Mrs. Biklen

Over a decade ago, I wrote this as a tribute to my dear friend. As we celebrate the Day of the Dead (which technically should be called Days of the Dead since it runs from October 31-November2) , I’d like to share it with you.

MrsBiklen

Mrs. Biklen on her 90th birthday

Her daughter Anita meets me in the lobby of an extended care facility that is subtly disguised as an upscale apartment building.

“This isn’t one of her best days,” Anita warns.

“It’s okay.” I’m prepared for anything.

We ride up the slow elevator to the third floor. The doors open to an elderly couple supported by aluminum walkers. They jockey for position, the woman elbowing the man to win entrance onto the elevator. Anita and I squeeze past them and hold the doors as they shuffle to get inside.

The apartment doors are actually hospital doors, the central lobby a nurses’ station. Mrs. Biklen’s door is open. She sits in a wheelchair in the center of the room, her back to the door, her shrunken body silhouetted by a large picture window.

I sit in a chair facing her and take her hand. Old age has been her bitter enemy, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at her. At nearly ninety-one, she’s more beautiful than ever. Gone is the apprehension that once plagued her eyes, and the excess weight she picked up after she quit smoking forty years ago. Her fine champagne hair wisps in silky curls about the delicate bones of her face.

She looks at me as if she’s just unwrapped the most cherished gift anyone has ever given her. Her smile lights up her face with a sweetness that breaks my heart.

From the windowsill, Anita pulls down a recent photo of me with my daughter. “This is the same Kate as in the picture.”

“Oh,” Mrs. Biklen says with an element of surprise, drawing out the word.

Anita leaves to search for refreshments.

Mrs. Biklen, her face serious, her voice barely above a whisper, asks, “When will I be one hundred?”

Still holding her hand, I lean close. “You’ll be ninety-one in a couple of weeks, so you have nine more years to go.”

“Oh.”  Her brow furrows. She appears to struggle to grasp the concept of nine years, a complex mathematic formula that escapes her.

A smile slowly blossoms. “I’ve known you for a long time,” she says, her eyes expressing it as a question.

“Yes, you have.”

She looks delighted with my answer.

“Forty-five years.” The realization of such a large number brings tears to my eyes. “Since I was four years old.”

I try to believe she grasps the significance of what it means to have shared a forty-five-year history with someone who has touched me so deeply, so greatly influenced the path of my life. Throughout our long friendship, she taught me the meaning of graciousness and dignity, of kindness and hospitality. As a child, she opened her home to me, a treasured place where I could practice her teachings.

From the ages of three and four, my sister and I invaded the boundaries of the Biklen’s property and insisted that Mrs. Biklen become our friend. Once we entered grade school, we began making weekly appointments with her. In a shirt-waist dress and high heels, she led us into the beauty of her home where we often sat in her kitchen, practiced good manners, and told only those stories that shed us in a good light.

L & K 06Mrs. Biklen served iced Cokes in leaded crystal glasses and store-bought cookies on china plates. She treated us with respect, listening to our stories and offering gentle advice. No one had ever paid such attention to me.

My sister and I would mark each pending visit on our mental calendars, and remind each other not to make any after school plans that day. After changing into play clothes, a careful surveillance of the neighborhood identified the positions of any kids, and influenced the strategy for leaving our house and going to Mrs. Biklen’s. Once inside the walled tree-lined Biklen compound, we safely avoided detection from our neighborhood peers—the poor saps who weren’t allowed entrance—and casually walked up the long brick driveway. To this day, I don’t know why we were allowed access when other children were not.

“Do you have the pictures?” Mrs. Biklen asks.

Years ago, I’d carelessly let my sister get away with the photo album filled with childhood memories as the surrogate grandchildren of the Biklens. “Yes, I have the pictures,” I lie.

“All of them?”

It occurs to me she’s speaking of memories. “Yes, all of them.”

I look at her feet, one of which is covered by a suede fur-lined slipper, something she would have never worn in her younger years. The other foot is bare, red and badly swollen. These are the same feet, perpetually clad in high heels, that once whisked her through her elegant home. They now rest immobile on the footrests of her wheelchair.

Anita returns with two glasses of ice water. We sit, facing my dear friend, and share the recent events in our lives. I can’t take my eyes off Mrs. Biklen, who appears to lazily drift down a river in the warm sunshine. Occasionally, she opens her eyes, her smile telling us she’s grateful we’re still here.

An hour into the visit, her granddaughter Jenny arrives with her two small boys. The room shifts from the slow, gentle rhythm of the end of life to the whirlwind of its beginnings as the boys capture the room with their high energy.

The time comes when I have to catch a ferry back to Seattle, to my vacation with my family. I reach out, take both of Mrs. Biklen’s hands, and kiss her goodbye. Unlike a few years ago when she clung to me and cried as we parted, she is gracious and sweet in her farewell. I know this is the last time I will ever see her. I struggle against a desire to cling, but cannot keep the tears at bay.

