Eulogy for Virginia Lee Slate Eals

April 24, 2010
By Clay Eals

Welcome, and thank you all for being here.

On behalf of members of my family, and our extended family here at Park West, who have contributed in many other ways to this celebration, I want to share with you a few glimpses of my mom’s long and loving life.

This has been surprisingly tough for me to execute. I successfully put it off for weeks, and not just because of being busy or the typical procrastination. Something else is there, deep beneath the surface. It has to do with my similarities to my mom and her profound influences on me. So maybe it’s not so surprising.

I do know that it’s not for lack of material. Besides my own memories, I have interviewed my mom in depth on videotape, I have piles of her letters and diaries, and I kept a detailed journal during her final years.

There’s no way to cover everything, but I trust that you will appreciate this version of her story as much as I have enjoyed uncovering it over the years. And it’s a lot about this area that so many of us hold close to our hearts.

Mom was born February 8, 1923, just seven blocks south of here. Now you all think you have come to celebrate the life of someone named Virginia. But consider this: We could be celebrating the life of Tennessee.

Her father, Joe Slate, was from Tennessee, and he wanted to name her after a Southern state. As Mom put it, “There are only a few names of states that you would want to name a child, and I was grateful that I got Virginia.”

Joe came to the Northwest before the 1889 Seattle fire. Moving away from an overly serious and religious farming family, he was attracted by the gold rush in Alaska. He never quite got there. Instead, he ran donkey engines at lumber mills, then took college courses and became a civil engineer, eventually landing a job at Todd Shipyards, a career that lasted 30 years.

Who should 34-year-old Joe Slate meet in Seattle – actually about 30 miles south in Algona – but Mom’s mother, the petite 23-year-old Florence Shouse. Florence was educated in an exclusive Catholic academy in St. Paul, Minnesota. She had a lot of frilly fun as a child, and she was brought up, as Mom put it, to be a lady.

It was a classic attraction of opposites. Joe had carried his serious upbringing into adulthood. He worked literally seven days a week, walking down Admiral Way to Todd’s and even taking charge of buying the family groceries every week at the Pike Place Market.

Florence was left to create fun on the home front for what eventually was a brood of four girls. Mom said, “I think she grew along with us. … She loved everything we did, no matter what.”

1925: Virginia, 2, with Betty, Maxine and Dorothy Slate, 45th Avenue yard, West Seattle

Life as the youngest of four dynamic and headstrong girls and the daughter of a somewhat distant dad had its challenges for Mom. In her grade-school years, she became a tomboy largely to please her father, and she even gave herself the Southern-sounding middle name of Lee. She played football, baseball and other physical games.

She also channeled her father’s heritage by joining her sister Betty in a man/woman act that included the Charleston and the Cake Walk, a dance straight from the Southern minstrel shows. The two grade-school sisters performed this routine unpaid at theaters in West Seattle and even at the Moore downtown.

1929: Virginia, 6, and Betty Slate, 9, dressed for man/woman Charleston and Cake Walk dance routine, Slate family's Walnut Avenue home, West Seattle

To understand this childhood in the late 1920s and 1930s, you have to picture living in the early-day Admiral neighborhood, in a large, two-floor house that fronted on Walnut Avenue, opened in the back to 41st Avenue, that sat:

*  Across the street from the playground and mighty trees of Hiawatha Park and stately West Seattle High School.

*  Two blocks from the majestic castle of Lafayette Elementary School

*  And three blocks from the hub of the Admiral business district.

Even during the Depression, when homeless men came to the door seeking work and food, this setting was nothing short of idyllic.

Typically, after Joe went to bed at 7 p.m., Florence opened the Slate home to neighborhood children. They gathered around the piano and fireplace to eat tea and cinnamon toast, make music, listen to the radio and play games or huddle outside on the porch and tell Sherlock Holmes tales and ghost stories. “With your imagination,” Mom said, “you could really make it scary.”

Their imagination turned physical when the neighborhood kids walked home from the Granada Theater in Alaska Junction after seeing Saturday matinee serials of Tarzan the Ape Man. This was a story Mom loved to tell.

“Pat Conover was our Tarzan because she could climb the trees really good, and she could run around the block without stopping. The rest of us kids were apes. She’d get up in the cherry and Madrona trees in the Hunts’ backyard and let out a big yell, ‘Ahh-ee-ahh-ee-ahh-ee-ahh,’ and we’d all come running. It would just resound in the neighborhood.”

