Everything, everything we hope we can be…

amman1Sometimes a simple little Internet search will unearth something totally unexpected and completely wonderful.  Motivated by the fact that it’s Women’s History Month and by all the stories I’ve been reading about strong women, I decided I wanted to write a piece about my maternal grandmother who, though not famous, was a pretty amazing and inspiring woman herself. But I have a terrible memory and little capacity for retaining actual facts, so I knew I’d need help if I was going to do her story justice and get all the little details right. So, I turned to my two most trustworthy sources of information: my twin sister (who has a fantastic memory and a great capacity for retaining actual facts) and Google (you all know Google, right?)

My sister was a wealth of information as usual, as were my mom’s cousins whom I also contacted for the backstory, but I was thrilled to find out something completely amazing all on my own. Simply by googling her name (that interweb sure is great!!), I found an art auction site describing the recent sale of one of her paintings! This is really fantastic because while my grandmother was an influential and integral part of her local artist community, she was by no means a renowned artist. It didn’t sell for much, but the fact that one of her pieces is out there being sold to a random buyer halfway across the country and more than 60 years after she painted it is just out-of-this-world crazy to me.

This is the painting that Google found for me. I want it. I really, really, really, really want it.

I never had a chance to meet Phyllis, but she has always been a source of inspiration and a driving force in my life. She died quite young- before my parents were even married (just nine days before in fact) but my mom talked about her a lot. I used to love to hear stories about her because she was so intriguing. I imagined her to be tragic and beautiful and smart and strong and quirky and lovely and I always wished more than anything that I could have known her.

We had some pictures of her and we had a few of her paintings but that’s it. My grandfather remarried a few years after she died and his new wife threw out almost everything that had been hers. My aunt was away at college and my mom was living in Japan at the time and didn’t find out about it until she returned home, too late to save anything. Losing all of her mother’s treasures was deeply painful for her and it’s something she’s never gotten over. But she tried to keep her spirit alive by sharing what she did still have- her memories and her stories.

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Phyllis, Renald (Bud), Louis and Ellis in 1935 or 1936

Phyllis Kocher Amman was born in Omaha, Nebraska on August 7, 1917, to Ellis Lundgren Kocher and Louis Kocher, but she spent most of her childhood in Palo Alto, California where the family moved when she was very young. She had a twin brother named Bud who she remained extremely close to even after circumstance and distance kept them apart. Their father died suddenly from a brain hemorrhage when they were just 19 years old, and the shared loss instilled in them a deep appreciation for family ties and an intense need to stay connected. When they married and had families of their own they, their spouses and children all maintained a close, loving relationship that transcended the miles that separated them. When Bud also died suddenly at age 49, Phyllis was heartbroken.

She attended UC Berkeley where she received a degree in social work. She also completed some graduate work in social welfare at Berkeley and later went on to continue her education at the Farnham School of Art in Surrey, England, the University of Rhode Island and Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I. All of this is amazing considering at that time, most women didn’t even finish high school, let alone set their sites on a Master’s Degree. In fact, according to the Education Census Bureau, just 35% of women earned a high school diploma in 1940 and a mere 5% went on to graduate from college. She was an influencer, a game-changer, a real go-getter!

Phyllis and Barney’s wedding photo

While she was at Berkeley, Phyllis met my grandfather, Bernard Amman, a Navy pilot who also has a fascinating story that I’ll save for Memorial Day because well, you’ll see why when I write it. Their meeting was the start of a great love affair that endured hard times and unfolded all around the world. Shortly after they were married, the US entered WWII and Barney was deployed to the Pacific. He spent a good deal of time flying missions during the War and was historically shot down and rescued after three days at sea during the Battle of Midway (he’s even written up in books and stuff- more on that later).

While her husband was off saving the world, she was doing good work at home. She was a firm believer in having a community-based vocation so she served as a juvenile court probation officer, a recreation supervisor, a family caseworker and a Navy Relief interviewer. And because apparently, that didn’t keep her busy enough, she set up and ran a Navy Relief Thrift shop to help fellow Navy families in need. After Barney came back, she followed him around the world, perfecting the art of being a Navy wife: hosting fabulous dinner parties, organizing luncheons on the military base, volunteering with various service organizations, keeping an impeccable house and raising two spirited young girls in far-flung places like Guam, Japan, the United Kingdom, and perhaps the most exotic of all: Pensacola, Florida.

Also, apparently she could fish (or look good trying)!

Oh, and she also passed her spare time wherever they were stationed by getting really involved with the local community.  For example,  she helped promote Japanese-American relations as a cultural ambassador while they lived in Japan and Guam, and she established the Art Association of Pensacola in Florida, where she also set up the first art gallery and studio and acted as head instructor, earning a spot as an honorary life-long member.

