The seven images of an angel
By William B. Wetherall
1936. A winter day in Moscow, Idaho. I was in my second year of law school at the U. of I., and Orene was in her first year of teaching at the Yellow Rose School in the "boonies" about 30 miles west of Moscow. A bright sunlight was dancing on a skiff of new snow. [Note 1]
I hadn't seen Orene for several weeks, because Tillie, my model "T", was allergic to snow drifts. In one of her letters to me, she had chided me that in one of my letters to her I had said that we had not seen each other for so long that I had forgotten what she looked like. Actually, there was some truth in that. I must confess that another attractive face had come within my ken. Fortunately, that face belonged to a gal who was a "steady" of one of my law school classmates, so that my attitude as to her was pretty well confined. It might be described as one of mere admiration at a distance. However, in all honesty I must admit that I was a wee bit apprehensive about my feelings as I waited for the train to arrive.
The two-coach "milk" train creaked to a stop and a petite young girl stepped down. As we approached each other, her eyes were glowing with love for me. Her face instantly claimed its priority over any other face in the world. How could there ever have been even a wisp of uncertainty about that. I felt an immediate surge of relief to realize that my love for her was indominatable.
She was beautiful.
May 30, 1938. I was waiting at the Oakland mole for the S.P. Starlight to arrive from Portland. [Note 2] I had not seen Orene since September 14, 1937, when I joined Judge Healy on the court "beat" in Spokane. (I had given her an engagement ring the day before in Peck). She was coming to S.F. to join me as my lifetime companion. That night she was to stay at the boarding house where I had been staying. Dick Barrett, one of the Ninth Circuit law clerks, and Tia, his wife, who were also inmates of the boarding house, were to look after her and see that she was properly treated as a bride-to-be. The following day we were to get our marriage license at the City Hall and receive our premarital indoctrination from the pastor at Trinity Episcopal Church. After the wedding on June 1, we would have lunch at the famous Cliff House, with Jack and Margaret Fleharty (witnesses to our marriage) as our guests, and after that we would be at home at 60 Central Avenue.
We had not seen each other for about 7 months. Our expectations were soaring. As Orene descended from the train, we both paused and stared at each other for a moment as if to make sure of our identities. She had on a lovely rose-colored suit. She seemed even smaller than my memory had pictured her, but her sweet face was the same as ever.
She was beautiful.
1950, about mid-September. I was again waiting for the Starlight at the Oakland mole -- this time for my entire family. Their ages were 37, 9, 8 and 5. They had spent several weeks in Lewiston visiting with Orene's many relatives and some of mine in North Idaho. They stayed with Babe. I'man, also, was there. Grandma Hardman had a separate apartment nearby. [Note 3]
It had been a wonderful summer for all concerned. Billy had demonstrated his engineering skills by putting together, with the help of a neighbor boy, a purported race car, or similar contraption, in order to take part in a downhill run on a nearby hill, powered solely by gravity. His mother had also insisted that he take a few piano lessons from a teacher in Lewiston. Outdoors-man Jerry had transformed himself into Robin Hood, duly attired with headband and denim cut-offs which had been frayed to order by a dutiful mother. The Sherwood Forest in which he cavorted was a lone maple tree in the backyard. But for the fact that his mother was unable to locate a small-sized cello, Jerry would also have been subjected to music lessons. Mary Ellen, in taking Red Cross lessons at the city swimming pool, had learned to float like a cork, although for a time she was expelled from the pool because she had ring worms.
The children had had a great vacation, but they were anxious to get back to their old ways in California. Upon their arrival, we were to board a majestic ferry boat and leisurely paddle our way through silvery blue waters to Herb Caen's "Baghdad by the Bay" -- the spectacular city of San Francisco. And our home-sweet-home at 1558 33rd Avenue.
I have a vivid image of Orene and the children as they came down the train steps. Although they had spent a fitful night in a rocking Pullman car, they looked fresh and feisty. They were starched, frilled, deep-tanned and excited. The children could hardly wait to tell me about their busy summer, and their mother was beaming with family pride.
She was beautiful. (And so were the children).
Several years ago, date unknown. It is about mid-afternoon on a certain day in Grass Valley. Orene is relaxing in one of the Danish chairs which were once in the living room near the fireplace. She had just finished putting the finishing touches on a dinner event which was to take place at 10481 Silver Way. [Note 4]
The house was spic and span, the dining table was resplendent with tablecloth, napkins, dinnerware and flowers. The kitchen was awash with delicious food ready to be served. The guests (I don't remember who they were) would soon be arriving.
After completing her kitchen stint, Orene had dressed up in a fancy, lacy black dress that had belonged to her mother. As one would expect, she was groomed to the hilt. Every hair on her head was in place. Her natural features were perfectly enhanced by her modest make-up. Sitting quietly in that chair, she was a picture of prideful elegance.
She was beautiful.
Some years ago, date unknown. About mid-afternoon, I received a phone call from a young girl saying that my wife had fallen on the sidewalk on Mill Street near the Owl Bar and Restaurant. In a panic I jumped into my car and headed to the scene of what I feared would be a real tragedy. My head was flooded with dark thoughts about a massive stroke, etc., etc. [Note 5]
(It never occurred to me that she may have had one too many at the Owl Bar). I hastily parked in the Church Street parking lot and rushed down the narrow alley (I call it Grass Valley's Maiden Lane) to Mill Street. I got to the scene just as Orene was about to be loaded into the ambulance. She sat up on the gurney, and as I embraced her she gave me a big smile. The smile seemed more a reflection of embarrassment than a ruse to conceal pain. She said that she had stumbled on the sidewalk and pitched forward, striking her face on the walk. I did not have time to find out about her specific injuries, but when a saw her soon after at the hospital I was overjoyed to find that except for broken glasses and two gorgeous black eyes she seem unscathed.
