A Quiet Corner of Orcas Island

31 Jan

I have to begin with an apology! I am SO SORRY that I incorrectly listed Ruth Hendrick’s blog address. Here is the correct address for you all to enjoy! http://rutheh.com. Ruth, thank you for letting me know and for your patience. After all, it’s you who taught me how to properly do a link on here…though a proper link does no good without a proper address. Bother.


There is a place on Orcas Island which I am very fond of, odd though it may seem when you hear what it is. Yes, you may be thinking that there are MANY places I am quite fond of on Orcas, but places like the beach and the mountain go beyond fondness and reach the degree of obsession.

This place I am speaking of is not a place I am obsessed with, though I am, well, intricately connected with it. Doomed, even. Though not, most likely, to this exact place.

What the heck am I talking about?

Mt. Baker cemetery.

A beautiful memorial at the cemetery...with beach stones, shells and leaves.

Mt. Baker cemetery is located on – surprise! – Mt. Baker Road, and it affords a beautiful view of the mountain for those who are spry enough to enjoy it.

Think about that for a moment.

Why is it, anyway, that so many cemeteries are located in beautiful spots? Perhaps it’s to give the visitor something else to think about for a little while. Something to comfort them with its permanence.

Every single time I've visited Grandpa and Grandma's grave, I've also visited Baby Bott.

Until about 15 years ago, the cemetery was surrounded by forest, giving it a secluded, cozy feel. Now most of the trees are gone, ever since Buck Park, an outdoor recreation park including the world’s largest (at least at the time it was built) skateboard park is now its closest neighbor. As unpleasant as that may sound to some of you, it’s actually not all that big –nor is it crawling with saggy-bottomed teenagers. It was built to give the local kids a good place to hang out after school…after all, when you live on an island, the options are limited.*

An old island resident. Was he here for the Pig War? (More about that in a future post!)

My grandparents are buried there and I used to go with my mother, every Memorial Day, to pull up weeds and tidy up their graves. They died within a few months of each other when I was 4 years old so I don’t remember them too well, but we’d go there and Mom would talk about them and we’d listen to the peacocks across the road and Mom would pull the weeds that grew among the flowers planted on the gravesite.

My grandparents. Imigrants to America from Scotland, they loved island living. I guess I come by it naturally.

No, it was not creepy. It was not scary. It was natural. I get so irritated when I hear my kids talk about “creepy graveyards”. No! It’s not a yard for graves! It’s a nice, attractive place, full of history and stories and beauty! It’s a place for memories. Not suggestive and sinister legends.

Okay, I’ll get off my soap-box now.

Just a neat old marker.

I used to ride my bike there frequently of a summer evening when I was growing up. I’d say “hi” to Grandma and Grandpa – sometimes even staying awhile to voice my frustrations – and then head home, coasting down Mt. Baker Road, zig-zagging up the hill to Buckhorn, and peddling into our garage, now the only part of our old house you can see from the road due to a domineering fence the current owners built clear around the half-acre lot.

Grandma and Grandpa Fraser.

I’ve been tempted to knock on their door and ask if I can see the house – they’re the same people who bought it from my parents 25 or so years ago. But I’ve never dared. I’m not sure I could bear it. Truly, I think the memories and the emotions would overwhelm me and I’d bawl like a baby right there in the familiar-yet-not-quite-right foyer.

I had a swing in my room, hanging from the beams of the cathedral-ceiling, which bonked you in the head if you were foolish enough to play beneath it and forget that it hung there. And there was a loft with hot-pink carpet which, due to the non-breakable rules of nature, was stifling hot in summer but was still a great place to pretend or hide with a good book.

There was a loft above the kitchen and dining room, too – where my mother had her sewing room and two guest beds and you could look over the edge and drop things on unsuspecting people in the living room below.

Not that I ever did that.

Another life remembered. What would he have thought of blogging?

That was where my father built my doll house one year and I was banned from climbing the stairs for the entire month of November and into December, right up until Christmas Eve. I tried to identify the mysterious sounds that emanated from that sacred place and I did, correctly, though I never could have imagined how wonderful it would turn out to be.