What did the neighbors think? “Everybody was tolerant of all of us kids,” Mom said. “I’m sure they laughed themselves sick over some of our antics.”

As the youngest Slate girl, Mom wore hand-me-downs until she outgrew them. “I got quite heavy,” she said, “so they finally had to buy my clothes. I graduated into old-lady clothes because they didn’t make clothes for overweight young girls then.”

Her junior-high and high-school years were not the happiest for Mom, because she tried, as she put it, “to be nondescript and not follow in the footsteps of my sisters, who were great scholastically and had great talent.”

Alone or with a friend, she walked the West Seattle peninsula, both to lose weight and to amuse herself. From home, she would hike down what was called “The Gully” (Fairmount Avenue) to Harbor Avenue, then around Duwamish Head to Alki Point, down to Lincoln Park and back up California Avenue. “I’d be gone most of the day,” Mom said, “My mother never gave a second thought to where I was or what I was doing.”

1940: Virginia Slate, age 17, Alki Beach

In her senior year, Mom blossomed in a way that foreshadowed her young adult years. She got a weekend job three blocks away at Mrs. Wing’s Bakery, earning 35 cents an hour, opening and closing the store, cleaning the glass cabinets and, most important, waiting on customers. It boosted her confidence, partly because none of her sisters had landed such a job in high school.

By the time of Mom’s graduation in 1941, American participation in World War II was right around the corner. Mom entered the University of Washington, the same path of her sisters.

But other than an unforgettable puppetry class taught by the renowned marionette artist Aurora Valentinetti – who still puts on exhibits of her work, runs a puppet museum and became a lifelong friend – Mom’s U-Dub days were just plain.

1942: Virginia, age 19, downtown Seattle (candid sidewalk photo)

She toyed with going into radio, but, as she said, “When I heard my recorded voice, I changed my mind.” She dropped out in her sophomore year in 1943, just as the U.S. had entered the second year of the war.

1942: Virginia, age 19, downtown Seattle (candid sidewalk photo)
1943: Virginia, 20, downtown Seattle (candid sidewalk photo)

Listen to how Mom described the war’s impact on her psyche – and that of the nation:

“It changed our lives. …. Everybody in the United States. It changed you no matter what. It changed the pattern of your life. Just think, if it hadn’t happened, you would have done the same little things. You wouldn’t have been expanded. You wouldn’t have tried other jobs, and people you meet wouldn’t have been the same people. You wouldn’t have met people from all over the United States. You wouldn’t have had the contacts. You wouldn’t have learned about rationing or sacrificing. … It was a whole new way of living and doing things. Things seemed to hurry up and have to be done now rather than wait. … It was a turning point in our lives. … It was all learning, and it was very good.”

For Mom, as with many young women on the home front, the learning took the form of employment. She bounced between more than 20 sales and clerical jobs in the mid-1940s, from copy girl for the Seattle Star newspaper and Pacific Motor Boat magazine to the typing pool at Foster & Marshall brokerage and the warplane giant, Boeing.

“They kept calling me,” she said, “and I liked the idea of making money.”

1948: Virginia, 25, Bon Marche portrait
1948: Virginia, 25, Seattle newspaper ad

In this milieu, Mom met and married a Navy pilot named Charles “Dutch” Leonard. The two soon grew apart, however. “It wasn’t all together at the beginning, and I didn’t realize it,” she said. “We weren’t any different than a lot of other people at that time. There was just more of an urge to live life.”

Three years into the marriage, when she decided to seek a divorce, she dreaded the shame of telling her parents because none of her sisters had come to this.

“It was admitting I was wrong and I had wasted all this time,” she said. “But both my parents were not at all surprised. My father said, ‘I wondered how long it was going to take you.’ That stunned me completely.”

This experience shaped her future. As she put it, “You learn a lot about yourself, let alone other people. I have always been more of a naïve and trusting person, not a very smart person with some people. The thing I learned most was that I could take care of myself.”

Mom got a second chance to get it right in 1948, while she worked as office manager for a dinnerware/glassware company on the first floor of the Terminal Sales Building in downtown Seattle at the intersection of – where else? – First and Virginia.

