It was twenty years ago today — 27 August 2001 — that my mother passed away following a lengthy illness and problems with her medication. She died at home in Shawnee, Kansas, with her faithful husband of 42 years — my father — at her side. Even after the passage of one-fifth of a century, the heartbreak I had upon receiving that news at my home in New Mexico is still vivid. It all seems like a moment ago that I last heard her voice and her laughter. For each of the past 7,305 days since her death, I have spent time honoring her memory.
I have precious few photos of my mother but each one is a treasure. Several were taken before I was born in early December 1965 including the picture above which has long been my favorite image that I have of her. Here she is fishing at White Rock Lake in Dallas, Texas, near my first home of Garland. I do not recall when my parents relocated to Texas from the San Francisco Bay area but they were already there when President John F. Kennedy was shot there in November 1963. (Mom used to tell us the story of her learning about the assassination when she went to a hardware store; Dad was on a business trip at the time.) I imagine this photo is from sometime in late 1963 or early 1964.
Carol Anne Chapman was born in San Luis Obispo, California, on 19 December 1938. Her father was named Alonzo and served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. One his claims to fame during that time was winning enough shipboard games to become the Pacific Fleet’s cribbage champion. For many years, he worked for the Standard Oil Company and delivered heating oil to William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon Castle.
Through my mom’s side of the family, I can trace my ancestry all the way back to their living in Hesse in the late 15th century and their arrival in Pennsylvania about one hundred years before the American Revolution. One of the members of this branch of the family tree was a noted officer in the Pennsylvania militia during the war. Afterwards he was elected as one of the first mayors of Alexandria, Virginia, at which time he befriended President George Washington. He was the only non-Mason pallbearer at Washington’s funeral in December 1799.
Mom was in high school when the popular actor James Dean died nearby in a car crash outside of Paso Robles, California. I remember her telling us a story about how all of the girls at her school were so distraught that classes ended up being cancelled. In the late 1950s, Mom worked for the Libby Food Company in San Francisco. She kept seeing a man, my dad, at the bus stop, and eventually they began talking. In November 1959, they eloped to Reno, Nevada. In late 1965, they adopted me from Hope Cottage in Dallas; my sister — Marilyn — was born in May 1967.
Most of my images of my mother are screenshots from home movies made in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Christmas was always a happy time for us as reflected in these early soundless videos. Much later, when I was living far away, I was only able to fly to Kansas two or three times to enjoy the holidays with my family.
Very early on, my mom instilled in me a love of reading that has never weakened. My lifelong interest in ocean liners began with watching “A Night to Remember” on late-night television with my mom (which explains my love for forties, fifties, and sixties cinema as well). She recommended that I read Walter Lord’s book and that led to my seeking any and all books written about Titanic. I was 11 or 12 years old when Mom bought me a copy of Clive Cussler’s Raise the Titanic! which may have been my first “thriller” that I read as I was more interested in science fiction at the time. This began a longtime shared interest in Cussler’s books and many years later, when I met the author in Albuquerque, I had him dedicate an inscription in one of his books to my mother. She was very surprised when I gave it to her for her birthday that year. We also attended the Jason Robards film of Raise the Titanic! together (I remember enjoying it at the time but would probably cringe if I were to watch it today). I shared my excitement with her several years later when I learned that Robert Ballard had finally found the wreck.
Similarly, Mom and I became co-conspirators in making elaborate travel plans. Alas, this was all armchair travel but we loved to dream together. I still have the Bucket List that we created together; after her passing, I made it a point to visit places on that list in her memory. The only spot remaining from that original list is to view Mount Everest from the ground. I have a trip planned in post-COVID times that would take me to the Tibetan Everest Base Camp with a goal of arriving at the end of May 2023 (the 70th anniversary of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay attaining the summit). My mother shared my interest in Everest (and reading about mountaineering in general) so one of my first journeys in her honor included the Royal Gala celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first ascent at which I met Sir John Hunt, Sir Hillary, and the children of Tenzing Norgay.
I have written before about how my mother bought my sister and I various commemorative coins and stamps in the early 1970s lead-up to the American Revolution Bicentennial celebrations. By the time of my ninth or tenth birthday, my interest in stamps had grown to such an extent that my gift that year was Mom’s childhood stamp album — the 1938 printing of Scott’s Modern Stamp Album. One of my favorite stories is the one about how she and her big brother (my uncle George) began their collections. During World War II, while their father was in the Navy, they lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, directly across the street from the then-State Capitol building. Their mom (my grandmother) bought them each a worldwide stamp album and they would hunt inside the trashcans outside of the capitol building looking for stamps. The many agencies located inside received mail from all over the world so their dumpster-diving proved quite successful. Sometime after receiving my mother’s album, my uncle gave me his.
