family

February 21, 2015

 

February 21, 2015

 Happy 89th Birthday

This is one of those days with more significance today than when I wrote it; there was so much we didn’t know, couldn’t let ourselves imagine. This breakfast/lunch would be the last time I’d see and speak to my father while he was still mobile and able-bodied. Sam and I were lucky to get there at all. I was sound asleep on a Saturday morning when Sam darted into our room and said she just received a text from Janet – we were invited to breakfast for Daddy’s 89th birthday, starting five minutes ago. We threw on our clothes and raced over – even so, we were last to arrive and CD and Alex missed it entirely.

With grand-daughters on birthday

The word I used to describe it in this diary entry is so bland – pleasant. Foxy’s is a long-standing Glendale coffee shop on Colorado Blvd. It was another sunny day in California. In a large group like ours, it’s hard to indulge in much intimate conversation but – as he always did – my father engaged everybody at the table individually about what was going on in our lives. As usual, he said next to nothing about what was going on in his. He certainly didn’t mention he was in pain.

Vance & Geneva 2-21-2015

If anything, he might’ve urged us to spend more time with my mother, who was struggling to adjust to the nursing facility where she landed. (It would be weeks before we could move her to Solheim, the Lutheran nursing home they had selected for that far-off day in the distant future when they might need one.) Right now, all my mother wanted was to return to her life at their condo. None of us knew that life was already over. None of us knew we were already counting down hours and minutes.

89th birthday with some of his girls

If I’d known, what would I have said? The question haunts me because contemplating what I would’ve said if I’d known  makes the banality of what I did say painfully obvious. We probably said “I love you” in the casual hello-goodbye way we always said it, not in the heartfelt way I wish I’d said it. Not like I’d say it if I’d known it was the last time. I would’ve told him he was the best father ever and the greatest blessing in my life. I would’ve said, please stay. I need more time to study the kindness in your face, so I can reflect a fragment of what you gave to me and anyone else who was lucky enough to drift into your orbit. I would’ve said, the world is a colder place without you. Nothing will be the same when you’re gone. I hunger for the sound of your voice. I’ll miss you every day for the rest of my life.

Celebrating his 89th birthday

Instead I said, happy birthday. Thanks for lunch, what a great idea. Let’s do it again for my birthday and Janet’s, coming up in less than two weeks. We didn’t have two weeks. In retrospect, I see his tumble during the photo shoot as foreshadowing but on that sunny day in February, it seemed like a careless mishap, nothing to worry about.  We had years of sunny days to brunch in our future. Next time, the whole family – including my mother, who’d surely soon be ambulatory – would gather. We’d get everything right next time.

Sam admires Bree's handiwork on Grandma's nails.
Sam admires Bree’s handiwork on Grandma’s nails.

February 19, 2012

February 19, 2012

There’s a bittersweet quality to seeing my oldest son do what I once did – albeit, in an entirely new way. Naturally, I’m proud of him (see my October 14, 2006 blog for details of his torturous – for his parents, anyway – journey from sophomore high school drop out to valedictorian in his film school major at UCLA. It was for real – we heard him give the speech. He thanked his father, who majored in poli sci at USC, instead of me, a fellow UCLA film school alumni. Go figure.) As happy and proud as I am, part of me longs to stand where he now stands. It’s less about envy than nostalgia.

CD preparing to walk for graduation.
CD preparing to walk for graduation.
His mother, not mentioned, in the valedictorian speech
His mother, not mentioned, in the valedictorian speech
The Melnitz lobby facing the blank theater
The Melnitz lobby facing the James Bridges  theater

These feelings became acute the night John and I attended the screening of his Project 1 equivalent film. Melnitz Hall looks the same, at least from the outside – and the Jakes Bridges theater where I screened my Project 1 film is oh so familiar – but look closer and everything has changed.  I don’t recognize a single name on the faculty roster. Different people occupy all of my old professor’s offices.

The sculpture gardens outside Melnitz Hall.
The sculpture gardens outside Melnitz Hall.
The sculpture garden as I remember it.
The sculpture garden as I remember it.

During another student’s gory film, I took a breather and went into the lobby. Sitting there, by myself, sent me reeling through decades long gone. Memories of hours spent between classes in that very spot – albeit on funkier couches – flooded me. I half expected a classmate from my past to stroll up and say hello but that didn’t happen. As an old Madonna song might put it,  Melnitz Hall used to be my playground. Now, although it holds a place in my life and my heart, it’s not my world and it won’t be again.

