My mother, Else Fickeisen, died on September 25, 2016. She was 101 years old and quite ready to be done with living in a body that had become fragile and with senses that had begun to shut down. She had lived fully and happily. Her mind remained sharp, despite some short-term memory loss. Although her life included tragedy and hardship, she sought “the good points” in life, worked to nurture friendships and contribute to her community, and was a well-rooted citizen of Cascadia, and particularly of the Puget Sound region. She was resilient, kind, and loving.
Below are the eulogy from her memorial service, which was held on October 1 in the Chapel at Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend and a letter she was writing to her eldest grandchild, Viking.
She had a significant stroke a few days before she died. It was described as “debilitating” and a “life-ending event” by her physicians. She was under palliative/comfort care, but was not responsive as her children and grandchildren visited her in the hospital and later in a nursing home. At the memorial service, a poem, “The Long Boat” by Stanley Kunitz was read. It so captures the sense we had of her slipping into the fog and off across the waters — images the would appeal to this long-time boatwoman.
Else Jean Fickeisen
May 19, 1915 — June 25, 2016
Greetings. My name is Judy Welles. I’m Else’s daughter-in-law, married to Duane. It is my great privilege to share with you her eulogy, which was prepared by several family members who knew and loved her.
Else Jean Nordahl was born in a tent on the shore of Liberty Bay near Poulsbo. It was close to midnight, the night between May 18 and 19, 1915. Her birth certificate said the 19th. She was born in a tent, because her mother, Thora Moe Nordahl, had tuberculosis, and fresh air was prescribed.
Her parents were both immigrants from Norway. They were cousins of some sort — the relationships among their extended family are unclear. They met in the Ballard area of Seattle, then settled near Poulsbo. Henry Nordahl was an independent logger, timber cruiser and lobbyist for Pope and Talbot; he was also a tinsmith at the Keyport Naval Station, a co-founder of the Poulsbo Telephone Company, and a Kitsap County Commissioner.
Else’s mother Thora died when Else was about four years old, and Henry felt incapable of raising both Else and her younger sister, Laura. Their mother’s sister and her new husband, Dora and Andrew Pedersen, took in the girls and raised them along with their two younger boys, Bob and Bud, in Bremerton. Andy (whom Else always called “Dad Pedersen”) worked in the Navy Yard, and they lived just outside the Navy Yard fence.
Else was a great story-teller and kept her memory well. As she grew older, the stories acquired details and embellishments. Story-telling was a trait she got from Henry. She was mostly a rule-follower, but she loved telling about getting the Marine guards at the shipyard gates to let her into the Navy Yard, and the time the Poulsbo constable caught her driving at the age of 14 — “You’re Henry’s daughter, aren’t you?” — and sent her back home.
She was clearly rooted and at home in the Pacific Northwest. She had a keen sense of local geography and history, and volunteered at the Kitsap Historical Society as a docent. She enjoyed short road trips around the Northwest, camping, and beach combing, and she tolerated winter ski trips. On one of those road trips, out near Lake Ozette at the end of the Olympic Peninsula, she saw a Sasquatch.
As a kid, she spent time at a family summer camp at Anderson Cove in Bremerton and Henry’s place on the water at Lemolo. Although she was otherwise not at all athletic, she took to rowing and was a strong boatwoman. Later she and her husband, Bob, became avid boaters and owned several power boats and a sailboat as they traded up. Boating was also an entry to a broad circle of new friends and connections to social events.
As a teen, Else and Laura returned to the Poulsbo area to spend summers with their father at his home in Lemolo. By then he was an alcoholic and had become bitter and lonely. It was apparent that he found it difficult to live with two teen-age daughters and they found him equally difficult. His relationship with his sister-in-law, Dora, who raised Else and Laura and was a good Lutheran, was deeply strained by her disapproval of his drinking.
Else had planned to go to college, but a commercial building her father owned at Keyport burned to the ground. It had been his plan to use the equity in the building to pay her tuition. Deeply disappointed, but showing the sort of resilience that carried her through many tragedies in life, she went to business college, and learned clerical skills. In 1934 she was named Miss Poulsbo, which she falsely claimed as her only real accomplishment.
She met Ira Robert (Bob) Fickeisen at Lemolo when he came to pick up her younger sister, Laura, for a date. However, Laura was still in the bathtub, and after waiting a while and making small talk, Bob asked Else to go out with him instead. After two years of courtship they were married.
