Letters from My Father to My Mother

Dad and Adm LyleSettling in with the loss of both parents and recently retired, I have found time to do things I’ve been putting off. Today, I started digging through a box of letters that my Mother had saved. I remember the first time I saw it. It was the spring my Father died and Mom moved into assisted living. I knew it was precious or they would not have included it in their household shipment to Texas. It was in the hall closet, along with photo albums, video and audio recordings.  Into a box they all went, and there they stayed, in my closet, for 4 years.

Digging into the box of letters with a cup of coffee, I realize they are all from my Father to my Mother during the Vietnam War. Coincidentally, the letters began the first week of December – 51 years ago. Like so many others, my Father was deployed to serve during the Vietnam War. His tour began in November, 1966. My Mother, Brother and I lived in a little house in San Diego, near the home port for the USS Ticonderoga CVA-14. There, we would be able to see my Father during the few times he was in port for the next two years. I remember Mom giving us frequent updates from Dad and occasionally hearing his voice on tape recordings.  We never got phone calls and we never saw the letters.  Reading the first 4 weeks of letters, I now understand why. They were routine reminders to have the oil in the Volkswagen changed and who to call to fix the washing machine.  They were also intimate documentation of my parents’ romance and the sadness of war.   Our Father’s mission was to design a sense of normalcy for us in his absence. It was our Mother’s mission to execute it. It will take me a while to get through them all. However, while this is fresh on my mind, I am compelled to write and share those first 4 weeks:

12/8/66  “Time melts into nothing.  I know it is Friday because we had sea food for dinner.  I know it is Wednesday when the ship’s cook makes Baked Alaska for the crew.”

12/9/66 “Twenty ninth day at sea, 27th day on the line. Weather still lousy. Was to have been a big strike but was called off. We have models of the Tico in the ship’s store and I bought one for David.”

12/14/66 “We lost two planes yesterday, but both pilots safely on board.”

12/14/66 (second letter) “We lost a F8 and pilot about an hour ago. He just didn’t get out of the plane. Our first combat casualty.”

12/24/66 “I’m thinking of you three this day before Christmas – wishing we were together. I love you all more and miss you more than I call tell you.”

12/25/66 ” I borrowed a tape recorder and got your tape to work. What a joy to hear your voices (with your note to play it alone, I thought I had a real hot wire!)”

Being a supply officer, my Father was able to get off the air craft carrier from time to time for provisioning purposes, or to attend meetings at Pacific Fleet Naval Air Stations.  His letters describe trips to Hong Kong, Sasebo, Danang and Subic Bay in those first 4 weeks. His letters covered details of old friends and colleagues seen, what he had mailed us for Christmas, and how he spent down time on the ship making copies of music tapes to play on the new tape recorder he ordered from Japan. Dad loved music. I can only imagine the content of my Mother’s letters, because they were nowhere to be found.  Continuing with the letters, I’m in awe of the following which was included in a letter about insurance renewal and approval of our adoption of a pound puppy:

1/6/67 “Lost a good friend over the beach yesterday morning. He got out of the plane OK, but is now a POW. Another friend over the beach about an hour ago. A helo went in after him but the helo was hit too, so don’t know whether we can get him out or not.”

Those two aviators ended up being POWs for 6 years. I missed my Father a lot that Christmas, and the one after that, but he came home when his assignment was completed. I’m grateful that we got to spend many holidays together afterward. I’m also glad to know those two aviators, now famous, were able to eventually return home as well.

Letter from Dad


Retirement – Identity Struggles and Feelings

flying high solo (2)

The above was from an article written in 2013 when the thought of early retirement didn’t exist. I was fully immersed in a career that I loved, working for a company and with people I respected, and really doing well….until my Father died shortly after it was published and I became the primary caregiver for my Mother. I spent the next four years immersed in elder care, my job and nothing else….until I started considering early retirement. There is lots of advice on the financial aspects of retirement and how to spend your time,  but not that much about one’s shifting identity and the emotions involved. I think of retirement planning in terms of three F’s:  Finances, Fun and Feelings (MOSTLY feelings.)