Mom stored her canned goods up there, too. Beans, tomatoes, peaches, pears, jams, applesauce, sometimes even salmon. I’d play grocery store up there, and “house” and I could play with Mom’s button box and watch her create beauty out of yards of cloth.

Yes, there are a lot of reasons I couldn’t bear to return to that house, couldn’t bear to see other people’s stuff in MY HOUSE.

My grandparents built the house – from plans they found in a Better Homes and Gardens magazine. The same grandparents who now live a few miles away, in Mt. Baker Cemetery. Well, reside. I suppose that “live” isn’t the right word.
Though, to be sure, their memory lives on.

Apple picking just down the road from our house on Orcas. From left to right: my sister, me, Grandma, Mom, my sister, Grandpa

* A note about Buck Park: a few years ago, when it was still pretty new, I visited it with my sister. My favorite thing there was a signboard that I dearly wish I’d gotten a picture of. It said, in chalk for easy updating:
Broken arms: 7
Broken legs: 2
Broken pelvis: 1
Broken ankle: 9
Broken hearts: one
How I wanted to give that girl a hug! Not so much that I was worried about her heart, but I loved, loved, loved, that she included that in the list. Truly, a writer in the making!


22 Responses to “A Quiet Corner of Orcas Island”

  1. Minnesota Prairie Roots January 31, 2012 at 7:50 am #

    This is such an interesting post, Gretchen, because I feel now like I know so much more about you as a person. A swing in your room? Ah, what joy. A loft? Ah, what fun. And I can just picture those rows of canned food and those bolts of fabric. It’s no surprise to me that you’re a writer growing up in that type of environment.

    As for cemeteries, I remember feeling afraid of them, too, as a child. Today I appreciate them, like you, as quiet places of beauty and history. I bet you’re kids will come around and change their attitudes toward cemeteries as they grow older. After all, you are there to teach them.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell January 31, 2012 at 8:22 am #

      Thanks, Audrey. Yes, it was a wonderful place/house to grow up in. More than once I have wished that my kids could have a swing! I wish I had more pictures of it.

      Yes, I think that going to the cemetery was good for my kids – we’ll have to do more of that from time to time.

      • Minnesota Prairie Roots January 31, 2012 at 1:12 pm #

        I forgot to mention that several years ago a young man was taking photos of my house. I went out to investigate. Turns out he grew up in this house. I invited him inside and he was thrilled to see the house and reminisce. And, yes, we had made many changes, like ripping out the paneling and the gross carpet, etc., and he thought it looked great. Not saying you would have the same positive experience, but if you really want to see your childhood home, knock on the door and ask.

        • Gretchen O'Donnell January 31, 2012 at 2:29 pm #

          That’s cool – yes, I suppose it would be great in a lot of ways. My sister and Mom knocked a few years back, I believe, and saw the house. I just don’t know if I could handle it dry-eyed!!!

  2. Julie January 31, 2012 at 8:07 am #

    Gretchen, you’ve given your readers many wonderful visions of Orcas Island. It makes me want to visit!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell January 31, 2012 at 8:18 am #

      Thanks, Julie! It’s a wonderful place – you totally SHOULD go!! I can give recommendations. In fact, soon I’ll be posting about the wonderful cottage we stayed in for two nights! 🙂

  3. Just A Smidgen January 31, 2012 at 8:09 am #

    I really enjoyed your memories today, Gretchen. It really made me think of cemetaries in a whole new light. It also brought back memories of searching for and finally locating my granny’s grave marker and what a sense of peace that gave me. There is a song I think you would love by Miranda Lambert.. The House that Built Me… You’ve probably heard it, I can’t sing along without crying… Beautiful memories today, thank you for this.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell January 31, 2012 at 8:28 am #

      I’m so glad to have been able to give some warm memories. We went to northern Minnesota once and found my great-grandmother’s grave, and that was neat. Even though I never met her, it helps add to the complete story of who I am.
      I’ve not heard that song, I don’t think – I tend to listen to Veggie Tales and kids books on tape rather than grown-up music – I am so out of the musical loop! I’ll check it out, though, thanks!

  4. Tami Scott January 31, 2012 at 9:32 am #

    That was a really fun and beautiful post! Thanks for starting my day off with fun memories.

