Ellis and Betty (right and center-bottom) with Patty and Frank Merrigan (left and center-top)
Man, I don’t even know how to start this. How do you start talking about the lives of two people who have affected so many? How can you begin to explain the emotional attachments that they formed over the course of their long and happy lives? This is genuinely the most difficult In Memory I’ve had to do, to date. It will probably be the most difficult one I will ever have to do, until…well, I think we all know who that will be. My grandmother, Betty White (not the actress, although I have joked with her about sharing the name with her), passed away this morning. I’ve been pondering, for hours, on how to write about this. It’s unfathomably difficult. See, my grandpa, Ellis White, passed away before I was doing this. Now, I thought that I would do this for both of them. I may not believe in an afterlife, consciously, but there is still a comfort that comes from believing that two people who have been apart for a little while are now reunited. There’s so much to talk about. Bear with me. I’m doing this while a lot of emotional dust is getting stirred up. Don’t know how long to get it done. These two people, Ellis and Betty, led a life that shaped a community. They won’t be remembered by all America, but an entire generation of people in this part of the world that my folks still live in remember. But I suppose I’m getting ahead of myself.
Ellis and Betty white didn’t originally live in Alaska. They came up here from South Dakota. When they first came up here, they lived in Anchorage. They set up a house on Raspberry Lane. My granddad owned a gas station, and they lived pretty alright. Well enough that they eventually came to live in Wasilla. They homesteaded out here, buying a pretty sizable chunk of property. From there, they became part of the web of life out in Knik. Back when it was all people homesteading. They were here. Something that
Betty and the kids
people don’t know is that Betty lived out in the Homestead on her own, most of the time. Ellis had to work in Anchorage, to put food on the table. But she wasn’t living here alone.
The two of them had five children. The oldest was Kathy. Then there was Dick (his name is Richard, but most everyone calls him Dick. Always have), Scott and Jim. The last was the youngest of the family – Sally. She just happens to be my mother. Funny how that works, right? (Just kidding. Sort of) Five kids, four of whom were absolute hellions, but the telling of some stories around the campfire (I’m lookin’ at you, White Man!). Betty had to raise them, for the most part, by herself. But don’t you go thinking that she was some pushover. Oh no! When Betty got mad, that woman meant business! You were getting an ass-whoopin’, you better believe it! She had to deal with the homesteading life and raise five kids, she was a tough old gal. They just don’t make them like that anymore.
But her toughness was directly tied in to how much she loved her kids. See, Betty had to deal with a lot of stuff. The foremost was her son Scott. I barely got to know him. I hardly remember anything from before my head injury, but I barely knew him before that. The last time I saw him was when I was around five. He had some problems. Scott was gay. He wrestled with that in a time and a state where that lifestyle was beyond frowned-upon. It was part of the reason that he ended up having a severe substance abuse problem. I’m talking the hard stuff. This substance abuse, along with some mental problems, eventually lead to his death, many years ago. Betty had had to deal with that for a long time, and she was able to keep her composure. I have no doubt that it was hard on her. I can’t even imagine. But she carried on.
The connection to family that Ellis and Betty had was profound. See, a ton of their family ended up living up here. The foremost was the Merrigans. Betty and Patty were two peas in a pod. There are so many stories about the two of them arguing for a LONG time about who would pay when they would be out eating. The two of them were tough women, both of whom had their fair share of problems, but were made stronger because of it. And that tight bond led to two families being close in a way that most singular families aren’t. But don’t think that their ties to family only went to the extended one.
Betty and Ellis were very close to their own family. There are pictures out there of them sitting with their grandkids, back when we were babies. They would love to see their grandkids. Thankfully, because they lived on a lake and were down the road from a large chunk of them, they got to do this rather often. I always got the impression that this was a happy thing, for them. They also liked to travel with their family. There are fond memories of time spent in Seward, with them in their ancient-ass motorhome and me and my family in the camper on the back of the old man’s truck. You ever see the vehicles that the family drove around, we looked like the Clampetts, sometimes. The Clampetts go to Seward! But they never mind.
Indeed, traveling was something that the two loved to do. There are so many stories of the many trips that they took. They could have told you, for hours, about how many times they had gone to all sorts of places across the country. But I like to think that their trips to Seward, fishing with members of the family, was their favorite. Or at least Ellis’ favorite. He loved his old boat. It was a pretty small craft, but I have vague memories of him sitting in his chair, fishing pole in the little holster on the side, looking peachy as can be. Maybe I’m wrong. We do color history with our own perspective, don’t we? I admit that mine is less colored than most. After all, with my head injury, most of my memories before my head injury were mush.
And the two weren’t just big on helping their family. They were tight with the old community of both Knik and Wasilla. The two of them were among the ones who started the Wasilla Food Pantry, at Good Shepard Lutheran Church. That’s the place that I grew up attending. Nice people, there. Unlike some people, I left religion on good terms, due to how I grew up in a church filled with pretty nice people. It’s going to be hard, seeing how hard it is on them, when I am there for the service next weekend.
There are so many people who could tell you so many stories about Ellis and Betty. So many people who have stories that are just bursting about their interactions with those two people. They lived a life that was fuller and more enriched than almost any of us are going to have. Part of me wishes that I had taken the old journalist approach and cataloged all the stories that they had, from as many people as I could. I know that the White Man has a thousand and one stories to tell. Although, with him, you gotta take it with a grain of salt. He’s the king of bullshit. To live a life and touch the lives of so many. It’s a little overwhelming. How can I give those two the credit they so rightly deserve about a life that they lived that was so full? I’m still debating this. I’ve given you all pockets of knowledge, but it goes so much farther. How can I do justice to a life like that? It’s too much. As I sit here, Chris Botti playing in the background, I am so uncertain. Maybe I should have waited a few days, to collect my thoughts. But you know, this felt right. It felt right to talk about this now, when it is fresh on my mind and I can think of the most to say.
Still, I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the lives they shaped and all the memories they share. Now, I won’t claim that my grandma and I were the best of friends. We had our disagreements, and those were sometimes very unpleasant. But you know, I don’t hold on to stuff like that. Especially now. Old disagreements fall by the waist-side, and we think back to the good memories. Memories of days gone by, that make me lament for a history that I barely remember, where things were so much easier, and I didn’t have to be scared about everything the way I am now.
I also know that, writing this, it is going to give a lot of people pain. I do hope that, eventually, this helps people more than it hurts. I hope that this post can inspire good memories, not sad thoughts. I mean that, from the bottom of my little black heart. I hope that each and every one of you can have good memories in your own lives, of the people you know who have touched you so much. To any family or friends of the two who end up reading this, feel free to share a story in the comments section. Like I said, I haven’t even been able to touch on how many stories there are.
And to Ellis and Betty, I hope that, wherever you are, you are happy. Your suffering is done. Age and pain can’t touch you anymore. That long good night has given you both the peace that you had a fair amount of in life. A service is going to be held at Good Shepard Lutheran Church. You are going to be missed, by so many people. It is with that in mind, that I am going to share a quote that is of great significance to me, to end this.
Until next time, a quote,
“This may not make much sense to you now, a young man at the beginning of his career, but one of the things you learn as you move up the ranks and get a little older is that you wish you had more time in your youth to really absorb the things that happened to you. It goes by so fast. It’s so easy to become jaded. To treat the extraordinary like just another day at the office. But sometimes, there are experiences that transcend all that.” -Capt. Katherine Janeway, Star Trek: Voyager