Conferring with Dean (I think)
Conferring with Dean (I think)

On the bright side, writing – my area of specialization – remains essentially the same, at least in terms of skill set, despite technological advances such as computers instead of an IBM Selectric, printers instead of carbon paper, script delivery by email attachment instead of by messenger. (What happened to the messenger industry? Are they out of business?) I got on board with word processing early and it hasn’t been hard to stay on top of the curve.

CDR Valedictorian

I was faced with another transition shortly after CD graduated, when I was offered an opportunity to teach screen writing at Columbia College Hollywood. I’ve always identified as a student – in part because I enjoy and take frequent writing workshops to stay current – and now I’m on the other side of the desk. So far, I enjoy it.  Spending hours mentoring millennials is as close as I’ll get to re-experiencing my heady undergraduate days (albeit vicariously, from a different POV). There’s a palpable rush of creative energy that comes when I cross the threshold of a campus like UCLA or Columbia. It’s not a time machine or the Fountain of Youth, but it’s close enough.

February 16, 1980

February 16, 1980

CD with Great Grandpa K
CD with Great Grandpa K

CD had recently turned three and (to the best of my recollection) he was Grandma and Grandpa K’s first great-grandchild (which makes sense since I was their first grandchild).  There’s something special about seeing four generations together under one roof – probably because, inevitably, it won’t last long.

CD with Great Grandma K
CD with Great Grandma K

At this point in time, my grandparents were far from senile – they never did fall prey to dementia or lose their wits – but they unmistakably slowed down. After dinner, they spent most evenings watching TV.  Grandpa favored what I considered “low-brow” shows like BJ & the Bear and The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo. I was still enough of a snob to be uncomfortably aware our family forebears seemed a tad un-intellectual (not anti-intellectual, just not very) compared to the parents of most of my friends, including J’s cosmopolitan parents. I wouldn’t pass such harsh judgment today, having learned in the intervening years that reading great books does not necessarily make you a great person.

CD absorbs a piano lesson.
CD absorbs a piano lesson.

My grandmother was a gifted pianist – she could play anything by ear and took requests. She knew every hymn in the book but her secular favorite was “Red Wing”. played at Lutheran services for years – and she passed her love and talent for music on to her children and grandchildren in varying degrees. I, for example, missed out on the talent part but inherited the love. By contrast, my cousin Wayne – by virtue of hours of daily practice even as an adult – became the most amazing pianist in the family, as natural and accomplished as my grandmother.

CD sneaks a glamce at camera as Great Grandma, Janet and Joyce pay attention to music.
CD sneaks a glamce at camera as Great Grandma, Janet and Joyce pay attention to music.

She was a petite Midwestern woman, determined to make herself smaller so she didn’t take up a disproportionate amount of space. If we had chicken for dinner, she insisted her favorite part was the neck. I’m certain I inherited my Fuchs disease from her but she never complained about it (although she constantly rinsed her eyes with boric acid – which, in another time and place, might’ve been a clue). She was a true Norwegian. She didn’t complain about anything. I could learn a lot from her.

My family with grandparents in their younger days.
My family with grandparents in their younger days.

 

 

Yolanda’s Room

Yolanda forever in our hearts
Yolanda forever in our hearts

“Grief doesn’t have a plot. It isn’t smooth. There is no beginning, and middle and end.”

  • Ann Hood

A year ago today, we lost Crescentia Yolanda Hernandez – known as Yolanda, Yoli or Nana, never her given name Crescentia which she hated. Technically, her death wasn’t unexpected – she suffered from a rare, unusually virulent cancer. Statistically, her odds were poor but Yolanda – who came to the US from El Salvador in her early twenties and earned her citizenship – was a fighter. She wanted to live so desperately she endured chemo, radiation, experimental treatments, anything for a little more time.

Yolanda touched all of our lives with her boundless capacity for love
Yolanda touched all of our lives with her boundless capacity for love

There were so many things she wanted to do. She voraciously collected, clipped or copied recipes to cook someday, unaware she was already almost out of time.  She longed to visit her family in El Salvador but postponed it until she completed her current course of chemo, when she was in better health.  She didn’t know – none of us did – it was already too late.

Young Yolanda, far left, with her two brothers and sisters
Young Yolanda, far left, with her two brothers and sisters

Not a day goes by that my family – who embraced Yolanda as a vital part of that family early in the 32 years she lived with us – doesn’t want to share something with her. She wouldn’t be happy the Clippers traded Chris Paul and Blake Griffin but she’d definitely want to know. I’d like to say things I should’ve  said more often and sooner. How she changed our lives for the better, how much we love her and how we’ll always miss her. There’s an empty space in our lives where Yolanda lived. Her bedroom is always, only, Yolanda’s room to us. As long as we live here, it will be Yolanda’s room.

Forever in our hearts
Forever in our hearts

“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not get over the loss… you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to.”