She was beautiful.
Summer, 2003. As far back as I can remember, Orene had faithfully followed a pre-bedtime ritual which ended in massaging her face with face cream. For quite some time, both before and after her back started to crumble, I had formed a habit of helping her get ready for bed and tucking her in. On such occasions, I would give her a goodnight kiss. Her creamy face, without glasses, would be tenderly upturned to mine. It would be wrinkled with the ravages of time. It would be tired and sad. Every time I saw it, I felt like crying.
She was beautiful.
August 6, 2003, early morning. It was daybreak when I got up to go to the bathroom. When I passed Orene's bed, which was nearest the bedroom door, she appeared to be in a deep sleep. [Note 6]
When I returned from the bathroom, I noticed to my dismay that her mouth and chin were covered with what I thought was blood. I immediately called Jerry. He quickly got some cloths and warm water and cleaned her face. Instead of blood, he had removed the evidence of her terminal vomitus.
Meanwhile, Jerry had called Hospice. One of the nurses arrived and joined me at the bedside. My memory of all this is fuzzy -- I guess I was in sort of a daze -- but after a time, the nurse said softly, "She is gone". Those words will ring in my ears forever. The nurse left the room. I took my last look at Orene's face. Her eyes and mouth were closed. Her dark eyelashes seemed etched against her unusually white skin, which was smooth and without a wrinkle. The expression on her face was one of beatific serenity, of ineffable peace.
She was beautiful.
The above text is based on an undated and unsigned typescript received in Japan in an envelope postmarked in Sacramento on 20 July 2007. Arriving as it did about the time my father sent me a copy of "Ode to Orene" (25 March 2007), I am assuming that he also wrote, or polished, "The seven images of an angel" that spring -- hence the assigned dates. Half a dozen typos have been corrected.
Note 1 Yellow Rose School was a one-room, one-teacher, all-grade rural grade school on Little Bear Ridge near Kendrick in Latah County in Idaho. Orene taught at the school for one year, then at another school for a year, before marrying Bill in San Francisco in 1938. The two-car "milk run" was the Camas Prairie Railroad, which operated on Northern Pacific tracks from Moscow to Lewiston via Kendrick. Other branches of the railroad served towns up the Clearwater river from Lewiston and elsewhere in the Camas Praire, on the plateou in the drainages between the Salmon and Clearwater rivers in north-central Idaho -- the heart of Nez Perce lands homesteaded after the Nez Perce War of 1877.
Note 2 The Oakland mole, also called the Oakland Pier or S.P. Mole, was both a railroad wharf and ferry pier. The transcontinental Central Pacific Railroad developed the rail facilities at the pier to facilitate transfers of passengers and freight between Oakland and San Francisco. The Central Pacific Railroad and its facilities were later acquired by the Southern Pacific Company, a landholding corporation which built its railroad empire through similar acquisitions. "Starlight" appears to be an error for "Cascade" -- an overnight train service between Oakland and Portland which continued on to Seattle. Passengers bound for central Idaho would transfer to an eastbound train at Portand. The Cascade service between Oakland and Portland was displaced by the Shasta Daylight in 1949, a faster overnight train that passed Mt. Shasta, its namesake, during daylight hours. The Starlight, which also began in 1949, was an overnight coach service between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Note 3 Babe was Orene's older sister, Ullie Adaline Hardman, who was then living with Howard Dammarell, her first and third husband. Babe had divorced Howard, then married Ralph Emerson, which whom she had two children, I'man and Waki Emerson. She then divorced Ralph and remarried Howard. Both I'man and Waki were living at her home in Lewisten when we stayed there in 1950. Soon after our visit, Aunt Babe as we called her again divorced Howard, reverted to the name Emerson, and never married again. The "purported race car" was a wooden crate mounted on roller-skate wheels with a steerable frontend. I entered the "contraption" in a neighborhood downhill soapbox derby.
Note 4 Bill and Orene hosted very few dinners. Most dinners were of the Thanksgiving variety, and most guests were relatives who lived fairly close, or old San Francisco friends, who were likely to spend the night. During summers, they sometimes hosted late afternoon barbeques on the open backyard patio, which local friends were more likely to attend.
Note 5 Orene fell on her face while walking on Mill Street no later than December 1999. A week after the incident, she wrote a letter to The Union, expressing her appreciation for the "community's kindness" -- thanking the unknown "angels of Mill Street" who "sat me up, mopping blood as they comforted, called my husband, contacted 911, zipped up my purse, located my shattered glasses -- all the time asking how they could be of further help."
Note 6 Orene died on 9 August 2003.
William B. Wetherall composed "Ode to Orene" at his home in Grass Valley, California. He completed the poem on 25 March 2007, his 96th birthday, and he gave me a copy when I (his son WOW) arrived during my annual spring visit in early April.
I have presented the original typescript of the poem as received, except that I have restylized the title (WBW wrote ODE TO ORENE), added a by-line (WBW did not write one), and shown the completion date after the by-line (WBW wrote the date by hand at the bottom as shown).
WBW sometimes fished a book of poetry off a shelf in his modest living-room library to revisit a favorite song, sometimes a sonnet. He knew what one was. He'd studied them in school and written a few in his time. He knew that a sonnet had 14 lines, usually written in iambic pentameter in three quatrains and a couplet with an a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g rhyme scheme. He admitted his sonnet had an extra quatrain but invoked poetic license.