I remember my Dad, Sulo Annala, saying you get to a certain age and all your friends start appearing in the obituaries. Dad was not a man of many words, and he didn’t want them wasted at a funeral, at least his very own. When he passed away, we had an evening of storytelling at the Crag Rat Hut in a manner befitting his style.
The evening was hosted by his nephew, Wayne Annala, a premier storyteller in his own right. There were stories of courage and stories of sadness, stories of humor and stories of hardship. There were stories of love and strength of family, friends and community.
That was 34 years ago, and I still recall the tales with great tenderness. Dad was a prankster of sorts. There was the old-fashioned prankster who put honey on the outhouse hole or convinced his younger sisters, and much later his son and daughters, that you could catch a skunk by quickly grabbing its tail, then raising it overhead at arms-length in front of you.
We only fell for that one once.
His shenanigans with adults were usually in telling tall tales that seemed truthful at the very beginning. But by the time the listener was drawn into the story, oohing and ahhing about an arduous accent up Adams, or a chance encounter with the yellow bellied Yedi on the slopes of Mount Hood, he would laugh robustly and exclaim, ”Gotcha!”
Several things bring my father to mind at this particular time. At Memorial Day, and we would visit his grave at Idlewilde Cemetery, cleaning and decorating the stones of many of our friends and family members who are no longer with us. It is a special day, remembering the attributes of many of our ancestors as well as laughing at their frolic, fanciful tales and foibles.
I have also been reading the obituaries as of late, noting that many of those we once celebrated and socialized with are gradually passing away. This is not unexpected, but it leads one to think of their own mortality.
I was saddened to see Ady Arens’ name in the newspaper. It was only a few weeks ago that I visited with her at China Gorge where she was eating dinner with her son, John, and his wife. She was as vibrant as ever, with a sharp memory and those ever-twinkling eyes that pulled you into a conversation as soon as you saw her.
Ady was such an amazing talented woman. She crafted exquisite ornaments commemorating the Crag Rats, a mountain rescue group that both her husband, John, and my father belonged to throughout their adult lives. The ornaments were delicate as well as unpretentiously playful, much like the organization’s members. How Ady managed to capture the spirit of this mountaineering group, I consider to be one of her artistic accomplishments. The Crag Rat figures were resplendent in detail, from their tiny little pick axes and traditional black and white checkered shirts to their climbing ropes and carefree red bandannas.
Always a smile on her face, gentle, with the sparkling eyes of Santa Claus, it was difficult to believe Ady could make these adorable little characters well into her 80s and 90s. There were Crag Rat men in full mountain rescue attire, and little rats dressed in checkered shirts and bandannas scurrying about the rocks. The name Crag Rats rightfully came from a tale told and retold in front of the fire at Cloud Cap Inn. Rumor had it that in 1926, Delia, the wife of the Crag Rats founding member, Andy Anderson, said that the climbers looked like a bunch of rats scampering around the craggy snow-covered rocks on the mountain’s glaciers instead of being home with their families. The nickname stuck.
I collected many of Ady’s figures over the years, first as Christmas Tree decorations for myself and my siblings and generations later for my children and grandchildren. They remind us all of Papa Sulo, his life of service to others and his playful spirit. One of the perks of collecting the characters was visiting with Ady at a Harvest Fest booth, or at the kitchen table of her hillside home. She always had a story about my father and the fond memories she had of the Crag Rats. She said that making the figures reminded her of each of the members, adding blond hair to some, brown and black to others. Her playful spirit was always present. One year she threw in a rat depicted as a nun, in full wimple regalia.
I have kept the collection in my heart and on my hearth. They men and rats climb a majestic fir tree, crafted out of an antique saw blade by another mountain spirit, Noel Neal. It has a place of honor on the fireplace mantel, next to my father’s Crag Rat shirt, pick axe and snow shoes.
There have been a number of Nisei appearing in the obituaries as well. This is not unexpected since many are in their late 80s or 90s. With each individual’s passing, their tale of courage on the front lines of World War II to the internment camps and their return to this valley grows dimmer. Linda Tamura has told many of their stories through her books, Lisa Yasui through film and Homer Yasui through museum exhibits and speaking tours. While the names may seem “foreign” to some, most recently Shig Imai, Mas Ogawa, and Taylor Tomita, they are the names of Americans who helped make this valley, this state and our country stronger because of their character and diversity.
There are still some hardy survivors, one of the oldest, Suma Kobayashi, who passed the century mark several years ago. She still remembers who I am if I lean over her chair at Parkhurst and introduce myself. Her smile is radiant, her voice soft as a lullaby.
Like Ady, Suma is also an amazing talent. She learned to make do with whatever the family had during the Great Depression, which helped her withstand the harsh life in the internment camps of World War II. Suma could find beauty in the simplest of items, crafting parasols from cigarette wrappers and delicate corsages from the tiny sea shells she collected from Tule Lake’s ancient seabed.
Suma was a part of my life growing up in Oak Grove, but through her children and grandchildren I came to know her much more personally. Her son, Dick, and my husband were avid fishing buddies. Our sons were childhood friends. At each social gathering, Suma would come with a delicious treat in hand.
She didn’t just make “maki sushi,” she rolled seaweed around sushi rice then carefully layered green spinach leaves, pink “komoboku,” and golden eggs to form a perfect flower when the roll was cut. She made cookies that were cloud white wafers filled with colored whipping cream, too gorgeous to eat, but totally irresistible, melting in your mouth within seconds. Her chow mein looked like a Picasso landscape, with tiny slices of pickled ginger atop toasted noodles, slivers of celery, onion and mushroom adorning the top.
Suma would cook a pancake-thin egg mixture, form it into a roll and cut it into tiny curly-cues, adding a sprinkling of nori to the mountain top that looked like leaves scattered across the sand gardens of Japan.
For over a century, Suma has perfected the art of turning trash into treasure and making lemonade from lemons.
It is an art form we all should master.