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, (emphasis mine)

We offer this video as a constant reminder of the love and joy Yolanda brought to our lives.

https://youtu.be/g5YBloGLMDg

Yolanda, we will always love you.
Yolanda, we will always love you.

February 11, 1986

February 11, 1986

Vania Train Ride

Matt, John, Jim McCann, Me in Austria
Matt, John, Jim McCann, Me in Austria
Janet must have been taking all of the pictures in Austria
Janet must have been taking all of the pictures in Austria

Last year I wrote about one of the most magical days of my life, carnival in Venice on this same trip to Europe. Carnival in Munich was somewhat less spectacular. I was there with my sister Janet, her soon-to-be-husband Jim McCann, and brother-in-law extraordinaire Matt Rowell. I can’t recall why John didn’t go to Munich with us – he had a less than wonderful time back at the Sports Chalet in Austria where we stayed – a solitary dinner in a cabaret, surrounded by Germans laughing uproariously at jokes he did not understand.

Me (Jim McCann behind) freezing in Munich
Me (Jim McCann behind) freezing in Munich

There’s only so much eating and drinking one can stand, particularly when you’re the only one in the group who doesn’t drink alcohol. I really felt like shopping and Jani – with her razor-sharp sisterly instinct – said that proved that I was too consumer-oriented. Maybe she had a point; it bothered me shopping wasn’t an option. The fact that all the stores were closed – totally inaccessible – made the merchandise in their windows that much more attractive.

At the train station
At the train station

I didn’t carry my camera that day, but Janet was always ready to shoot.  Alongside the furious little boy hurling himself in the snow, there were scenes and still shots of startling beauty. Jim suggested Jani shoot a bicycle posed against the Munich city scene. We both subsequently enlarged the shot and it still hangs in my home. Simple but so evocative.

The Bike
The Bike

Trains– especially trains at night – exert their own magic. They suggest so many stories to tell.  Quite apart from their mood-inducing creative energy, the ease of public transportation in Europe – subways as well as trains – makes me long for the day it covers more ground in Los Angeles. In recent years, I discovered LA does have a Metro and the Red Line stops across the street from the Pantages Theater, my most frequent Hollywood destination. It’s so much easier than driving and parking in Hollywood, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Janet, Jim, Me, Matt, at Train Station in Munich
Janet, Jim, Me, Matt, at Train Station in Munich

 

December 18, 1966

December 18, 1966

With sisters during construction of Hope Lutheran in 1966.
With sisters during construction of Hope Lutheran in 1966.

This is one of my most vivid memories. My father’s caustic criticism was the angriest thing he ever said to me – which says a lot, because I gave my parents plenty of reasons to be angry. They tended to be “disappointed” instead, which more effectively motivated me to change my behavior.

My father and I on my Confirmation Day.
My father and I on my Confirmation Day.

Most parents would respond to my obnoxious attitude somewhere between irritation and fury. I suspect very few would have the grace to apologize when he was in the right.  (At worst, he tried to manipulate me into being more generous. Hardly child abuse.)

Me with my dad and mom
Me with my dad and mom

Unfortunately, this was neither the first nor the last time I behaved like a selfish brat. I’m the one who should’ve apologized to him and my sisters. At most, it would’ve cost me a couple hours to do the right thing but I was fifteen, stubborn and intent on doing “my thing.”

My family
My family

I don’t remember if I said I was sorry but I think he knew I was (the tears were a give-away.)  My father taught me all I know about how to act with integrity in this world – simply by being himself. Deep down, I knew I couldn’t measure up to his example – I haven’t known many people who could – but growing up with him made me a better person than I could’ve been otherwise.

The Knutsens

All of my life, I’ve been lucky – blessed. My father and mother were the biggest blessings of all.

December 14, 1964

 

December 14, 1964

Perhaps what Chamberlain Castle would have looked like
Perhaps what “Chamberlain Castle” would have looked like

I suspect the reason I didn’t have imaginary friends was my two sisters. (That said, the youngest – Joyce – had a a deep long-lasting friendship with an imaginary boy named Keith – and for all I know, Janet had one too but she never told me.)  Sandy was an only child with an oversized imagination so naturally she created a cast of companions.

With sisters instead of imaginary friends
With sisters instead of imaginary friends

The characters in my story took the place of imaginary friends. My favorite part was naming them. I was – and still am – obsessed with names. I used to go through the fashion section of the huge Sears catalog that arrived every year and name the models. Selecting the perfect moniker was a challenge in 1964 because all the names in the baby books – and all the kids I knew – got stuck with traditional names (Kathy being particularly popular in the early fifties – see link to blog).