Finances and Fun:  Determining that I was financially able to retire wasn’t difficult. I’d always had a job, dating back to my freshman year of high school – sales clerk, lifeguard, cashier, then later factory worker, teamster and pipe-fitter apprentice in college. I didn’t take a gap year, I went straight to work full-time a week after graduation and worked for 36 years non-stop. Since I saved money all that time and was fortunate to have a pension, determining the feasibility of retirement was the easy part. The discussion on Finances ends here, because you can “Google” Retirement Financial Planning and find plenty of advice. Understanding that retirement is supposed to be fun also came naturally to me. I had been working really hard for years, and doing double time the last four years. I was exhausted and it was time to have fun. I had a long list of places I wanted to go and things I wanted to do.

pink canoe

Retirement = More time for kayaking

Feelings:  This is where guidance is lacking, and where I continue to struggle.  Making the identity shift has been my biggest challenge. I was trapped in my identity of “female manager in the power industry.” Even my volunteer work was in industry group roles and charities for our customer base. Unlike most of my retired friends, I’m not a Wife/Mom/Grandmother. I  thought a lot about who I would be as a financially independent woman. I was afraid of the loss of structure, the built-in support system, and of becoming invisible. I was so afraid of being under-utilized, the first 2 weeks following retirement I was booked solid with volunteer activities and appointments.  This was followed by the planning and execution of numerous trips. Since my April 1st retirement, I’ve traveled to Japan, California, Canada (twice) New Orleans,  Fort Morgan, Alabama and New York City.

I remember when my Father retired after 33 years as a Naval officer. He said how strange it was not to be saluted anymore. I feel similarly out of sorts and that my role in life is less clear now. However, over the last few months several things have helped me with the transition:

  • My scared shitless survey on Facebook resulting in only 2 of over 100 respondents telling me I should keep working.
  • My annoying “interviews” of recently retired friends who indicated “it’s great, it’s fun, you won’t look back, it might take you 45 minutes to get over it.”
  • My on-going lunch dates with colleagues who talk about work and the distinct lack of gut churning I now feel about work stress and office politics.
  • I no longer get phone calls and texts in the middle of the night.
  • Spending time with other new retirees and seeing how they have blossomed in retirement by getting more exercise, eating healthier, reading more, spending quality time with family and friends, and learning new things.
  • The very helpful advice from a walking buddy who is also a pastor; “We seek out retirees and long for their commitment to our ministries. Don’t make any commitments for a least a year.”
  • Living in a community that has lots of public events needing volunteers, gives me a chance to try things without a long-term commitment. There are always planned and unplanned events that create opportunities to add value; Ironman Texas, fund-raising races, art education, and hurricanes.
  • Realizing that, although I’m no longer an employee or elder care provider, I’m still a friend, sister, aunt, cousin, student and patron of the arts, lover of animals and travel, and dabbler at new things.
  • Learning in the world of volunteerism, that I am no longer the woman working in a man’s world. I’m volunteering in a world dominated by woman, and these woman know how to get stuff done.
harvey loading truck

Sorting and loading donations following Hurricane Harvey

In my search for a post retirement identity, I continue to do a lot of volunteer work, compare notes with fellow early retirees and try lots of new things. Even though I’m not sure what my purpose is yet, there are purposes out there to be had. If you are struggling with post retirement identity feelings, you are not alone. Plus, you can be doing lots of good and having great fun as you figure it out!




The Art of Trees – Part 2

As I mentioned before, I love trees.  I didn’t really know this about my self until after I retired, had more time to look around, and noticed the theme of art and photography in my home.  I’m not sure how or why it started, but…trees. Here are some of my favorite artistic images of trees.

