Monday, June 28, 2010

The Gulf: Parenting crisis and a national nightmare

When my children were small they came to me crying when they were afraid. Sometimes they were convinced that monsters were hiding under their beds until I chased away each shadowy creature.

In those days it was in my power to banish the scary things. When the wind blew and tornado sirens wailed, sending us scurrying down into the basement to wait out the worst, I could soothe them. I could reassure them that storms always pass. That by morning the sun would be out and life would return to normal. If I was afraid or secretly worried that our house would be swept away by a killer wind, I kept it to myself.

When they opened their eyes to a safe and familiar landscape, whatever terrifying thing that had invaded their dreams would retreat and fade. The night’s fear would be forgotten.

To a child, even the most well-adjusted child, the world with all its hazards and mysteries, can be a frightening place. Fire burns. Water drowns. Dogs bite. Monsters lurk. Lightning strikes.
As parents, we calm those fears. We soothe and caress. We hold them close and talk away the bogey man.

Lately, trying to ease my own anxiety about the terrible scenario going on in the Gulf of Mexico as millions of barrels of oil boil unchecked into a sea already taxed by our carelessness, I talk to my children about what is happening. They’re adults now. They’ve learned there are no monsters under the bed. They remember the sugar-white beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. They played in the surf as children.

Now, each is baffled by the negligence, the arrogance and audacity of those who built a weapon of destruction with no plan for protecting the innocent. Like me, they are frustrated by the slow response and shaken by the scope of the disaster.

This terrible thing, we think without having to say it aloud, is not a figment like the imaginary creatures under the bed. This is the stuff of real nightmares. An endless, gushing cloud of darkness that is slowly rising to the surface of the sea. A smothering film that stretches oily fingers onto the shore, staining everything it touches, poisoning innocent wildlife and killing the beaches while arrogant, blowhard, executives dance around the truth.

And behind that truth is the knowledge that we have abused our dominion. We allowed a wound in the earth. A hole opened with no practical way to close it. We looked the other way while entities like British Petroleum focused on greed and fed our endless need for oil. (As someone who drives for a living, I am not blind to the irony of what I am writing. We talk about that, too.)

I’m consumed by the feeling that this will be our legacy.

Like any parent, I have a tendency to look back on the days when my children were small with a certain soft-focus. But there are times, especially in this crisis, that I am glad that my son and daughters are old enough to be able to decide for themselves what is good or bad.

If they were coming to me as children, frightened by what is going on, I would be hard-pressed to find the words of comfort.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

I got a call from a friend the other night. One of those late-night calls women make when they have a moment to themselves.

She was alone in a quiet house full of sleeping children and a husband who was softly snoring in front of the television. She was desperately tired. After all, she’d spent the day caring for her three small children. She’d packed lunches, driven the morning carpool, played with the toddler who was still home all day, shuttled to after-school activities, made dinner, helped with homework, refereed baths, read a bed-time story, fetched one more glass of water and finally, finally, turned out the light.

Then, when she could have gone straight to bed to catch up on some much-needed sleep, she did what mothers do all the time. She got busy.

Sitting at the kitchen table, surrounded by her boxes of beads and stones and all the tools and findings she uses to make the beautiful necklaces and earrings she gives as gifts to friends and family, she let her mind wander as her fingers worked. She felt the tension slip away. For a few minutes she wasn’t Mommy. She was herself again. That’s when she picked up the phone to call me.

While we talked, I thought back to my life when my children were still small. I spent the day doing all the things stay-at-home mothers do. At night I spent hours answering a powerful creative urge.

This seems to happen to many of us when our children are born. We get crafty.
I see young mothers experiencing this all the time. Women who were once busy professionals with pressured careers now sew baby dresses or construct elaborate scrapbooks and photo albums. They revel in this new side of themselves, gathering with others who are experiencing the same delight in handcrafting.

I think it has something to do with the way we change after the babies come along. Suddenly, we are no longer the carefree women we were before. Our minds are never still. We’re listening, watching, weighing and evaluating. We fret. We forecast the future and regret the past. Mothering is all-consuming. There are few moments when our children aren’t foremost in our thoughts.

Creativity is a way to slip out of the confines of being the responsible party. It is a way to open and explore the child who still lives within us.

My days were consumed by the work and worry of four young children. Goodness knows, I had plenty to keep me busy. But every night, even when I was so tired I could barely keep my eyes open, I sat down to create. Like my friend, I went through my beading phase. I strung freshwater pears into ropes, adding antique charms and other found objects to make one-of-a-kind necklaces and earrings. I sold these to a boutique in the area and soon began to notice my work on women at the children’s schools and around town. That spurred me on to stay up later and make more.