In Newport, R.I, where the family finally settled, Phyllis didn’t miss a beat. While maintaining a career as a devoted social worker focused on family and children advocacy and pursuing her passion as a painter, she served as Director of the Neighborhood Youth Corps, and, for a time, as Vice-President of the Newport Branch American Association of University Women. She was also a member of the Quota Club and the Art Association, the Newport County Council of Community Service, was on the executive board of the War College Wives and was a member of the Navy Footlighters, a drama group that performed locally. All of this, and she was a Navy Commander’s wife, with all the visible roles and multiple responsibilities that go along with that. By all accounts, she relished the job- drawing on the deep love she had for her husband to support him and help him excel in his career.

Ceci & Aki: prim(ish) & proper(ish) in England

Perhaps her most important role, however, was being a mom. She encouraged my mom and her sister to be compassionate, generous, strong-willed, independent and proud. She taught them that it was important to work hard and give back, and she encouraged them to engage in volunteerism and to be involved with the community. She also instilled in them the importance of finding time to pursue individual passions and focus on the things in life that make you happy.

Though she didn’t start painting until her late 20s or early 30s, Phyllis became quite an accomplished artist who delighted family, friends and strangers alike with her talent. She was well known in the Newport area. She won multiple awards and her paintings adorned galleries across the region. But perhaps the most valuable works were the ones that were reserved for her family including some fabulous portraits and other pieces that adorned the walls of all my childhood homes and some less fabulous but equally delightful early works that she painted for her beloved brother.

And, despite all her impressive accomplishments, Phyllis was still endearingly human. My mom always used to recount how her mother could whip up canapés for 200 but had a hard time putting a tuna casserole or any other sensible meal on the table (usually she mentioned this as she was setting a tuna casserole on our table and I’m still not sure if this was in defense of the casserole or an apology for it).

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Phyllis: queen of petit fours and master highball maker

It seems particularly unfair that someone so vibrant, full of life, and determined to give so much was struck down by a fatal illness when she was far, far too young. In fact, it was an illness that she lived with for years, while accomplishing more than most healthy people can even dream about. You see, Phyllis had chronic leukemia, something she neglected to tell most people, including her own daughters, until she absolutely had to, when chronic became acute and she couldn’t fight anymore. She didn’t want anyone to worry, she didn’t want pity and she didn’t want to stop until she had to. But, ultimately she did have to, much earlier than seems right or fair.

The end of the story is a sad one. This lively, beautiful, talented, generous human finally succumbed to the devastating result of her disease when she was just 50 years old, leaving behind a heartbroken husband and daughters who adored her and felt lost without her, her brother’s family who all loved her deeply and a community of friends who admired her, appreciated her and counted on her. She tried to hold on for so long, but the reality of life is that the one thing you can’t control is how much time you have. She was buried the same week my parents were married. Her untimely death would have been tragic at any point, but given that it happened during a time that should have been joyful for everyone made it particularly gut-wrenching.

She left a huge void here on earth, but she also left a beautiful imprint.

Ceci & Aki: Phyllis’ greatest legacy

It’s amazing to me that she accomplished all that she did in a time when it was deemed unnecessary for women to do anything other than run an efficient household and raise obedient children. She’s a testament that you can do anything, anything you set your mind to, and nothing need get in your way. Not the fact that you’re a woman, not the times you live in, not the circumstances you find yourself facing. And, your life certainly should not be measured by how many years you live, but instead by what you do with the years that you have. It’s so cliché to say that, I know. I know. But really, it’s true. You need to do all the things, now, while you can. Phyllis was on this earth for just 50 short years, but she understood that and she left an impact that will resonate for generations to come.

So as we wind down Women’s History Month, let’s vow to celebrate all the amazing women who have made history, but let’s also remember all the everyday women who have led extraordinary lives, who have made their own mark, and who have changed the world simply by being ambitious, and generous, and by instilling in their daughters and granddaughters the importance of living life fully and with purpose.

Thank you, Phyllis. For everything, everything.

Gah! And double Gah!

I promised myself I was going to stay away from writing about politics or that awful person who is systematically destroying democracy and stripping millions of people of their basic human rights. But I’m sorry to say that it’s impossible. I know it’s so much nicer to look at pretty vacation pictures, but that’s just not reality right now.

It was so nice to be in Europe, away from the daily deluge of gut-wrenching, vomit-inducing news coming out of Washington. It reminded me of a quieter, gentler time- way back in oh say 2015.  But all good things must come to an end, I guess.

Logan Airport has conveniently installed large screen televisions in the long corridor that leads from your disembarking gate to customs so that you can immediately be caught up on all the things you were trying to avoid while you were away. As we walked down to re-enter reality this is the headline that screamed out at us:

“Trump calls Warren ‘Pocahontas’ at event honoring Native Americans.”

Welcome to AMERICA people! I hope you enjoy your stay. But you probably only will if you’re white, male, straight, and Christian (preferably evangelical). The rest of you be damned.