On the 10th floor of the same building was a salesman from the South, a charmer who had served as a Navy pharmacist’s mate in the Pacific during the war and had left Kentucky to put down roots in the Northwest. He worked as a traveling manufacturer’s representative, selling children’s and young women’s clothing to retail stores in seven western states.

His name: Henry Clay Eals.

A double date with Henry was soon under way. But who was this new suitor who people called Hank?

In Mom’s words, “I saw a very nice-looking man who wore his clothes well. He wore a business suit and a topcoat and a hat. He was very proper. But in the back seat of the car, he was really busy. He was busy early.”

Of course, there was more to Hank Eals.

As she said, “I understood what kind of work that he did because I was doing basically the same type of thing in another context, in hard goods instead of soft goods. He was a very interesting man. He was stable. He was, I thought, honest. He was comfortable to be with and yet fun to be with.”

The two dated off and on, the “off” parts coming when Henry was away on his long and frequent sales trips. This frustrated Mom.

So did another beau, a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer who was pushing hard for her to marry him but who was perpetually broke and borrowing money.

Then came an intriguing offer from one of her sisters. As Mom told it, “Here are these two men, and Maxine says, ‘Come with me to Hawaii.’ ‘Boy,’ I thought, ‘the hell with everybody. I’m going to go.’ ”

But a new start in the middle of the Pacific was difficult. Jobs in Hawaii were scarce for Americans, so she lasted just six weeks and flew home.

On her parents’ doorstep within a week of her return was Hank. He and Mom married on Aug. 12, 1950, and for the rest of his life, he often said that she was the best thing that ever happened to him.

The two moved to the Wedgwood Rock neighborhood in north Seattle. The next year, I was born.

Aug. 6, 1951: Virginia, 28, with 17-day-old Clay, Wedgwood Rock neighborhood, north Seattle

Three-and-a-half years later, Mom gave birth again, but this time the experience was a shock. In 1954, the medical equipment wasn’t sophisticated enough for Mom and Dad to know beforehand that they were going to have two new infants, not just one.

Nov. 16, 1954: Virginia, 31, and 11-day-old twins Doug (left) and Dave

Mom delighted in telling this story:

“When I was delivering the twins,” she said, “the doctor delivered David first, and … I was beating the sheets to see if it was a boy or a girl. And then the doctor said, ‘I hope the forceps aren’t soiled because I think there’s another one there,’ and then that’s when I really beat the sheets. … I could see the mirror, but I still wanted to get up off the delivery table. Then the doctor delivered Doug. In fact, quite a few of them delivered Doug because Doug was up real high. And then after Doug was born, the doctor said, ‘Well, I better check and see if there’s a third one.’ And I said, ‘That’s enough. Sew me up!’ ”

Nov. 16, 1954: Virginia, 31, Clay, 3, and 11-day-old David Eals

Obviously, the Wedgwood Rock house was filling up. Like many other parents of baby boomers, Mom and Dad set their sights on the suburbs.

The closest community to the east, a quick drive over the world’s-longest floating bridge, was Mercer Island, where we moved in 1955. Our three-bedroom rambler was the first house on 94th Street in the Mercerwood subdivision, which was billed as an example of “ideal Northwest living.”

Just imagine: Within a year, our block had 80 children. With a thick forest across the street, and with an elementary school and library a few minutes’ walk or bike ride away, who were we to argue?

Kids were everywhere, running into and out of everyone’s houses, and a game of Fly-Up or 500, or a front-lawn Capture the Flag contest, or a wooden hydroplane race was going seemingly every day.

Mom was an integral part of the neighborhood glue. She hosted coffee klatches while the dads were away at work. She served as a Cub Scout den mother. She sold Children’s Orthopedic Hospital calendars door-to-door. And she volunteered in the schools by borrowing paintings from the U-Dub art museum to hang for a month at a time on classroom walls. On our street, she forged close friendships with the DiJulios, the Millers and many others.

She also had her pulse on the dynamics of our collective childhood. Years later, this became clear when she told me of an altercation she had with a next-door mother whose son used cockiness and physical strength to torment me, the only kid on the street who wore glasses.

His mom tried to end a talk with my mom by spitting out, “I’m not raising my son to be a sissy!” Mom had a quick reply: “Well, I’m not raising my son to be a bully!”