After that, I spent long hours making hats, steaming and blocking the fabric, stitching silk roses and velvet leaves onto the felt and straw. These went to the same boutique. Again, I began to see my hats on women at the mall or at church.

Later, I polished and cut old silverware and bent the handles into earrings, rings, key rings and necklaces. These went to local gift shops and to antiques and craft shows.
I took black-and-white photographs of children and families and then delicately hand-tinted the photos, adding small touches of color to give the portraits a vintage look.

I packaged gift trays using and vintage china, silver and lace and shipped them across the country to be opened by grateful strangers.

I smocked dresses and rompers for my daughters and my son, sometimes finding myself nodding over my needle.

Most of this was done at night. When I should have been sleeping. When I should have been too tired to do anything more than close my eyes and rest up for the coming day.

But, like my friend, like so many women, I crafted into the wee hours. I made things with my hands. Letting my mind play while my fingers worked.

After a while I realized that my newfound passion for crafting was nothing new. I was just one more in a long history. Middle-class Victorian women, gifted with time by the household innovations of the industrial revolution, wove accessories from the hair of loved ones or painted delicate watercolors.

I tinted photographs and strung tiny pearls. Now, I write. I still sit down and write late into the night the way my friend works with chunky gemstones and glass beads.

Some mothers sew. They crochet or knit. They bake. They refinish furniture. The commonality, just as it always has been, is the desire to create. To construct and produce and, each in our own way, to provide proof beyond our most precious
contribution - the children that own us so completely - that we were here. That deep inside there was a spark, a gift, a source of happiness that was completely handmade.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

Finding Familiar Faces

If you have signed up to use Facebook, you’re probably familiar with the way the online social media format plays social matchmaker. Not in a romantic way, but by suggesting people you might want to add to your contact list. People who are friends with your friends. People who have some kind of connection to you.

Occasionally, this works. You see a familiar face, an old friend, a co-worker, a former classmate, you didn’t know had signed up and it’s nice to add them to your contact list.

At other times, you are prompted to to catch up with an old friend. People to whom you are already connected but may not interact with on a regular basis.

Sometimes this is a good thing, as well. It reminds you to check in with someone you like. Someone who is probably as busy as you are. Someone you might like to talk to more often.

But then, occasionally, an unsettling thing happens. Occasionally, a face pops up that is startling. A face you can’t reach out and touch no matter how much you might like to.

In the last year, three people I knew and liked died. They were all too young, all under 50. All three were Facebook friends.

At least once a month, when I log on I’m prompted to get back in touch with one of them.

At first, I cringed whenever one of the faces popped up on my computer screen. I was reminded again, in a most impersonal way, that they were gone forever. One more time the sad story behind each death passed through my mind.

But now, each time I see their photos, I take a minute and I reconnect with their memory. I stop and remember a time we spoke or laughed. I think about the spouses, the mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters and the children left behind. I honor them.

I’m sure this is not what Facebook intended, but after thinking about it, I decided to accept the random gift of memory. To be grateful for it.

My friends were here with us and each led a rich and productive life. They worked and played and loved. They built careers and relationships. All three battled the disease that eventually killed them with dignity and grace and amazing courage. Now, through no fault of their own, they are gone

But gone doesn’t mean forgotten.

So, when I open my computer, when I log on to Facebook to see what friends and family are up to, or to post a photo and update my own profile, I glance at the top of the page.

Sometimes I make a new friend. Sometimes I reconnect with an old friend. And once in a while I take a moment to think about a friend I will never see again.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Decoration Day

Originally printed in The Spokesman-Review May 28, 2008

Growing up in the house where I lived with my grandparents, this day was called “Decoration Day.”

Each year, with my grandfather behind the wheel, they would drive my grandmother’s mother to a small cemetery in the little community where my family once lived.

My great-grandmother was a tiny woman, stooped and soft-spoken. She had white, tightly-permed hair and wore thick glasses to correct her poor vision.

When she could no longer live alone in her tiny apartment, with a Bible, the stack of afghans she crocheted, an album of faded photographs, three or four practical dresses and one “Sunday” dress for funerals and weddings hanging in her closet, she moved into a place on a son’s property. When he died, she moved in with my grandmother – her last living child.

