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Did You Miss the September Issue?

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So did we, thanks to another death in the River Journal family. Good-bye, Mom

On the morning of August 23, just as work on the September issue of the River Journal was kicking into high gear, my mother died unexpectedly. 

She was 87 years old, so if it seems a little ingenuous to say her death was not expected, let me say you didn’t know my mother. She was 87, but no one ever guessed that, and she took great delight in the surprise engendered by the announcement of her age. She remained fairly vigorous and retained her full intellectual ability up until the moment she died, and even her hair was still mostly dark—a point she relished in making to me when my first grey hairs began to appear in my early forties.

In fact, in the days prior to her death, with family gathered ‘round, we were all pretty sure that she was going to outlive every single one of her children, a prospect she did not contemplate with any enjoyment. You see, two of my siblings have already died, and both of my remaining brothers are facing significant health issues. My youngest older brother is scheduled for a kidney transplant in January. And my brother Joe—author of this magazine’s Surrealist Research Bureau—was diagnosed with cancer in early July, a malignant little bitch that has already spread to many areas of his body. As for me.... well, throughout the years, all of my doctors have said I am healthier than I deserve to be, so the future carries no guarantees.

Of course, it carries guarantees for none of us, a lesson brought home pretty sharply when mother died as I performed CPR on her one hot August morning. And while we all know that’s the case, it’s a truth that is so very easy to lose sight of. As I had done. Our focus was on Joe—he was the reason family had come to Idaho from all directions—when Mom decided it was time for her to leave.

In the month before she died, some problems had cropped up. Mom was not as stable on her feet as she used to be, and must have taken some kind of light fall; light enough that she didn’t remember it, but enough to cause a subdural hematoma—a collection of blood between the surface of her brain and the dura that covers it. This blood collected over (and put pressure on) the area responsible for language, and one morning she couldn’t find the words to respond to me. I took her to the emergency room, thinking she had had a stroke.

There are many who think living here in rural North Idaho means accepting a lesser standard of health care. But my experience has been that the people who provide care here in our rural hospitals and medical offices are first rate; this was certainly true regarding my mother’s care. I cannot praise the emergency room at Bonner General Hospital enough.

Mom went from Bonner General, to Kootenai Medical, to the new rehabilitation hospital in Post Falls, and her care was excellent in every case. When I brought her home to my house, Bonner Home Health provided first-rate services, as did her regular doctor, Scott Dunn, at Sandpoint Family Health.

But no one lives forever, despite the quality of their care, and Mama was no different. And even then the quality of support continued. Bonner County’s 9-1-1 system, the Clark Fork Ambulance crew, the staff at Lakeview Funeral Home... all did the best work that anyone in their position could possibly do. We have a lot to be thankful for here in our communities, even when we’re facing the end of life.

I had thought we were prepared for Mother to die. We had made plans for it, she and I, none of which worked out quite the way we thought they would. And I discovered there is no guide book to dealing with death. I don’t mean dealing with it emotionally... I mean dealing with the actual things that need to be done when someone dies. Maybe that’s a new project for me, to write that book, because someone needs to.

What do you do with unused diabetic supplies? How do you legally dispose of an “estate” that has no real value? How do you shut off telephone service? (Surprise! It’s not as simple as calling and letting them know that the owner of the phone has died.) These were all questions that demanded answers, and dealing with it all left no time to publish a magazine.

September was a very busy month, even without The River Journal.

As obituaries go, however, I guess this one isn’t quite standard, so let me tell you just a bit about the mother that is no longer in my life.

Billie Jo Hulin Presley was born on the 17th of July, 1928, in Breckenridge, Texas, and grew up during the Depression, which might explain the horde of food and miscellaneous items she left behind when she died. (Seriously, who needs 39 sets of fingernail clippers?) Like many students here at Clark Fork, she played all sports in high school because everyone had to play in order to man a team. But basketball was her favorite, and in later years she enjoyed watching her son and then her grandson play the game. During “the War” (WWII), she worked with her mother in the shipyards in Galveston as a young teenager. And by the early 1950s she had left Texas, three young children in tow, for greener pastures. She never returned there again to live, but for the rest of her life, Mom was first and foremost a Texan.

She ended up in Chicago, where she booked bands for local bars, and met up with my father. Dad told me she had come by the shop where he worked to check on the repair progress of her car. “I looked out from underneath the car and saw the most beautiful pair of legs I’d ever seen,” he said. “I knew then I was going to marry her.” He did, and she gave birth to two more children. I was the last of that pair.