Sandy and me on the beach in 1964
Sandy and me on the beach in 1964

The era of exotic names – Apple, Charisma, Karma, Carlisle, Kipling (many unisex) – was at least a decade in the future, maybe more. In 1964, the top five names for girls were Lisa, Mary, Susan, Karen and Patricia. For boys, Michael, John, David, James and Robert.

My non-imaginary friend, Sandy
My non-imaginary friend, Sandy

The less said about the story described above, the better. At thirteen, I cornered the market on terrible hackneyed ideas. A surprising number survive, although recently I realized I might not need to save everything.  If “Chamberlain Castle” never escapes the slush pile (in this case, a file cabinet in the garage) the literary world will not suffer.

 

December 12, 1979

December 12, 1979

CD on his 3rd birthday - prior to the big hurl.
CD on his 3rd birthday – prior to the big hurl.

It doesn’t seem all that long ago although – mercifully –it’s been eons since I swabbed another human’s barf. (Dogs and cats on the other hand – yesterday or the day before. One of our seniors has a delicate stomach.)

Earlier in the day - he loved his Superman sweater (and his Superman costume)
Earlier in the day – he loved his Superman sweater (and his Superman costume)

We still celebrate our children’s birthdays, but rarely on the actual day. They usually make plans with their friends. I don’t begrudge them, after college I did the same thing – partied with my peers instead of my parents. As wonderful as my parents were, party animals they weren’t.

A long restless night.
A long restless night.

Celebrating on the correct day – and emphasizing the birthday person’s precise age – seems less important every year, at least to me. Besides, if we want the extended family to celebrate together – aunts, uncles and cousins – the logistics become more manageable if we select an adjacent weekend instead of a Tuesday or Wednesday night.

CD feels much better!
CD feels much better!

As challenging as this particular birthday was – and it was far from the only time the birthday child hurled over a birthday cake – my memories are warm, now that the vomit isn’t.

December 2, 1976

December 2, 1976

My mom
My mom

 It’s typical that my mother and father asked about me before dropping their terrible news. If the situation had been reversed – if I’d been mugged – they wouldn’t have gotten a word out edgewise before I recounted every last detail. This particular episode shocked me on so many levels. Even though I know better, it stuns me when bad things happen around churches. As a child, I believed they were sacrosanct, safe.  (That’s why I didn’t lock my first bike when I stopped by to visit my dad at his church office when I was 10. Of course it got stolen. I couldn’t believe it.)

My wonderful parents when they were young.
My wonderful parents when they were young.

It’s also typical of them that instead of crying about the injustice of it all, my father expressed gratitude it wasn’t worse. I couldn’t find much gratitude in my own heart. Forty years later, I’m grateful that this is one of few – if any – episodes of random violence to impact my family. Writing those words is a little scary – by calling attention to our good fortune, am I jinxing us? (That’s a silly, childish superstition. I hope.)

My parents, around 1976.
My parents, around 1976.

November 29, 1968

November 29, 1968

Royce Hall, UCLA
Royce Hall, UCLA

I’ve written elsewhere about how right UCLA was for me (link) but I knew little more than its four initials when I applied. For all I knew, it could’ve been located in the dregs of downtown LA. (Except then it would’ve been called USC. Whoops, my snark is showing.)

The article where I found this picture called it the Ugliest Law School in America. Their words, not mine.
The article where I found this picture called it the Ugliest Law School in America. Their words, not mine.

My parents were equally ill-informed – their now-void plan had been to send me to a Lutheran college where I’d meet and marry a guy at least half-Scandinavian. To their credit, they hid their disappointment well and didn’t try to change my mind.

Life was paradise as an adored only child.
Life was paradise as an adored only child.

Consequently, on Friday after Thanksgiving in 1968, my parents and I left my sisters in Santa Clara and drove to LA. It wasn’t often I spent significant time with them without my sisters as buffer. It was exhilarating to reclaim their undivided attention but also unnerving. Too much focus on me risked revealing defects I sought to hide, especially from them. Based on the most formative experience, which took place when I was two years and two days old, imperfections – the failure to entertain, for example – were cause for replacement. Either one of my younger sisters – both less flawed than me – could easily take my place.

The day they brought a new baby home and my world fell apart
The day they brought a new baby home and my world fell apart

It wouldn’t be the first time. They’d done it before and could do it again.

From this point forward, every photo depicts Janet being held and me in a state of acute distress.
From this point forward, every photo depicts Janet being held and me in a state of acute distress.

Click this link to view family photo albums illustrating the inner torment of a highly sensitive recently displaced first-born child.  You’re not being disloyal to Janet or Joyce. They signed off on my weird obsession decades ago. I’ll add new photos and captions in the near future.

 


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