Her life could have rivaled any “Oprah” book club pick. Born poor in a mining village in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, she’d been courted and won by Doc McConnell, a coal miner who was older than she. Theirs was a famous love story in that little town.

They married and seven children came along before he succumbed to black lung disease. She survived two house fires in her lifetime, losing everything twice.

Her own strength and good health didn’t pass down to her children. When she died at the age of 102, she had outlived them all and many of her grandchildren.

Neither my grandmother nor my great-grandmother could drive. So one Decoration Day, in my grandfather’s absence, the chore fell to me.

I wasn’t thrilled about it. When you’re 18 years old, you don’t want to drive two old women around a country cemetery when you could be at the mall or at a friend’s house or anywhere but on a dirt road surrounded by weathered tombstones, some so old they were crooked and tilted toward the graves they marked.

I piloted my grandfather’s station wagon through the old graveyard until we reached the McConnell family plot and parked in the shade of a massive oak tree.

My grandmother and great-grandmother pulled out of the car a big box of glass vases they’d spent the day before filling with artificial roses and carnations. I carried the box for them as we moved from grave to grave.

“Who is this?” I would ask, looking at the name carved into the stone.

They would answer as they pulled weeds and placed the flowers, propping the vases with stones so they wouldn’t fall over.

There was the sister who’d succumbed to a “fever.” The uncle who had died in an accident. The babies, guarded by gray stone angels, who’d only lived a day or a month or a few years. One by one I was introduced to my ancestors.

We came to the last grave. My great-grandfather’s grave. My great-grandmother put the flowers on the green grass and swept away the leaves that had fallen in the autumn wind and blown against the mossy stone. She been only in her 30s when he died, leaving her with nothing but children.

“Mama ‘Connell,” I asked, “Why on earth didn’t you get married again to get some help with your family?”

“Because,” she replied, turning to give me a long look, “I never loved any man but Doc.”


I looked at my great-grandmother, a true survivor who lived through more hard times than most of us will ever know; a woman who fell in love and stayed there for three-quarters of a century, as she dusted the red clay dirt off her hands and walked away.

Love. I hadn’t thought about that. It never occurred to me as we moved from grave to grave that it was love and respect and a sense of responsibility that had brought us there.

They’re all gone now. My mother, my grandparents and my great-grandparents – people my children never met but who are as real to me as the distant relatives we talked about that hot Memorial Day years ago – are all buried 2,500 miles away. All I can do on this Memorial Day is gather a bouquet of memories and bind it with love and respect.

And in that way, even those who are long gone, having lived and loved and finally faded away, are never forgotten.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. 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
Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap

For a girl like the girl I was, a child of the deep South, born into a world of steel mills and tidy neighborhoods of bungalows on oak and maple and pecan tree-lined streets; for a child steeped in the heady Southern perfumes of feathery mimosa trees and delicate gardenia blossoms and the unlikely grape bubblegum scent of Kudzu vine in bloom, driving into Glacier National Park, under an endless sky and surrounded by snow-capped peaks, was like suddenly discovering I had wings. That my feet were no longer tied by gravity.

The world around me never again looked the same.

I was fresh out of third-grade. My family packed up the station wagon, towing a tent trailer, and set out to see America. We set out for Glacier National Park.

As we drove across Montana and through the park, I rode with my head at the open window, curls blowing in the wind, my fingers curled over the top of the car door, my chin resting on the back of my hands, trying to take it all in.

I remember the feeling of being too small for the landscape, like an ant crossing the sidewalk. I listened to the cool, singing sound of clear mountain water rushing over beautiful green, red and lavender stones scattered like cabochon jewels on the river bed. I let the sandy soil of boulders, ground into dust by a millennium of massive glaciers, fall between my fingers. I held my breath as we made our way up a spectacular, winding, climbing, breathtaking road called “Going-to-the-Sun.”

The place left its mark on me. By the time we got home, I wasn’t the same girl I’d been when we left. I never forgot what I had seen.

Years later, when the chance to move my own family out west presented itself, I jumped at the chance. Leaving behind everything familiar, I knew I was going home.

This was all running through my head on on May 11, when I made another trip to the park. This time on the occasion of its centennial. A celebration of 100 years. Exactly 100 years ago to the day, President William Howard Taft signed a bill that established Glacier as the 10th national park.

I sat in a folding chair in a big white tent and listened to Park Superintendent, Chas Cartwright welcome the crowd. On the dais, in addition to representatives of local legislators and governmental entities, Native American leaders, in full headdress, were there to signify the complex and collaborative relationship between the National Park Service and first nation peoples.