I’m grateful for the hour-long ferry ride. It allows me to be still, to think of the wonder that is Mrs. Biklen. For the first time in her long life, she appears to have finally accepted the inevitability of all things. It is easier this way. She doesn’t alternate between complaining about her circumstances and dissolving into tears. It’s also harder this way. She’s pared down to the essence of love, and I am overpowered by its presence. It swirls around me and throws me off balance before settling in my heart, leaving me in a new and better place.

A few days after my visit, Mrs. Biklen stopped eating, and after six weeks succumbed to the final inevitability of life. I find comfort in knowing that she lives on in every gesture of kindness I show, every spot of beauty I create, and every expression of gratitude I make to loved ones for being the most cherished gifts I will ever receive.

 

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A Charlie Brown Christmas

a-charlie-brown-christmas-16A Charlie Brown Christmas” first aired 52 years ago when I was eleven. It was a special evening for my younger sister and me. We had been invited to watch at the Biklen’s house (they had a color television).

68aee84bcc9bd0c7469a97d97b2d22f6The Biklen’s were our next-door neighbors on South Mount Vernon in Spokane, Washington.  Geography caused the street to slope upwards, which perched their Swiss chalet on a hill above our house. Our properties were separated by a stone fence. Trees and shrubbery planted behind the wall shielded their house from view. A long red brick driveway curved into their property and stopped at a small garage nestled beneath the house.

L, K, M, & Tommy Earsley 1959

One spontaneous visit where we dragged along a couple of neighborhood kids.

When we were barely more than toddlers, my sister and I wandered into their property on a warm summer day and made Mrs. Biklen our friend. We stood outside her paned kitchen window, open to the fresh air, and hollered our hellos.

She said her name was Ellamae. I asked how old she was and she said, “Forty-five.” Outside of our grandmother, she was the oldest woman I’d ever met. Her voice carried the soft lilt of contentment, but her eyes held a tinge of sadness at the edges. She had graying chestnut hair and wore a flowered shirt-waist dress.

Mrs. Bilken & dogShe escorted us home that day, but on those rare occasions when our mother lost sight of us while we were playing in the yard, we’d wander to the Biklen kitchen window and call, “Ellamaid, Ellamaid.” (This was before we were fully indoctrinated to address adults by Mr. or Mrs.—never by first names.)

It was the late 1950’s and the two Biklen daughters were in high school. Mr. Biklen worked as the accountant/treasurer at the Spokesman-Review. Mrs. Biklen was a housewife.

My family consisted of a father who was a teacher, a stay-at-home mom, and three children. Within a few years, we’d balloon to five kids, crammed into a small three bedroom, one bath house. By comparison, the Biklens were aristocrats.

Years later—when I was eight—I was in our front yard playing with neighborhood friends when Mrs. Biklen drove her Nash Metropolitan past. I paused to wave and when she waved back, I again noticed her sad eyes. The next day, I told my sister that Mrs. Biklen was lonely and we should visit her. (I was too shy to go alone.)

L & K 1965She didn’t let us in, but invited us to return the following day after school. Thus began a series of weekly visits where we sat in her kitchen, practiced good manners, and told only those stories that shed us in a good light.

Mrs. Biklen served iced Cokes in leaded crystal glasses and store-bought cookies on china plates. She treated us with respect, listened to our stories and offered gentle advice. No one had ever paid such attention to me. Our hearts intertwined to create a bond that lasted more than forty years.

The night of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” my sister and I dressed in our good clothes—skirts and blouses, tights and Mary Janes. We donned winter coats. It had snowed the day before, but a slight rise in temperature had turned it to slush. We navigated puddles, careful not to get our shoes wet on our way to the Biklen’s.

The specialness of the program’s premiere allowed us to go to the front door (we usually entered through the back). We climbed the steps to the wide veranda and rang the bell. Mrs. Biklen opened the door wearing a dark green shirtwaist dress and black heels. Mr. Biklen stood from his smoking chair to greet us—another treat for the evening. We rarely spent time with him, always leaving our visits with Mrs. Biklen before he arrived home from work.

My sister and I sat on the antique Empire sofa upholstered in gray silk and nestled into a shallow alcove. A Christmas tree covered in colored lights and tinsel stood in a corner. The massive fireplace held a crackling fire. We crossed our feet at the ankles and straightened our spines. An assortment of cookies on a Christmas plate and paper napkins printed with poinsettias sat on the coffee table.

Mr. Biklen turned us into quite the Manhattan Coke lushes.  (Here celebrating my birthday.)

Mr. Biklen turned us into quite the Manhattan Coke lushes. (Celebrating my birthday.)

Mr. Biklen, in his highly spirited way, offered to make us Manhattans—his favorite drink. He left the room and returned with two elegantly-stemmed glasses filled with Coke and a sunken maraschino cherry. He proposed a toast to the Christmas season. I felt like a sophisticate.

The television—inside a dark wood console—was on, all warmed up so we wouldn’t miss a moment of the program. The opening chords of the soundtrack gave me the shivers. For the very first time, one of my favorite comic strips had come to life. I marveled how the voices perfectly fit the characters—Charlie Brown’s forlorn tone, Lucy’s crabby edginess, and Linus’s thick-tongued toddler sweetness.