When my dad joined the pipefitter’s union and began to make a livable wage (he had worked a variety of odd jobs prior, including as the local milkman when I was born), Mom took on the role of a traditional housewife. She became active in the PTA, and served as the state vice-President in Indiana, earning a lifetime membership of which she was always proud. 

Dad’s job required a lot of travel, which Mom loved, and the family lived in various areas in the States and abroad. But Mom’s favorite place, outside of Texas, was Malta, and had I made a fortune in my life, I would have moved her there instead of to cold North Idaho for the last 25 years of her life. When living in Saudi Arabia, she became a quasi-mother to Saleem Shah Ahmed, a relationship that stayed strong for the next 50 years.

My dad died in 1984 and my grandmother (Mom’s mom) just a few months later. Shortly after, Mom moved up to North Idaho to live with me. She worked for K-Mart when it was here, and then gave out samples at Wal-Mart to everyone who wanted them, and a lot who didn’t. Mama could be very persuasive. And in the days when she could still hoist a bundle of newspapers or magazines, she played a role in getting the River Journal out on the newsstands in two states, four counties, and 16 communities.

She made the best pancakes that were ever made, and not long after she died my daughter, Misty, cried that she would never learn to make fried potatoes the way her grandma did. (But she’s learning. The trick is to add LOTS of butter.) In truth, Mom was a terrible cook, but she had a deft hand with poor folk food and if Mom was in charge of the kitchen, no one was going to go hungry. She did pretty well with sweets, too, and her recipe for peanut butter fudge is one that’s cherished by her entire family. 

Mom loved country music (Willie Nelson was her favorite), and she was forever influenced by Porter Waggoner and his suits by Nudie. If it had bling, Mom would wear it, and the cheaper it looked, the better. We all lived in dread of her Christmas presents, as none of her family appreciated glitter nearly as much as she did. She liked Elvis, but not as much as people supposed; after all, she wasn’t born a Presley, she just married one.

As much as she loved music, she couldn’t sing; when music was playing she would often whisper along with the songs. But boy, she could dance. She probably did a mean jitterbug before she broke her hip in a car accident back in the late ‘50s, but in her later years she was an avid square dancer.

She was born a Hulin, but she didn’t know her dad much and never had any attachment to the name. Her pride was invested in her mother’s side of the family, where she was connected to Quanah Parker, the last principle chief of the Quahadi Comanche tribe, and to Bonnie Parker (better known by her first name and that of her partner: Bonnie and Clyde). Another segment of the family started the Newberry Department Store chain. At least, she was connected to all of them until I started doing genealogy research and found that those connections were tenuous, at best. I’m not sure she ever forgave me for that.

Mother always seemed to regret that none of her daughters or granddaughters grew up into fine southern ladies, but honestly... we all followed her path. She was a rough, tough and above all, competent woman. When I was 9 she taught me how to fix the muffler on a car, and if anything broke in the house, she was the first one to fix it. She was a strong, independent woman long before that ever became a desirable thing, and every female descended from her carries an indomitable belief that they can do anything they need to do (except, maybe, publish a magazine in the week their mother dies). It is, like most things, both a blessing and a curse.

Dozens of people have told me how nice my mother was and honestly... she wasn’t always. But she was almost always willing to accept people for who they are. She never showed a shred of racism, nor was she homophobic, and that’s not always the case for someone of her generation, raised in the South. She grew less tolerant as she aged and, in particular, as she watched Fox News. Truthfully, I might have killed her by showing her a picture of Willie Nelson hugging President Barack Obama in the days before she died. In the last decade of her life, we didn’t agree on politics at all, and I think it drove her nuts to realize that I was her creation: that my liberal tendencies had been planted and nurtured by none other than herself.

For better or for worse, she was a powerful influence on her daughters and her granddaughters, and likely on her great-granddaughters as well. Mouthy, irreverent, independent, fiercely intelligent and more willing to flout convention than she likely would want anyone to know, her legacy will live on for many years to come.

It’s likely that Mom would have been disappointed that I didn’t manage to get the September issue printed. But I’m not. Sometimes, life and your loved ones take priority. And as Joe and I take this journey through the cancer that will, all too soon, end his life, events may well usurp deadlines again.

And that’s okay. Because no one will die if this magazine comes out a little late... but someone may die while you were doing something else that seemed important at the time. Please take time to enjoy the time you have with your loved ones, just as I plan to do.

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Author info

Trish Gannon Trish Gannon Owner and publisher of the River Journal since 2001, Trish works out of Clark Fork on the east end of Bonner County, a place she calls, simply, "the best place in the world to live." Mother of three, grandmother of two and an inveterate volunteer, Trish is usually tired.

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death, publishing, Billie Presley, Hulin

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