorite shows). There were no infrared cameras or EMF detectors or laser grids. It was all audio recording equipment and cameras, 35mm and Polaroid. Recordings were taken for 10 minutes at a time and for those 10 minutes, nobody could breathe or move for fear of contaminating the evidence.

If you’ve ever been cloistered in a room with a group of reporters, you know how nearly impossible it is for them to do absolutely nothing for 10 minutes. Silence is not normally a reporter’s friend. But during those recording times, the only sounds in the darkened room were the hum of the equipment, the beating of our hearts and for me, kneeling alone in the alcove, the drunken crowds on the street below. You see, it was the “Days of ‘76” in Deadwood, an annual celebration of the community’s gold mining heritage, and it was not an event that was celebrated quietly.

By daybreak, we were all ready to talk and eager to listen to the tapes to see if the dead hooker had been among us that night. The media took a short break outside, stretching legs and smoking cigarettes, while Norman quickly perused the recordings for evidence. Then the call came down the stairs: he’d found something. We rushed back up to the parlor, notebooks, tape recorders and cameras in hand. Norman Gauthier had found his dead hooker and we were there to witness it.

“She was here all right,” Norman exclaimed in the authoritative tone of a man who knew his business. He played a snippet of tape and in the white noise was a faint…something. A laugh? A cry? Was it female? He said it was, and that there were words, too. We strained to hear. A man’s name, perhaps? The name of her killer?

He followed that up with some other random recordings – footsteps brushing the carpeted floor, the tinkling of piano keys. Had there been a piano here in the brothel back then? he inquired of the building owner. She nodded in the affirmative. They’d had music to entertain the men while they waited to be, ahem, entertained.

There was the evidence, plain as could be, and while the reporters surged on Norman Gauthier to do their interviews, I sat in my chair in the parlor and wondered just what HAD I heard? The laughter and the talking could have just been faint catches from the crowd outside, couldn’t it? I mean, I had heard them myself, right through the window. The footsteps? The normal sounds of an old building settling as the warmth of the day cooled into night. I had to admit, the piano keys had me a bit stumped; I couldn’t come up with a reasonable explanation for that. But all in all, I wasn’t quite convinced.

It didn’t matter whether I thought the Green Door was haunted or not; my job was to write a news story that would invite readers to consider the possibility that it was. Which I did. That story became one of my first wire credits with United Press International and the circumstances that led to my writing it still remain one of my most enjoyable experiences as a reporter and a writer. It gave me a healthy respect for things that can’t be readily explained and the curiosity to look deeper to try and find the words to explain them. And that’s all a writer really needs, isn’t it?

Want to hear the dead hooker from Deadwood, SD yourself? Check out the Black Hills Paranormal Investigations website at http://bhparanormal.com/brothels.htm

Word to My Mother

Posted: August 15, 2011 in Life
Tags: , , , ,

Six years ago today my mother died of cancer at the age of 62.

Five years ago today I drove to Minneapolis to do a 60-mile cancer walk in her honor.

Four years ago today I read every saved letter and email I had from her and cried.

Three years ago today I got drunk in a bar while toasting to her memory.

Two years ago today I looked through old pictures of her and smiled.

One year ago today I wrote a story about her that’s just for me.

Today I still miss her.

Tomorrow I’ll miss her more.