Shopper's Alert

10:25 PM Tuesday, December 14, 1999

I started writing this in my head as I was walking home through the parking lot. Parking lot. They don't even have parking lots in India. I got my book back from a stupid chain bookstore in Northgate Mall. I lost it on the plane. Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie. I don't know why I keep losing books on planes and trains. I don't know why I went to the mall. I don't know why I keep writing such short sentences. I've been told, by women who were around when malls weren't, that Northgate was the first mall ever built or the first covered mall or something "firsty" like that. The women were my aunt Florence and my mother. Those women died this year.

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I found myself walking through stores that I'd never buy anything in. I think I wanted to be where there was a bunch of people. People who are strangers that just walk by you. Where there's a different one every couple of seconds so you don't have to think too much about any particular one of them. I thought a lot about them. I walked through ladies handbag displays and cosmetics counters and racks and racks of Christmas gifts. Stuff that no one would normally buy, like a deluxe manicure set in a zippered leather case. But for some reason you spend money on it. Probably because you *have to*. I walked on the carpet and listened to the PA system. I think I was drawn into the cramped quarters. I wasn't enjoying it but I needed it. You get used to things rubbing against you. When you hang out in India, that is.

I sat down in the food court with my salmon (pink fish) and opened my book to the last place I was. Bombay. The guy who's supposed to be writing the book is telling me about his parents buying their house on Warden Road. Warden Road. That's where I lived. It's right across from the Breach Candy Club. Ugh. I'm not getting excited that this famous novel is taking place on my street because I'm not too happy about not being on my street. Seattle is cold and gray and has that hateful stinging spray that people here call rain.

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The Corner of Your Eye #1

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I'm in my mother's condo sitting in a 2000 dollar massaging easy chair that I have to figure out how to get rid of. Next to me I have a bouquet of impossibly fragrant white roses, a 8x10 portrait of myself at age 5, a CD player playing a Scud Mountain Boys CD, and a can of Diet Coke. Those who know me know one of these things does not belong, and I'm not talking about the roses.

Yesterday I went to the memorial for my mother in the church she dragged me to until I was 13. The pastor (Kirby Unti) only knew me as an incredibly disruptive non-believer. But a child of God, none the less! We got reacquainted in the process of trying to figure out how to honor my mother. I'd been interviewing her sporadically over the last couple of years, trying to pry the story out of her. My mother was awfully unassuming and never thought what happened to her was interesting to anyone else. I have all those interviews transcribed in journals back in my apartment in SF. There was no time to get them but I told pastor Kirby that I could write the eulogy. I knew the basic facts as well as anyone else.

I went back to my sister's house to write it and came up with a literary conceit that would have made James Joyce proud. It's Christmas time and my mother's favorite actor was Jimmy Stuart so I though I'd make the eulogy sound like the beginning of the movie "It's a Wonderful Life", where Jimmy's standing on the bridge about to jump and Clarence the angel is asking God about the life that the pathetic doomed creature is attempting to end. It's a question and answer sort of thing. I also scanned a bunch of family photos at a cyber cafe and made a slide show that we projected from my laptop with the church's fancy new video projector.

This is what Kirby and I read into the microphones yesterday at the memorial:

Kirby: Tell me the story of Eleanor Primmer

Me: Ok.

- Where does this story start?

~ She was born Eleanor Ruth Stangeland on February 6, 1924 to Martin and Alma Stangeland in Gary, South Dakota.

- What kind of day was it?

~ Cold. Of course! With snow drifts 10 feet high and a sky the same color as the ground.

- Who was watching?

~ Her seven brothers and sisters. She was number 8 and there were 3 more to come, including her favorite, George.

- 10 fingers and 10 toes?

~ Yep, except she'd lose one of those fingers a couple years later. The middle finger on her right hand. It was taken by the gears of a milk cream separating machine while no one was watching her.

- Sounds like a good enough start. Too bad about the finger.

~ She learned to adjust and didn't think it was that bad. She was just different, that's all.

- What happened next?

~ She grew up during the depression on a poor farm in the dust bowl. Turns out her father was a raging alcoholic.

Boy, things don't seem to be getting better.

~ Yes, but there was no stopping this girl. She loved to listen to her Pa play his fiddle. She wanted to be able to play also, she wanted a special talent. She wanted to have one her size but they couldn't afford to buy one or pay for lessons.

- So what did she do?

~ She begged the schoolteacher Mrs. Shepherd to teach her and Mrs. Shepherd, who lived in town, said that if she brought the cream from the top of the milk to school each day, she'd give her lessons on a child's violin. It took some convincing, but finally her parents agreed to the deal.

- Good, good. Was she a good student?

~ Yes, and in all subjects. She even finished high school - a feat rarely accomplished in her area at that time. She was lucky compared to her older sisters who were sold as servants to other families as young teenagers.

- What then?

~ Her sisters Florence and Emma had moved out to Seattle so she decided to come out. It was World War Two and she got a job working in the shipyards as an electrician and assistant rivet girl. She pulled wire through the ships and the women worked on a team with a riveter. She held the rivets on the outside and the man riveted on the inside.

- How did they work together if one was on the outside of the hull and one was on the inside of the ship?

~ They knocked on the hull and used a code.

- Oh.

~ She met her best friend, Irene. She got a dog named "Babe". She met her first husband Jack, he was in the Navy and moved to Virginia and New York City.

- New York?.

~ Manhattan, in fact. And that's where she gave birth to Deanna in 1946 on the happiest day of her life. But the country girl in her wasn't too happy in the city. And the human in her wasn't too happy being smacked around by her husband. Then she awoke from a nap and found her beloved daughter dead next to her 3 months later in 1946 on the saddest day of her life.

- What did she ever do to deserve that?