Bob left his father’s bakery to become an apprentice carpenter in Ballard. Else worked as a maid for a family and later as the receptionist for a physician in Seattle. She spent time at the Seattle Art Museum on the free admission day if she felt she could afford to use two bus tokens.
A son, Robert, was born on April 8, 1937, but he was a “blue baby” and he died two days after his birth, on the day before their first wedding anniversary. Subsequent ill health that was misdiagnosed and badly treated kept her from successfully carrying a baby to term despite efforts to start a family. Several miscarriages ensued.
After Bob finished his apprenticeship, they moved to Bremerton just before Pearl Harbor. Bob enlisted in the Navy Seabees, while Else stayed in Bremerton and found a clerical job at a mechanical contractor. The war-time separation was hard for them. Bob got scarlet fever in boot camp near San Diego and Else got on a train to join him there for a time. Back home, she traded shoe ration stamps for sugar stamps and gave the sugar to her father to make beer.
Bob came home from the Navy in 1945, and for $500 they bought property in west Bremerton, overlooking Phinney Bay. After they had purchased the property, they found a small shack hidden in the brush and moved into it while they built a more suitable home nearby. Before the house was finished, Duane was born.
Three and a half years later, Dana was born. By that time the family was living in the new house, where they stayed for 15 years. Bob quit his job as a maintenance supervisor at the Naval Hospital in 1957 and started his own home remodeling business. Times were lean and Else served as his accountant.
Ever willing to be engaged in civic ventures, Else was an active volunteer in the PTA and served as a leader in Cub Scouts and Campfire Girls. She also worked to raise funds for Children’s Orthopedic Hospital in Seattle. Later she volunteered in the American Cancer Society’s thrift shop. The Discovery Shop proved to be well named, as she often came home with treasures and clothing. She loved clothes, especially in bright colors and silky materials. The frugality that came with her Scandinavian heritage and her experience of the Great Depression didn’t get in the way of buying from the thrift shop where the money went to a good cause.
One day a stray puppy wandered into the yard, and the children persisted in convincing Else that they should keep it. They wanted to name him “Muffin,” but Else insisted that his paws were too big for a small dog name and he became “Woody” after chewing on a stick. Woody belonged more to Else than to any other member of the family. Once, on a very cold winter day at Belfair State Park, he rolled in a long-dead salmon and Else waded out into Hood Canal to try to bathe him. She often said she would have gladly abandoned him there save for Dana and Duane’s protests, but they suspect that was just a cover story.
During high school, Dana was a foreign exchange student in New Zealand. After Dana returned, Bob and Else hosted an exchange student from Ethiopia, a young woman named Fanaye [fuhn-eye]. It was a sad day when Else was advised to stop trying to contact her after she had returned home, as it was probably putting her in jeopardy to have an American contact. The New Zealand connection, however has continued across generations, with visits both ways, and Else’s first granddaughter, Michelle, spent a year in New Zealand with the next generation of the same family.
The lure of boating kept growing, and the family bought an old, rundown 28-foot cruiser in 1960. Bob rebuilt much of the cabin and they enjoyed many happy times on the waters of Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands, and British Colombia. Both Bob and Else were accomplished predicted-log racers and won several trophies. In 1963, a year after winning the prestigious Heavy Weather Race, the family was named the Northwest Boating Family of the Year by the Seattle Boat Show sponsors.
Several other boats followed, including a sailboat built by Bob and Duane; both Bob and Else were active in the Bremerton Yacht Club, with Else serving as president of the Skipperettes in 1968.
Their love of boating, and their tough resilience, was handed down the generations. One rainy summer when Duane and his children were cruising with Bob and Else in the San Juan Islands, five-year old Sarah famously declared “It’s not raining” after spending several days shut in on the boat as the rain was still coming down steadily. A little rain was not going to stop this next-generation Puget Sounder!
Meanwhile, they built a new home and after nine years, sold it and moved into a cabin they built at Driftwood Key near Hansville, expanding it to live in year ‘round. That was followed by moves to two other homes they built, the first back in Bremerton, and then at Lakeland Village near Allyn. When the drive from there to Bremerton for health care became a burden, they moved to Rocky Point in 1983 (the first house they had not built themselves) and from there into a condo in 1989. Else worked hard at each home to make it comfortable, beautiful, and well-landscaped with native plants in ways that were welcoming to the birds she liked to observe. When she no longer had a garden spot, she resorted to containers for herbs and tomatoes, and at the end of her life she lamented that she could no longer garden.