For my brothers and me, in ways too many or too personal to mention, our Mom was our fierce champion. For her, for us to succeed in school and be happy at the same time was a passion. This was all the more crucial given that my dad was away on sales trips for large chunks of each year.

Yet Mom also continued to work outside the home. She drew on her sales experience and assisted our dad in showroom events at hotels downtown and out-of-town. In her own ways, she was as smart and charming as our dad –and undeniably his best asset.

These roles continued as our family moved south on the island in 1963 to a six-bedroom home in an upscale subdivision called Parkwood. There, it was tough for all of us to re-experience the magical neighborhood feeling we had in down-to-earth Mercerwood, but we three boys knew implicitly that our welfare was our parents’ primary motivation for the move.

Teens who finish high school, get wheels and leave home for college, a huge house to keep up, a downturned economy, an aging breadwinner in a soon-to-be-computerized society – all of these factors spelled a big new chapter in Mom’s life. She got back on the street looking for work.

But this wasn’t the 1940s. The job market 30 years later was far tighter. Still, she didn’t back away.

When a bank rejected an application for a loan to help pay my expenses at the University of Oregon, this is what our 46-year-old Mom wrote me: “Don’t worry. I believe in positive thinking, and I know it will work out. I should be able to contribute as soon as I get a job.”

These letters from Mom were golden, because of their elegant handwriting, their clear writing style and – of course – their wisdom. Here is some of what she wrote about the barriers that she faced – and that are all too familiar today:

“I have gone to employment agencies applying for jobs and find my age and no references two strikes against me for getting a well-paid job. However, I interviewed last week at a hospital for a job in the personnel department. … The office has just three women, all in their 20s, and a director (a man), and they wanted a more mature woman to fit into their picture. Had never occurred to me that I would be classed as a mature woman, but it’s true, of course. It is work I’m sure I can do, and everyone is very nice. … Just want you to know I’m still in there trying. I intend to help you in any way I can, and this money would help not only you but all of us.”

Mom didn’t end up landing the hospital job, but by New Year’s Day 1970 she had landed – at the Bellevue Traffic Violations Bureau.

Jan. 1, 1970: Virginia Eals, 47, identification card, City of Bellevue

For the next 18 years, if you got a speeding ticket in Bellevue, you probably paid Mom. Her job was both tough and enlightening. Here’s Mom writing again:

“It’s amazing how many people are repeaters on traffic violations. I’ve been cussed at and told off, which I was expecting, and also lied to. You can never tell by just looking at people what they are like. … I see a part of life I’ve not been exposed to before, and it’s fascinating and depressing. It makes you appreciate good friends and family all the more.”

And what was she learning? Here’s Mom, again, pen in hand:

“Dealing with the public isn’t easy, but it becomes easier as you work with all kinds of people. Easier because you develop a manner of not taking things personally. There are times in my work that I deal with hard-headed people, young, old, male or female, and they give you a bad time, but it doesn’t upset me anymore. I try always to be pleasant and polite, and it proves to be the best way.”

While Mom did work those 18 years to help fill out the family checkbook, I also believe that, after two decades of assisting Dad and raising their sons, the Bellevue job had a deeper meaning. It allowed Mom to carve out a more independent identity.

This, in turn, made the surprise retirement party for her at her home all the more delicious. By this time, Mom and Dad had moved to Issaquah, and the many guests, the photos lining the walls and a special videotape combined to achieve what I often tried to do with Mom: make her laugh so hard that she cried.

The video was three minutes of Dave, Doug and I singing “Twist and Shout,” with new lyrics to fit the occasion. The capper came when Dave crooned the last verse: “Well, you know you’re retiring now / And it’s not so bad / Well, you know you’ll be traveling now / You can even take Dad.”

Mom was destroyed.

What made the joke work is that Dad had traveled thousands of miles a year during his decades of work. In his own retirement, he wanted to stick around home.

But not Mom. She was rarin’ to go. And they did, taking countless pleasure trips from the Grand Canyon to New Orleans, from Kentucky and Tennessee to the Panama Canal.

The Issaquah years also were golden for my parents’ devotion to their four grandchildren. As Mom wrote me once, “There’s nothing I like better than to be with my family.”