  5. Betsy Patton January 31, 2012 at 9:54 am #

    I loved reading your loving tribute to the folks and your descriptions of their (and your) home. It sure brings back lots of happy memories in that house! Once I remember someone (surely not you) dropping a plastic spider on a string down from the loft, right in front of where I was sitting. Eeeek!!

    Gathering the apples in the fall, beach picnics, cranking ice cream, pepsi cannons, hikes up Buckhorn Mountain, fishing — they’re all good memories.

    Keep writing. I love reading your blogs!
    Love, Aunt Betsy

    • Gretchen O'Donnell January 31, 2012 at 10:04 am #

      Auntie B! I’m so glad that you reminded me of those things – and yes, I remember that spider incident…was that Uncle Larry who did that?! It was a wonderful house and place – the beach picnics…wonderful. Oh, sometimes it still breaks my heart to not have all that any more. Thank you so much for your encouragement! Love you – Gretchen

  6. bitsandbreadcrumbs January 31, 2012 at 10:20 am #

    I enjoyed taking a tour of the memories of your grandparents and your childhood. I love going through cemetaries and imagining the lives of the folks buried there, seeing the lines of their families all together and the dates of births and deaths. Sometimes personal mementos are part of the sites, too, and when they are located in beautiful places or churchyards, it does give the living more of a sense of peace…and one would hope that would be true of the dead as well.

  7. Gretchen O'Donnell January 31, 2012 at 11:05 am #

    Certainly a lovely location makes the visit that much more bearable. Yes, there is so much “scope for the imagination” (as Anne of Green Gables would say!) in a cemetery. And when the imagination is directed in pleasant lines, so much the better (as opposed to scary, creepy lines!) I’m glad you enjoyed your “visit” to the island!

  8. Malou January 31, 2012 at 4:55 pm #

    I really enjoyed your post, Gretchen. I can’t help but think of those movies I’ve seen with island setting but your story and the pictures are more real to me. I also love visiting cemeteries here in Europe because every gravestone tells a story. Never mind if I don’t know who lies there but I always say a prayer every time for the eternal repose of that person’s soul.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell January 31, 2012 at 5:11 pm #

      Yes, cemeteries in Europe are wonderful, aren’t they? I lived in Berlin for two years and loved walking through them – yes, like you say – the stories they tell! I wish I had pictures.

      It’s funny because I think that “island living” usually conjures up carribean images, you know? But the lsland in Washington state is far from tropical! Perhaps that makes it more accessible, I don’t know…but anyway, I’m so glad that you enjoyed it today!

  9. rutheh January 31, 2012 at 9:17 pm #

    Aww thanks Gretchen. It was funny to click the wrong link and see that it linked to the ugly Truth. Perhaps a message in there somewhere.
    Anyway, I appreciate the shout out! thanks

    I always enjoy following your posts but this one was especially touching and dear.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell February 1, 2012 at 7:23 am #

      Thanks, Ruth, I’m so glad. And NO – don’t read anything into it!!! There are times I “believe” in signs…and times I scoff. This is a scoffing time!!!

  10. Mel February 1, 2012 at 4:58 am #

    This was a beautiful post to read. I love the wording from the signpost that you ended your post with too… bittersweet but so poignant and true too.

    I think I understand a little of your feelings with cemeteries. For a time I used to walk through one to and fro work every single day… and I miss it now.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell February 1, 2012 at 7:26 am #

      Thank you so much. Yes, definitely one’s attitude is what makes a cemetery good or bad, pleasant or not. I used to walk past one every day – and never gave it much thought. I hope that the kids who play at the park right next to Mt. Baker cemetery have a proper perspective about it!

  11. The Simple Life of a Country Man's Wife June 27, 2013 at 8:25 am #

    Isn’t it amazing the memories an old house can have? I feel the same way about the home my grandparents had while I was growing up. Such a wonderful time. Thanks for sharing; lovely graveyard full of stories!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 27, 2013 at 8:31 am #

      Thanks for coming over to see the post! We’ll be heading out there next week – always love visiting – still not sure I could face going IN to our old house, though…

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