You straight, white, evangelical males will have a fabulous time in America, because guess what? Anything goes! Especially with women! You can disparage them with condescending remarks, you can disrespect them with sexually charged innuendos, and you can even cop a feel here and there if you want. It’s all good because women are LIARS. Right? When they reveal situations like this the real victim is the man being accused because he didn’t mean it. It was just locker room talk. He was just being a “guy”. And women are inferior and stupid so they don’t deserve respect from the male species. And they have boobs. So yeah, go ahead and try to get some.

Look, here’s the current situation in America. We have a President who has been accused of sexual misconduct on 19 occasions. 19!!!! And, he’s adamantly supporting electing to the Senate a man (and I use that term loosely) who has 8 allegations of sexual assault of his own. 8!!!! Against minors, no less. Girls!!! What kind of message does that send?

There have been many high profile revelations of sexual misconduct over that past few months. Obviously, I don’t need to point them out here because you know about them. It’s impossible not to because day after day the news headlines are littered with them. All of those have ended in the accused being fired or resigning from whatever powerful position it was that they used to manipulate, belittle and abuse their female victims. My question is, why did the accusations against Trump not matter? Why the hell is he immune to consequences of his despicable actions?

I could go on and on. Because of course this is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s just one of the many, many, many reasons why Donald Trump is unfit to lead our nation. But it’s my hot button today, and it’s the one that’s got me riled up. I went to bed thinking about Al Franken’s resignation speech where he said this:

“I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office, and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party,” 

Did you hear that? “…with the full support of his party“. And that my friends is the long and the short of it.

Maybe we can be a little hopeful that the high profile sexual assault scandals that ended in swift and severe punishment and public outcries of outrage (Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer) will result in changing the tide of acceptance around what can be ignored and what must not be, but we’ll see. We’ll see next Tuesday in fact. All eyes on Alabama.

There’s so much more I can say, but this is exhausting. Hopefully, my next post will be pretty pictures of somewhere lovely where I’m pretending that the reality of living in America under the “leadership” of a deranged pig isn’t happening.  Til then, melancholy greetings from Trumplandia.


Escape to Vermont

If you want to get away from it all for a while, I’ve got the place for you. Head on up to Manchester, Vermont where you can breathe deep and disconnect from everything. I felt lucky that I had minimal cell phone service and no wifi when I was there because it really forced me to enjoy the weekend for what it was- calming, peaceful and oh so far away from the noise and craziness of today’s world.

We started our Saturday with a quick run (well not quick exactly… so let’s just call it a run).
There were lots of roads like this. Naturally, we had to stop a lot (to take pictures you know– not for any other reason like being winded or anything like that- though I will point out that it’s very hilly in Vermont).
Hildene is worth a visit- we reserved some time mid-run to explore the grounds and drink in the breathtaking setting and amazing views.
Views like this.
and this.
Seeing this made me want to learn how to be a dairy farmer and open up a cheese shop.
For certain I’m romanticizing farm life, but how could you not–standing in this spot?
After the run we spent a lot of time drinking coffee and looking out at this. The golden glory of Fall.
Later we headed out for a hike in these ridiculously picturesque woods to work off some of the jitters that were a side effect of a long, lingering morning of coffee drinking.
I feel like a Thoreau quote would be appropriate here.
Like maybe: “I took a walk in the woods, and came out taller than the trees“. I checked afterward, and I was still 5’2, so…maybe I did it wrong?
One of my favorite Thoreau quotes is “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see“.  So don’t just think of these as trees, ok?
We made it to the falls. They were a little less impressive than we’d imagined.
But still, it’s always good to have a destination (and a turnaround point!)
This weekend was actually a book group field trip that we spontaneously decided to do one night after reading a book that was completely unrelated to Vermont or nature in any way. We were missing a bunch of ladies, which was too bad because they’re all pretty awesome and unique and special. I love spending time with women who inspire me.
After we made it out of the woods we stopped at this really fantastic bookstore (Northshire) because we felt it was appropriate for a book club trip and also we needed books. Well, maybe we didn’t need the books, but we wanted them. Anything goes in Vermont.
Manchester has lots of buildings that look like they belong in Vermont.
See what I mean?
And shopping is very cute in Manchester.
Drinking wine and watching the sun sink behind the mountains was alright, I guess.
We went to Gringo Jacks for dinner and it was really good. Funny story: I’ve only been to Manchester one other time, maybe 13 or 14 years ago and I ate dinner here. There are other restaurants in Vermont, I think. But this one has tacos.
Also, it’s cozy and they serve really good margaritas.
On our way home Sunday we stopped at the Vermont Country Deli for the best dang sandwiches around.
They also have lots of other stuff.
Like maple syrup, for example.
Maple wine (um, ok).
Maple seltzer (I’m sensing a theme).
Maple candy. It was only after I left that I remembered my daughter loves these. I didn’t buy any. Oops.
Maple. Maple everything.
So that, in a nutshell, was my weekend escape to Vermont. It was super relaxing. I highly recommend it. Disconnecting is good. Very good indeed.