March 14, 1987: Virginia Eals, 64, reading to twin grandsons Chris (left) and Scott Eals, Issaquah home

I already had seen this when my daughter, Karey, was born. One month later, when we visited, Mom, who was just 53, was on her way home from the hospital after having suffered a heart attack. She walked in the door, and without taking off her red windbreaker, scooped up Karey and sat down on the couch to snuggle with her. To Mom, this was an ideal way to recover.

June 5, 1992: Virginia Eals at alma mater West Seattle High School

Mom also was present for the births of her three grandsons. And after she and Dad moved to Issaquah, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, she corralled her husband, her sons, their spouses and their children for most or all of a week each summer to live together in a rented house on the Washington coast.

Aug. 16, 1995, Virginia (standing, middle) with family on annual beach trip, Ocean Park

There, we collaborated to make memories that will never die: kites, go-karts, BINGO games, softball, singing in the van and everybody winning a prize in the annual scavenger hunt that soon became known as the Stinky Crab Contest.

Those beach trips weren’t always 100 percent pleasant, and Mom herself created a wincing memory when she fractured her leg while she gamely tried for the first time to drive a moped. But on the whole, those trips live in our memories with the glow of the richest of sunsets.

August 2000: Virginia and Henry Eals’ 50th anniversary now/then photos, (1950 with Joan Sampson, Hi Stickney) Slate family fireplace, Walnut Avenue home, West Seattle

The sunset of Mom’s life began with the death of our dad eight years ago, in 2002, after 52 years of marriage. Mom soldiered on in the Issaquah home for the next year, staying fairly independent, volunteering once a week in a school library and even traveling with my wife, Meg, and me to New York City for a week to see her beloved Statue of Liberty once again.

May 5, 2003: Virginia Eals, 80, and the Statue of Liberty, New York

But she became increasingly isolated, and falls and other lapses meant that change was around the corner.

Perhaps the most courageous moment of Mom’s life, to me, came when she decided to sell the house and move to assisted living. She had encouragement from me and from others, but the decision was all hers.

We toured half a dozen places, and the hands-down winner was Admiral Heights, just four blocks up the street from here and just three blocks from her childhood home. She had come full circle.

Imagine this instant transition at age 80: from home to apartment, from car to no car, from dog to no dog, from to suburbs to the city. But Mom handled it like a major-leaguer would catch a pop fly.

Living in the neighborhood she had known her whole life like the back of her hand, she literally was the belle of the ball. She joined group outings (even to see the bald eagles up along Highway 20), she lent a hand to the activity director during events and, most important, she began to make new friends.

It was a new life chapter, and Mom was up for the adventure. She certainly hadn’t lost her spark.

When she was about to move in, she tiptoed up to the door of the apartment next to hers. She peeked at the name on the sign and turned to me and whispered, “It’s a man!”

A couple months later, after she had settled in, while eating lunch in the Admiral Heights dining room, she got up to steady a woman who was staggering between tables to reach her walker.

The man who was sitting next to Mom – and who had discouraged her from providing such assistance (“That’s for the staff to do”) – turned to the woman on his other side and spat out, “That Virginia. She’s always helping people!”

The future looked so bright.

Then came the strokes.

The first one was Feb. 18, 2004, just three and a half months since she moved to assisted living. It was the first day during that period that I didn’t call or visit her. The second one came a month later.

Mom’s strokes were right-brain. They affected not just her body but – more devastating – her mind.

Instantly, she lost most of her initiative. She lost her ability to effectively communicate. And she apparently lost her awareness of all that she had lost.

I cannot tell you adequately of my feelings, at times – of sadness and helplessness, of rage and disgust, of ineffectiveness and doubt, of demoralization.

But for all of this reality, Mom, in a sense, was just making another transition, and this time with ease and grace.

She lived for six years here at Park West Care Center, and for all of her limitations, her consistent kindness and gratitude – which she expressed to literally everyone – was simply astonishing to all who experienced it.

As Meg has told me, her brain may have stilled, but her heart remained strong.

Life holds deep mysteries that none of us can crack. Odd as it may seem, I can say that I am grateful that Mom’s six years at Park West forced me to embrace these mysteries.

I don’t have any answers. I doubt that I ever will. But sooner or later, we all face the music. And during the time that she did that herself, Mom gave me – and all of us – a precious gift.

