There is no long journey or hours of driving. Just a simple Sunday stroll.
I am accompanied again this evening by my neighbor and good friend Dan. Looks like he may become a Sunday regular. Great to travel with him. Perhaps with his eye watching my back, we’ll start digging into a few riskier situations. Only time will tell.
Needing to get out of my head in exploring my neighborhood once again, I submit to Dan in allowing him to take the lead. He curiously states, “I’ve got a house to show you.”
As we approach said house, Mike, the son of the homeowner, is sitting on the porch. He throws us a welcoming nod. Subscribing to my chin-up and eyes wide open the world rule, there is only one thing I can do, “Hello, my name is Richard Radstone. I’m working on a project called 365. It’s all about community and people. For 365 days, I’ll be photographing one stranger a day, blogging their stories and the experience. It’s been an amazing journey so far. Today I’m on day 45, only 320 more to go. I’d like to invite you to be part of the project. Would you be willing to be today’s interview?”
The doors fly wide open. Mike starts on a roll of personal history. He reveals family military history dating back to the Revolutionary War, even going into his house to retrieve vintage artifacts: An 1800’s clock, a helmet and entrenching tool used by his great-uncle in the invasion of Normandy, saved newspaper articles linking his family to events occurring at WWII Pearl Harbor.
He is a little offbeat and very intriguing, but still, he has not answered my original question, “Would you be willing to be today’s interview?” I ask again. He declines, “I’m not really one to be photographed, plus look at me, I’m not looking too good. Best not to take pictures of me. But my mom is at Home Depot, she’ll do it when she gets back!”
I’m thinking, “Mom is going be very uncomfortable arriving home with strangers and cameras in her yard, and Mike is going to be in a heap of trouble for bringing us in.” Especially after he has requisitioned all of the family treasures to the exposure of the front porch.
In journalistic form and with a looming opportunity to meet his mom, for better or worse, I decide to take the risk.
And no sooner than I can read one line of the vintage newspaper article he has placed in my hand, up drives mom in a pristine SUV.
She cautiously directs her route toward us. I welcome her, (feels a little strange, after all, I’m on her property) and present my 365 pitch. Without hesitation she is on board.
At first glance of the house one may assume that things are on a heavy downward spiral. That is not the case. What I find is a stoic woman with a purpose: “Help my children, no matter what the sacrifice.”
Please give a warm hello to Merrihelen.
It’s not easy to encapsulate over an hour and a half of interview in under 1500 words. The stories and supporting evidence are endless. Mike keeps feeding mom starting topics and, with a heartfelt laugh, she runs with them. The family opens up with me and quickly I find out deep issues and lighter subjects.
A single mother, Merrihelen has spent her life working to support her daughter and two sons, one of them (Mike) mentally disabled. Both he and his family are open about it. I’m not going to sugar coat my observations, the house is very rundown and the children are obviously struggling. But what is inspiring is the humor and tenacity Merrihelen demonstrates. I am wholly impressed with her and can see the depth of her intellect. We talk of the lineage of her family, her career path and amazing stories of her growing up in Los Angeles.
What really amazes me is this: Every story she tells is mirrored by her children. It’s like witnessing a passing on of rights. Makes sense though, she dates her family tree all the way back to the Irish clans, who traditionally passed on verbal records of the family crest from generation to generation. Seems that some traditions don’t die easily.
From this humble porch I learn of under published California historical moments and acts of military courage.
Stories like Merrihelen’s great-uncle, a Corporal who charged Normandy in WWII. His accomplishment: Within the first moments of hitting the beach, all of his division’s superior officers were either killed or critically injured. For five hours, being the highest rank left able, he successfully led the advance of his division until he himself suffered intense burns to his arms and face from an exploding phosphorous grenade. Sounds far-fetched? Yep. My skepticism is disproved when second son, Allan, brings forth his uncle’s bullet worn helmet and entrenching tool.
There are many other stories of war and history that are told to me, all backed up with historical artifacts or documentation.
From this rag-tag front yard I am entertained and enriched, and when time comes to close the interview, I have not even scratched the surface of Merrihelen’s depth.
I have gotten to know a survivor. A woman who once honorably served the state as a Highway Patrol trooper, and has paid some serious dues in life, is still moving forward with grace and dignity.
With over 25 years of customer service at call centers (AT&T, Bank of America), in addition to her years with the California Highway Patrol, she finds herself unemployed, being out of work for 3 months now.
But even in the face of adversity, Merrihelen pridefully says this, “America should remain the land of opportunity.”
Her wish for the future?
Be employed with sufficient income to fix up her house, a sweet little bungalow built in the 1920s
Her children out of the house and functioning on their own.
Got to love faithful, hard-working mothers.
Merrihelen, keep up the good works!