I was putting a photo of my Aunt Lucille in the Family Tree file I am making for my grandkids when I remembered that she had been Miss Montana.
Looking at this large, flamboyant, brassy, ebullient woman who hugged me tenderly every time I saw her and said, “I love you, Jeffy,” it was hard to imagine her in the Miss America pageant. But she was. In 1939. The first Miss Montana.
As I filed a photo of my Uncle Leonard, I recalled that he was in a bomber shot down over Germany in World War II and had the good fortune to parachute into Switzerland. Not a bad place to spend the rest of the war, all-in-all. No doubt he had many interesting anecdotes to share about that year-and-a-half.
I bring this up because, as I experience more and more passings, I realize that on any death an entire universe of knowledge is lost. Each of us is the vessel of a unique sphere of facts, family vignettes, information and explanations. Each of us is, in essence, a living history book.
Mom died in 2002, Dad in 2006. If I could have them back for 20 minutes, for 10 minutes I’d brag and bring them up to date about their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The other 10 minutes, I’d ask them questions about their lives and mine, to acquire the perspective and explanation only they could add to the gray areas of my memory and history.
Lucille, Leonard (my dad’s half-brother), Mom and Dad were quite a team. Leonard and Dad were business partners until things went bad. Though they always loved each other personally, after the business broke up there was an emotional gap that hadn’t existed before.
On Friday nights in the late 1950s and early ’60s, Mom, Dad, Leonard and Lucille would meet after dinner at Leonard and Lucille’s house and play pinochle for an hour or two. Always guys versus gals. Always sitting in the same seats. Almost always the men winning. Part of the winning culture, I always suspected, was the ladies’ chatting and waiting on the men.
While Leonard and Dad contemplated their cards, Lucille and Mom were fetching food, cigarettes, or a cocktail. The men got to concentrate, the women got to serve. No wonder the playing field wasn’t quite level. Then, there was the mirror behind Uncle Leonard’s chair the ladies never noticed via which Dad, when the situation required, could look directly into his partner’s hand to make the next strategic move. For years that went on. No one ever knew. Or suspected.
How I would love to have Lucille with me for a few minutes to ask her how she felt when she discovered the mirror — or if she cared.
Sometimes, the cards and libations led to unanticipated circumstances. After one particularly long evening of card playing, Lucille woke up sans her dentures. When she asked Leonard to clarify what happened to her dentures, he was of little help, as were Dad and Mom. A search of the house began. Hours later, the missing teeth were found — in a pickle jar in the fridge. My dad’s theory was that the dentures tried to drown themselves rather than hear any more stories or laughs that evening. Listening to those four belly laugh together, that wasn’t out of the question.
Through all the shenanigans that comes with a life as a wife, mom, aunt, friend, in-law and extraordinary lover-of-Jeffy, Lucille always made me laugh and feel loved. She was fun and funny, caring and interested. Leonard was as good with a quip as anyone I’ve ever met. When they died, there was a hole in the air I breathe. And still is.
Oh, how I wish I could have gone back in time to 1939 in Helena or Billings, wherever the Miss Montana Pageant was initially held, to watch Lucille as a young woman show her poise, grace and smarts to win the state title. And later in her life, ask Lucille what she remembered about the state and Miss America pageants — and contestants — and how they changed her, what she carried with her from those experiences the rest of her life.
How I wish I could have asked about Leonard’s tales of the war and living in Switzerland for those years.
And why they never shared those stories with us.
The message is that everyone has a one-of-a-kind understanding of their lives and their family’s history. Ask someone older than you about theirs. Tell someone younger than you about yours. It is important. It is interesting. It is necessary.
And, one thing I learned from my own family history, if you can’t find your dentures, look in the pickle jar in the fridge.
— Jeff Tolman is a lawyer, municipal court judge, and periodic columnist for Kitsap News Group.
Copyright 2017 Jeff Tolman. All rights reserved.