My sister and I left that night high on Manhattan Cokes and sugar cookies—infused with the Yuletide spirit of Charlie Brown and the gang. Every year since then, come Christmastime, I’m carried back to the Biklen’s sofa where I’m surrounded by warmth and elegance, and reminded how the loving attention of adults stays with a child forever.

"That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

The Bing Crosby House

I recently returned from a family gathering in my hometown that I would have not been able to imagine as a child.

***

When I was nine or so, my dad was a middle school teacher and studying for his doctorate. He often spent Saturdays at the Bing Crosby Library on the Gonzaga campus in Spokane, Washington. These sessions ended with his crossing the street to drink at the house of a friend. On some Saturdays my mom insisted he take a couple of his five kids with him—to relieve her burden and possibly keep him from drinking too much.

bing20I was infatuated with Gonzaga. In the sixties, the campus was home to some fine-looking young Jesuits. I remember them as well-trimmed blondes in slim gray slacks and light blue cotton shirts with the unfortunate clerical collars signaling they were off limits to my desire. In contrast, the flocks of formidable-looking nuns, their copious black robes rustling in the breeze as they left Mass, made me quiver in fear. I imagined the church, Saint Aloysius, to be a replica of heaven itself.

Later in life, my dad claimed, “I raised you kids to be independent.” I couldn’t argue. His neglect was sufficient to keep us from ever thinking about depending on him. Such was the case whenever he took his two oldest—my brother and me—along with him to Gonzaga. We followed him into the Crosby Library and were told to meet a few hours later at his friend’s house. My first stop was always the Crosbyana—a small room filled with Bing memorabilia the singer/actor had donated to his alma mater.

bing12My favorite pieces were the framed gold record “White Christmas” and his Oscar for Going My Way (which I recently discovered is a replica). I remember the room as quiet, cozy, and rather dark, but recent pictures—that I cannot show because they’re copyrighted—reveal it to be light and airy. I curled into a plush chair and imagined it was my room, a den perhaps in the mansion that was my home.

Afterward, running around campus with my brother, I marveled at the coeds and longed to live in the Madonna Hall dorm when I went to college. Unbeknownst to me, my future husband was a student at the time. I never went there, but 40 years later our son Harrison would enroll and live his first year in that same dorm.

My last surviving Spokane relatives—a brother- and sister-in-law—moved to Phoenix a decade ago, but live in a cabin on Newman Lake, near Spokane, during the summer. This past spring, I thought it would be fun to have a family reunion with them, our kids and grandkids. Their cabin isn’t big enough to accommodate many overnight guests, but the overflow could stay in hotels and spend days at the lake.

Harrison suggested I look for a vacation rental on Coeur d’Alene Lake where we could all stay together. Many of the cabins available online are rustic with photos that hint at large spiders and mice. I found a couple of luxurious places that, when split four ways, were affordable, but not available on our chosen weekend. I grew frustrated and hateful.

I backed off and let it go for a few days. One morning, I girded my loins to try again. I expanded the search to include Hayden Lake, a few miles north of Coeur d’Alene. Lo and behold, up popped the Bing Crosby House! Bing Crosby, the inspiration behind the Crosbyana Room, the oasis that had comforted me as a child.

My fingers trembled as I clicked the link. I found a 3,000 square-foot log house built in 1955, lovingly kept in its original condition by Bing’s heirs (including the kitchen appliances). With four bedrooms, three and a half baths, and a stone deck running the length of the back facing the lake, it was perfect. But it required a five-night stay. Given everyone’s busy schedules, we could only eke out three nights to be together. I emailed the owner (Bing’s granddaughter) and asked for an exception. She agreed. I was beside myself with excitement.

***

bing19Entering the circular driveway of the Crosby House, I got chills. It doesn’t look like much from the front, but upon entering I was awestruck by floor to ceiling windows spanning the western border with a magnificent view of the lake. In the expansive great room, the walls were made of bleached paneling and logs that stand vertically.

bing3The entryway had a framed page from an American Home magazine article written, I assume, soon after the house was built since there was no year is on the cover. Subsequent framed pages line the hallway. Each room holds a page about that particular room.

We took great delight in these. A highlight: as a rough and tumble kid in Spokane, Bing often got in trouble for fighting, most notably beating up a “boy who called his sister tubby (she was).”

bing18We fell in love with Mrs. Lemmon, Bing’s dowdy French cook who was cordoned off in the kitchen and, unless the swinging door was open, could not be seen from the living area. According to the article, whenever she heard Bing’s car enter the driveway, the tiny woman stood on her tippy toes, looked out the window above the sink and cried, “Mr. Bing, God bless him!”

bing16To me, the most unique feature of the house was the original draperies. According to the article, “Bing’s famous theme song, ‘Where the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day,’ is motif on the living room draperies, done in square Gothic notes from 15th and 16th century parchment panels of church music that hung over piano. In his bedroom, [the] tune changes to ‘Home Sweet Home.’”

It was thrilling to stay in Bing’s house, a place custom built for him, where he and his kids spent summers fishing and golfing. This was the perfect setting to gather a family who enjoys spending time together, a family far more wonderful than my childhood fantasies could have conjured all those years ago when I nestled into that plush chair in the Crosbyana Room.

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