Two years after Mom died, my father visited me in New Mexico and we made a pilgrimage to Santa Fe to see if we could locate the house where Mom and Uncle George lived during the War. Armed with a description along with the address and the general location, we zeroed in on a likely candidate. It was the only house in the area and the address matched. The old capitol building (originally built in 1900 and the location of President William Taft’s signing on January 6, 1912 of the proclamation admitting New Mexico as the 47th state of the Union) was right around the corner. Now known as the Bataan Memorial Building, to commemorate the Bataan Death March, Mom probably wouldn’t recognize it nowadays as the original building is almost entirely obscured by later additions, or in the case of the pedimented portico, removals, but its third-story arched windows are still the same as when she lived there. The house itself looks like it could have been the same as 60 years before.
Due to my father’s work, we moved several times during my youth. From Dallas, we moved to the Permian Oil Basin out in remote West Texas in the early 1970s. He had business dealings around this time with George H. W. Bush just as he was starting his political career (and long before he became Director of the CIA and his eventual election as President of the United States). I learned all of this much later as my few Midland memories involve Mom. I can remember her beginning to be active in our school — even becoming president of the local Parents Teachers Association (P.T.A.) chapter. At the time, it was still considered “okay” for physical punishments at school. I suppose I was naughty at school on a couple of occasions and was beaten with a thick yardstick by the principal. Mom stepped-in and prevented further beatings and the practice later was abolished by state law (not that my mother had anything to do with that, of course).
My other big memory of Mom at our school in Midland was during a tornado. All of the students were crouched into the hallway at school and my mother was assisting the teachers in keeping us calm and watching the approaching storm. Luckily, the school was spared but the playground equipment was completely demolished. Over the years, we had several other close encounters with tornadoes including one that jumped over our house after we’d moved to Hermitage, Tennessee, hitting the houses behind and in front of ours. I also have vague recollections of Mom taking my sister and me to a lunch counter in one of Midland’s downtown department stores for French fries and ice-cream sundaes. Other local outings included at least one visit to the County History Museum and a memorable trip to the Museum of the Southwest which was displaying a large painting I had made. The painting, a self-portrait, won a ribbon at school and was displayed in the museum for a period of time.
In 1974, the family moved once again to Hermitage, a bedroom community to the east of Nashville. Our house wasn’t ready for a few weeks so we began our life in Tennessee at a hotel near the airport. I have a memory that it was so close to the Nashville Motor Speedway that we could hear the cars revving their engines. Once our house was ready, we moved into a hilly suburb where all the streets began with the suffix “Bonna-“. I believe we lived on Bonnacrest Lane (or, was it Bonnahurst?). It was while driving home from school one day amidst all of those Bonna’s, that Mom told me that I was adopted. I don’t recall the rest of the conversation or what prompted her to tell me in the car but it never made much of a difference in my life. I had two wonderful parents and did not care a hoot if they were my biological parents or not. For a brief time in high school, I became a little curious but gave up a search for my birth parents due to the difficulty of obtaining the sealed records from Texas.
In my mind’s eye, our house in Hermitage seems a bit rustic after all these years. I remember the uncovered slope of a hill being accessible in the basement and I recall the occasional bat flying around down there. After the aforementioned tornado that jumped over our house, Dad mowed the lawn and it was covered in bats that had dropped out of the sky. This was cave country, mind you. We lived near President Andrew Jackson’s mansion (The Hermitage) and visited numerous times. I don’t recall too much more about our time in Hermitage but it is the earliest that I can remember a teacher’s name. Her name was Mrs. Washington; she may have been the first black person I ever met as that is the one thing that stands out.
We only lived in Hermitage for a short while. After perhaps one year, we moved to Hendersonville to the northeast of Nashville. We had a wonderful house at the end of a dead-end road and could walk through meadows along a lovely bubbling stream or explore a nearby hill (we called it “The Mountain”) which was full of wood shacks abandoned in the 1930s and rusted cars from the same era. There were also numerous sinkholes in the area and several led to small caverns. Wildlife was plentiful; on one occasion when Mom brought me home from the hospital (following one of my many broken arms from falling out of trees or rough-housing on the playground), a deer was standing in our backyard when we pulled up in the car.
As a family, we took many trips from our Nashville area homes. Often, we would visit various Tennessee State Parks or journey north to Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. We often travelled to the Great Smokey Mountains (I fell in love with Gatlinburg, my first “tourist trap” where I invariably bought fake Confederate banknotes and Civil War battle maps) and to Rock City in Chattanooga. Civil War battlefields were also high on our vacation list and Dad always managed to find musket balls or other artifacts in the ground. Mom made the best campground food (and, when we lived in Texas, she made little forts for my sister and I to play in when we stayed at our 10-acre “ranch” on the Kickapoo Creek near Tyler).
Back at home, Mom used to take me to a stamp dealer on the north side of Nashville where I would buy stamps, covers, and albums. In 1977, she signed me up for the Postal Commemorative Society, a subscription service for new issue U.S. first day covers. The first one that I received was the commemorative stamp issued for the 50th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight; I was very interested in the Spirit of St. Louis at the time, having watched the Jimmy Stewart movie with my mom. She bought me the book around that time and I believe the main reason she enrolled me in the PCS was because of the upcoming Lindberg stamp. As a family, we would often see movies at the nearby shopping mall (Dennison, I think). Two I remember were “The Great Waldo Pepper” and the local premiere of the first Star Wars movie in 1977.