~ Nothing of course. She was loving, she never drank, never smoked, never swore, and wasn't greedy.

- How come she didn't give up?

~ She was tough as nails and she believed in the grace of God.

- Did she stay with that jerk Jack?

~ Nope. They moved back to Seattle and soon she divorced him and got a job as a draftswoman with City Light Engineering. She could draw a straight line without a ruler. She worked there for a few years, made some money, bought a house in Ballard and moved in with her dog.

- Way to go, Eleanor.

~ That's when she met Bernie. Amazingly, she still had a smattering of faith in men so she married him. They did pretty well together at first. They were very different, she was quiet and unassuming and he was larger than life and gregarious.

- You don't sound too hopeful.

~ She didn't know it at the time but she deserved better. Despite troubles with Bernie, there were more happy times to come. Bernie's daughter, Dani, from his previous marriage came to live with them when she was 9 and Eleanor took this poor girl, who could barely read and tutored her. Eleanor always said she would have liked to be a teacher. She taught Dani to read and a couple of years later she could read like a college student. She wanted to get custody of Bernie's son, Jeff, and regretted that she never did.

She wanted to have children more than anything and so they decided that they'd try to adopt a boy and a girl. First they got a girl, Sheila and then 13 months later, they got a boy, David. She was finally, at the age of 43, a mother and she had discovered her purpose in life.

She started going to Eastern Star around this time and organizations like Eastern Star, the Masons, Job's Daughters and Rainbow Girls, filled her life. Next to her kids, she loved this more than anything. Her best friend was Willow Moore.

She volunteered for the election board every year and was a staunch Democrat. She loved Jimmy Carter (her age, a farmer) and hated Ronald Reagan (Mr. Slick).

She was a homemaker.

- That's pretty late to start a family. But I'm glad for her. I'm sure she loved those kids.

~ Yep, and she did the majority of the work raising them. 'Cause that's when Bernie started drinking.

- Oh no.

~ Yep. But she was stubborn as hell. And she never thought about herself. And she was determined to survive and make sure her kids had a good place to grow up and dentists and doctors and all that stuff she never had.

- And did her kids have that?

~ Yep, Sheila had attention showered on her and David had all the independence a boy could want.

- And what about Bernie?

~ That was the last man she would ever trust. They separated around 1982 and he started working in New York and sending checks back to the Eleanor and the kids. They got divorced around 1987 and he died in 1990.

Her children grew up and left home around that time and she stayed in their house in Renton with her dog Buddy and her cat Maui (aka Mousy). She really liked to visit her sisters Florence and Emma in Seattle. She had great times with her friends Liz Goddard and Jean Strzelecki. Sheila made her a grandmother when she had 2 beautiful sons. She loved going to Mariners games. She was thinking about getting a computer. She continued to play and enjoy life like a child.

- Was she happy overall?

~ No, but she tried. She was depressed and her house kept getting messier and messier and she didn't seem to have the time to clean it and it got out of control and she had to leave. She had a compulsive disorder called "hoarding disease". She just couldn't throw things away. She was very proud and continued to tirelessly help other people while refusing to allow others to help her.

- When does this story end?

~ Stories like this never end. She left us on Tuesday, December 7, 1999 at the age of 75.

Out of the 100 or so movies that she went to with her kids, she fell asleep in 99. Whenever someone told her she was asleep she invariably snapped back: "I wasn't asleep. I was just resting my eyes."

One time she had what her grandkids called a sleep over, and Mac didn't know his grandma was going to be sleeping in the bottom bunk of his bunk bed. He ran into his parents bedroom screaming that there was a monster in his room. He wouldn't go back in there and they had to turn on the light and show him that it was just grandma snoring. The next time she came over, Mac told her that she could sleep in his room but she couldn't snore in there. And she couldn't deny that she snored any more.

She loved to sit on the floor Indian-style.

She couldn't ride a bike.

When she was really angry, she would gesture, oblivious to the fact that she was digitally challenged.

She used words like "skeedaddle" and "hootenanny" and "jiminy Christmas".

She had numerous ways of creatively avoiding swearing. Like saying "Oh, Shiiiiiiiips sail on the ocean" and Jeff, who was 6, said "Mother, we shouldn't say "shit" should we?"

She was a rabid coupon clipper and penny-pincher. Her frugality may have come from the farm days when her sister Florence made all the clothes for the family and everything was handed down. She would drive all the way across town to save 10 cents on grapes.

She was a progressive thinker for her generation. Inspired early by FDR and she pulled herself into the future for her young children.

Once she caught Sheila toilet papering Julie Folmar's house and instead of punishing her daughter, she joined in the fun.

Last summer, David sent a couple of framed pictures of Eleanor to her sister Em and included one of Em for Eleanor. Eleanor called David when she got the package and said "They're very nice, but David, I think you have it backwards, you wrote that the pictures of me were for Em. Why would Em want a picture of me? She knows what I look like. I see her almost every day. Didn't you mean me to have them?" And David said, " How's it going to look if you have a big, framed picture of yourself sitting on your mantle?" She said, "Well, I don't know, I just think it's silly, that's all." That's usually the point where conversations with her ended.

Generally, the one thing childhood friends of David remember about Eleanor is getting caught smoking by her. Over and over. She was sneaky too, listening at doors, watching from windows. She was a top-notch truancy officer also.

When Dani brought home her first 100 in spelling she said to Eleanor, "See Mother, I got a 100, and I'm one of the dumb kids." Eleanor made sure Dani never thought she was stupid again.

40 years later, when Dani and Eleanor went to Disneyland, Eleanor rode the Roller coaster. How many 70 year old women go on roller coasters?

There were many words to describe her: Mother, grandmother, sister, and friend. She will be missed.


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