Gardening was just one way she was a maker. She took up painting for a while, creating a still life that is on display at the back of the room. She painted a large backdrop of mountains for Duane’s electric train layout. She learned knitting as a youngster. One of her more ambitious knitting projects is a multi-colored afghan, also on display.
Else enjoyed cooking and baking and was always on the lookout for new recipes. She edited at least a couple of cookbooks for charities. And she was not shy about critiquing the institutional food at Discovery View where she lived for the last six years.
She was an avid reader, word-puzzle worker, and bird watcher.
Else was interested in her Norwegian heritage and joined the Sons of Norway in Bremerton. She and Bob both studied a bit of Norwegian before taking a trip to Norway. And that led to her interest in genealogy. She researched her own and Bob’s ancestry and wrote up notes about the family history. As a member of the Sons of Norway lodge, she baked many dozens of cookies for an annual holiday sale, helped serve at the lutefisk festival (although she refused to eat the stuff — her mother had maintained that only the poorest people ate lutefisk), and she served luncheons to the Lions Club, all as fundraisers. When she moved to Port Townsend, she joined the Daughters of Norway.
After suffering a series of strokes, Bob was moved into a nursing home in 1996. They celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary there in April, and Bob died a month later. Being a widow was not easy, but Else wrote that it was tolerable, and noted that Michelle stayed with her for a couple of months while commuting to a job in Seattle, which helped the early transition.
For several years the family celebrated Christmas on Martin Luther King weekend here at Fort Worden. She watched the clan grow from year to year, with marriages followed by the births of great-grandchildren. Her grandson, Robert, was especially attentive in offering a helping hand as her heart condition led to dizzy spells.
In 2011, Else moved to Port Townsend to be closer to Dana. She lived at the Discovery View Retirement Apartments until her death. There she made many friends who remember her fondly.
She had looked forward to her 100th birthday party, which was quite a blowout, and when asked about her secret to longevity that day, she said it was simple — just keep waking up each day.
By a year ago she needed assistance in order to remain at home. Her primary care giver, Lisa Messenger, became pals with her, listened to and enjoyed her stories, and gradually built Else’s trust while helping her keep her bearings and her dignity. Their affection for one another was mutual.
Her genes gave her a stubborn longevity and in May this year she celebrated her 101st birthday. Two months later, in early July, she was the star at a family picnic with all of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren present. It was, she said, “My swan song,” and she talked about it often afterwards. There’s a picture album from that day on the display table.
Else remained cogent and capable of decision making even as signs of short-term memory loss began to appear. A week ago Monday, she suffered a serious stroke, and she died last Sunday morning.
When she was 87, after learning that she had a leaky heart valve, she wrote, “If I fade away, please remember I’ve had a long, good life, lots of love, a wonderful family, a great marriage to one of the nicest men in the world, and kids who never gave me any serious headaches. Now go to dinner and don’t grieve.” But of course the dead can’t keep us from grieving. The grief we feel comes from our fond affection, for loving memories, and for a life well lived that has now come to an end
Remembering that that well-lived life included a lot of gardening, and knowing that this hymn is a family favorite, I invite you now to listen to “In the Garden,” and sing along with the chorus if you wish.
Letter to Viking
As she got ready for a family gathering and picnic on July 3, Else said that she thought it would be her swan song. All of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were present and it was a grand celebration on a warm, sunny day. As we were preparing to leave, each person present came to bid her farewell. The adults fully aware that it might well be the last time they saw her alive.
Viking, the seven-year-old grandson, clearly struggled for something to say and then said, “Sorry you’re old, great grandma!” She was deeply moved and wanted to let him know that it wasn’t all bad being 101. For weeks afterward, she worked on a letter to him. I found it after her death on her desk. Clearly she had been making revisions to it. Here’s the (slightly edited) transcription:
I really appreciated your comment to me at the park about being old and the disadvantages of being over 100! I have gotten old, but it is not all bad.
Being old has its good points, too. Like being able to forget the handicaps and remembering the good points. Like understanding how each [of them] works in different ways.
The longer we’re alive, the more we learn and can understand and appreciate others. Life brings joy. Old age may close some doors, but others open. And there can be many in a lifetime. [They are] not to be scared of or regretted.
Sharing ideas and thoughts with other people can broaden your own mind. Just because I am old doesn’t mean I am not happy or useful. I have had to change my goals. They are simpler but still just as important. What you think at 101 is no less important then when you are 7.