I don’t remember Mom being very active in our schools while we lived in Tennessee but she was an important fixture in our education following our next move, this time to Shawnee in northwest Kansas, not far from Kansas City. We moved in early August 1977, just a few days before Elvis Presley died. I vividly remember Mom shedding a few tears over that which surprised me as I never knew she was a fan. Soon after, I began the sixth grade at Greenwood Elementary which was some distance from our home and rather remote at the time. Mom was present for many of our activities and became good friends with my teacher there, Mrs. Patty Barger. I began my brief musical career at Greenwood, playing French horn in the school orchestra. Of course, my mother was very supportive of that although I was absolutely awful. She played piano while my dad played violin and Marilyn did quite well with the cello. I cannot remember who played the ukulele.
Her involvement in our school activities only increased as my sister and I proceeded through junior high (Hocker Grove) and high school (Shawnee Mission Northwest), not to mention our college careers (an ill-fated year at Kansas State University in Manhattan followed by several years at Johnson County Community College and the University of New Mexico for me, a successful stint at the University of Kansas in Lawrence for me sister). I remember her being a constant figure at events such as science fairs and Scouting activities. I was in the Cub Scouts and made it through Weebelos but only one year of Boy Scouts while my sister was a Camp Fire Girl. Mom wore an Indian costume to my sister’s den meetings. Mom proved quite popular with our friends, many of whom still remember her with great fondness.
My mother was supportive of my musical endeavors as well and I often played her new “discoveries” as she drove me around town. In the mid-1980s, this included Bruce Springsteen at the height of the Born In The U.S.A. period. I had already attended several shows on the fall 1984 tour; I recall explaining to Mom that he wasn’t like other performers in that the shows were long and he played different songs each night. In September 1985, I scored tickets to one of his concerts at Mile High Stadium in Denver and was planning to drive my car. However, my 1973 bright orange Super Beetle would not start when I was ready to leave. Without a moment’s hesitation, Mom said that she would drive me!
This wasn’t just some show across town. This was all the way across Kansas and a third of the way across Colorado as well. I think it was about ten hours or so. I probably played Springsteen tapes most of the way and Mom never complained. We encountered sleet at one point and by the time we got to Denver, the weather was pretty bad. We stopped by the stadium for a few photos of the equipment trucks and then headed up the street to the hotel where the E Street Band was staying (we saw their luggage in the lobby). Eventually, that show was cancelled due to the late-September Colorado weather and we stayed the night in the hotel. Springsteen eventually played two concerts at Mile High and we had the option of staying until the second night but I knew Mom had to get home so we decided to just cut our losses and leave. (During the second night, it was the eve of Bruce’s birthday and he played a few rarities but the weather again turned bad and at one point, he couldn’t pick up his guitar as it was coated with ice!)
When I finally decided to move to New Mexico, both of my parents were extremely supportive. I got pretty busy in my work there and probably did not call as often as I should have. I wrote a few letters to Mom and there were phone calls perhaps once every month or so. While I was there, I had some periods of bad luck (most extreme was being the victim of an armed robbery and kidnapping) but I do not remember ever telling my mother about those. I cannot even remember if she visited me while I lived in Albuquerque (I have a vague memory of taking her to the Balloon Fiesta but I cannot find any photos to confirm this). I do know that I should have returned to Kansas City more often.
My final trip to visit while she was still alive was in February 2001. Mom was a patient at the University of Kansas Medical Center where my sister was (and still is) a physical therapist. She was released and allowed to return home during the time I was visiting. I was somewhat taken aback seeing my mother wheeling an oxygen canister around as she was always so active. Unfortunately, I do not remember much else about that trip. I had to return to my job in New Mexico. As things go, my mom’s health improved for a while and then declined again. She got better again. I think she was at home more than she was in the hospital. I wish I had visited more during the ensuing months but the sad fact is that I didn’t. I don’t know if the outcome would have been any different if I had been there; I probably would have been in the way.
On 27 August 2001, my mother died peacefully in her sleep with my dad holding her hand. I received word soon afterwards — I may have returned from work or just walked to the apartment complex office to pay my rent, I am not sure — someone in the office gave me a note to call my sister. I might have done that using their phone. Marilyn gave me the sad news as gently as she could but it still felt like a punch to the stomach. I think that is because I felt that I hadn’t been able to properly say “Goodbye” or let her know how much I loved her. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that I didn’t need to voice these sentiments, that she already knew how I felt.
I flew home for the funeral where I was one of the pallbearers and managed to get through delivering some heartfelt words at the service (I really wish I had kept a copy of what I said). After some time spent surrounded by my family members in Kansas and visiting a few friends in the area, I flew back to my home in New Mexico. I arrived in the evening on 10 September 2001, and planned to return to work the following afternoon. However, as we all know, events during the next morning changed everything in the United States. Perhaps I will tell that story next month.