I cannot speak of Park West without giving you a hint of those who have become extended family over the past six years.

The residents: Gerry, Hildur, Margaret, Joe and Joe, Beatrice, Bee, Kay, Gracie, Bill, Annie, Herb, Anita, Jack, and there have been hundreds more.

And then there’s the staff, from all over the world, who tirelessly do the hard work every single day, sometimes in double shifts: Paul, Brett, Erin, Ria, Letie, Tes, Meklite, Said, Yeshi, Afiwerke, Oba, Malkem, Segan, Larsen, Rosa, Elliman, Happy, Konan, Nina, Rico, Hilda, Dolores, Dixie. Again, there are scores more.

No staff member is more eloquent than Mulugeta, who has worked here for 20 years. Day after day, he recognized and rejoiced in Mom’s singular serenity. “It’s not something you can gain by money or by material things,” he said. “It’s a gift.”

He once brought me to tears when I asked why he does what he does. He said, “I fight for these people. These people worked hard so that we could have freedom, and it’s up to us to work hard to give freedom to the next generation.”

Mom also would want us to laugh a bit more today. Here, from my journal, are some gems from her earlier years here at Park West.

*     In late 2004, while feeding her lunch, I asked her if she was full. She said yes. “That’s good,” I said. “The food is gas for your motor.” And she shot back, “Well, I’ve got motor in my gas.” We both laughed at that uproariously. She may have even made the joke on purpose.

*     In early 2005, Mom looked past her lunch table to another spot in this very dining room. She said, “There’s a dog over there, a mean dog.” “What dog?” I asked. “Over there. He’s looking at you.” I didn’t know what to say, but I tried this: “Well, I’m glad you see something interesting, Mom, but I don’t see any dog.” She shot right back: “Well, you’re not looking hard enough.”

*    In mid-2006, over dinner I told mom, “The sunshine is nice. I don’t know why I wore a second shirt today. I had to take it off when I came in here.” She laughed and told me, “You can put it on my back. I have a big back.”

In closing, in case the connection is not crystal clear, I want to mention three ways that Mom shaped my own life indelibly.

First, I doubt I would be a writer if not for Mom’s encouragement, support and example. In many ways that got under my skin, she gravitated to all forms of communication.

My earliest memories are from when I was 3, when Mom sat with me, stroking my hair at times, and read to me, constantly, unfailingly. For my 11th birthday, she was the lead in giving me a tiny printing press on which I produced, for a short time, a one-page newspaper, The 94th Street News.

In 2003, just months before she moved to assisted living, I dreaded telling her of a decision Meg and I had made – that to finish writing my Steve Goodman biography I would quit my solid day job at Fred Hutch. Her response: “I wondered how long it was going to take you.”

Second, I became a trombone player in fifth grade largely because of Mom’s fondness for the music of Glenn Miller, which we are enjoying this afternoon. She loved a wide variety of music. To the very end, she loved to sing. There’s no doubt: She was the one who hooked me on music for life.

And third, I became a better caregiver for Mom because of the example she set for all of us in our youth, with her heartfelt and consistent care for her own parents in their later years in the 1960s and 1970s.

1965: Virginia Eals, 42, with parents Joe and Florence Slate, West Haven Rest Home, now Park West Care Center, West Seattle

Countless times we visited Joe and Florence here in West Seattle, or they visited our family home, and then there were the countless trips to nursing homes, including this very facility, where Joe lived for a time when it was much smaller and called West Haven Rest Home.

April 9, 2008: Virginia Eals, 85, granddaughter Karey Bacon, and 5-month-old great-granddaughter Ronia Bacon, Park West Care Center, West Seattle

Mom herself is finally at rest, at peace.

If you would like to see a physical symbol of Mom, what she meant to me and what I think she meant to all of us, after the service please take a look at this, my favorite book from childhood.

It’s a collection of simple but compelling verses and illustrations.

It’s a gang of kids with alliterative names, from Friendly Freddie to Sociable Sue.

It’s instructive and entertaining, all at the same time.

It was Mom who gave it to me.

It was Mom who read it to me, over and over. I hope it sank in.

The title says it all:

“Being Nice Is Lots of Fun.”

Thank you, Mom.

And thanks to all of you.

(click to enlarge)

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