I studied the faces in the crowd wondering what, exactly, besides the opportunity to be a part of history, had drawn them. Common wisdom states that there is something within each of us that seeks a companion. A mate. A missing piece to complete the human puzzle. I wonder if the drive to find our place, our geographic perfect-match, is just as strong. Some of us give into the siren call and get behind the wheel, or board an airplane or train. We chase the dot on the map. Others of us settle for romance from the armchair. Some, like a little girl gazing up at tall mountains with wide eyes, just know it when we see it.

After the centennial ceremony, I joined a tour of the park facilities. At each stop someone - a retired superintendent, a craftsman, a landscape specialist, an archivist - deepened our understanding of the history and structure of the park. I was proud to be a part of the unique history of the moment.

At the end of the day, carrying my souvenirs - the commemorative centennial coin, lapel button and program - I boarded the Amtrak Empire Builder, the train that would take me back home to Spokane. As we rolled out of Whitefish, Montana, I could see tall peaks in the distance.Chin-in-hand, I gazed out the window until the light faded.

The important thing to remember is that we are all as small as ants in the million-acre landscape of Glacier National Park. And it will stand long after we’re all gone. It will be there for others to discover, to fall in love with and to celebrate. Glacier National Park has, for 100 years, awed us and inspired us. I hope my children’s children will make the same pilgrimage to celebrate 100 more.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. 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

Sweet Dreams: The Garden Wall Inn

In love and lodging, the little things always seem to matter the most.

I was reminded of this in early May, when I traveled to Whitefish, Montana for the centennial celebration of Glacier National Park. I was lucky enough to find a rare opening at The Garden Wall Inn.

The beautiful bed and breakfast sits on a corner in a residential area just two blocks from downtown. Once the town’s finest home, thanks to the vision of owner Rhonda Fitzgerald, the lovely two-story house is now home to five of Whitefish’s most luxurious overnight guest rooms.

Located just at the top of the quaint staircase, rose wallpaper and bedding, antique furnishings and artwork as well as lace curtains at the windows, all perfectly suited to the home’s provenance, gave my room a sweet vintage charm.

Personal touches like paper-thin antique water glasses on the dresser, freshly ironed antique linen sheets and pillow cases on the bed and well-chosen accessories such as the delicate Wedgwood dish on the dresser, wrapped me in comfort and elegance.
This, I learned, is a specialty of the house.

Fitzgerald insists that whenever possible, vintage and antique items are used to decorate and accessorize the inn. This concept is carried through from the furniture, to the artwork on the walls, to the sterling silver bud vases on tea trays and bedside tables.

The white-tiled en suite bathroom, complete with a massive vintage claw-foot bathtub, is stocked with a variety of Gilchrist and Soames soaps, lotions, bath beads and plenty of big, plush, monogrammed towels. After a long hike, I couldn’t wait to slip into a fragrant bubble bath and relax. There was plenty of stretching-out room in the big old tub. It was the perfect place to unwind and think about what I’d seen and done that day.

It became clear that at Garden Wall Inn the luxury doesn’t stop with the accommodations. That’s just the beginning.

Each afternoon a glass of sherry, or wine if you prefer, is served in the living room by the fireplace. When innkeeper Chris Schustrom discovered I like to have a cup of chamomile tea before bed, he delivered a silver tea tray complete with a vintage Blue Willow cup and saucer to my room at bedtime. Taken with the homemade truffle from Whitefish’s Copperleaf Chocolat Company left on my pillow at turndown, the combination was delicious and soothing.

In the morning, half an hour before breakfast, a morning tea or coffee tray was delivered to my room, another specialty of the house. It is a most civilized way to ease into the day.

The crowning touch is the signature Garden Wall Inn breakfast. Owner Rhonda Fitzgerald is a trained chef. Her breakfasts are a culinary work of art.
I sat down to a work-of-art fruit salad decorated with a slice of star fruit and livened by a spritz of fresh lime. Freshly squeezed orange juice and hot coffee were waiting on the table.

The main dish was Montana smoked trout and served en croute, accompanied by slices of local artisanal bread and homemade huckleberry muffins.

Everything about Garden Wall Inn is perfectly appointed. From the delicious gourmet breakfast, to the chance to unwind over a glass of sherry in the afternoon, to the delictable chocolate left on the pillow at turndown, guests are pampered by one little luxury after another. And, as any travel lover knows, the little things make a big impression. I can’t wait to spend another night in the beautiful white house on the corner.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons.” Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country. She can be reached at