Joichi Hoshi (1911-1979) was a Japanese wood block print artist.  I learned about him from my Mom.  She gave me a couple of his pieces as gifts and had a few in her own collection.  This particular print was produced and purchased in 1973 when we were living in Japan.Hoshi green








Below is one of my Mom’s favorite paintings.  It was painted in 1990 by Armin  Mersmann who my Mom was associated with during her 30 years as an artist in Michigan.  I remember appreciating this painting all of my adult life as we ate meals in my parent’s formal dining room.  It was like there was another window in that room, huge and amazing!Armin's Tree

Judy Mackey Tree


If you follow me on WordPress or Facebook, you know that I have known Judy Mackey for a long time and am a collector of her paintings.  To the left is her painting of birch trees,  “Quiet Times,” painted in 2009.


randy z tree

To the right is a painting that showed up in my Facebook news feed one day.  I didn’t know the artist, but noticed it looked similar to an old painting my Mom had done.  As it turned out, the artist Randy Zielinski is the son of a friend of a friend, so I ordered it from him and it now hangs in my house.

Finally, to celebrate the first day of fall, here is the one by my Mom.  I don’t have the original, but found a small reproduction.  I think the colors are great!Mom's trees









Navy Fathers and Their Daughters

IMDB NAS Emerald Point.PNG

IMDb NAS Emerald Point Cast Photo

The other day I found the first episode of NAS Emerald Point on YouTube. Having lived on two Navy bases growing up, I was excited by this show (CBS 1983-84 season). I’d never seen the life of military dependents portrayed on TV. Often, one hears about the sacrifices military families make to support the careers of their fathers and husbands.  The show touched on this some to some extent, but also featured a Navy Daughter following in her Father’s footsteps by graduating from the US Naval Academy and being accepted into flight school. It made me think about the opportunities that were presented to me as a Navy Daughter. I didn’t go into the service, but my Father’s service gave me the chance to live, work and study in many places. It also exposed me to Supply Chain, which I spent the first 20 years of my career performing. The TV show featured another real life Navy Daughter, my class-mate actress Stephanie Dunnam. We first met when we were 13 and I felt a geeky pride to see her in this show. She didn’t follow in her Father’s footsteps, but one of her Father’s tours of duty gave her life changing experiences.

Stephanie Yearbook

My 1974 Yearbook

Stephanie moved to Japan to live with her father and step-mother from 1972-1974.  Our Fathers had been stationed together at NAS Atsugi and we rode the “A” bus to Zama American High School. I didn’t get to know her much until I started working at the Atsugi Community Theater where she had already spent a year as the only minor dependent being cast in adult roles. I was looking for things to pass the time and got involved with costumes, gripping and playing the piano a bit. But for Stephanie, this was the launching pad of a long acting career and associated traditions.


Photo by James Amato, Zach Theatre, Austin, TX

Years later, I reconnected with Stephanie at a Zama High School Reunion. I learned that she continued to move with the demands of being a working actress, in television, movies and on/off-Broadway. A couple of years after the reunion, I went to see her in Austin, Texas where she was staring in Metamorphoses.


Recently, I used Facebook to query friends and acquaintances about how they created traditions for themselves while living non-traditional lives. Stephanie was one of the people to respond. Like others I have interviewed so far, she wasn’t sure she had traditions, but mentioned how staying in touch with Zama alumni was so important due to the bond created amongst people with the shared experience of living overseas and going to a DOD school.  One of the ways in which she created traditions for herself was reconnecting with alumni in the Dallas – Fort Worth area, after she moved there from Los Angeles to help her Mother. She received invitations for holiday dinners, which she attended in order to reunite with old friends.

In raising her own daughter,  she described annual camping trips, sometimes paired with destination half-marathons and cancer benefit walks. She and her daughter have shared many theater going experiences over the years. In fact, her daughter has followed in her footsteps by entering the same industry as a writer. Because they are now separated my many miles, Stephanie would like to start an annual tradition of  seeing plays together during the Christmas holidays. Another tradition we discussed was the concept of care packages to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and holidays. The focus of this family tradition was to remember and celebrate, but that it didn’t necessarily have to arrive on time…as long as it was the right month!

Like a lot of daughters, Stephanie’s life has included breaks from her own life goals to help care for aging parents. She once again relocated, this time to the Atlanta area, to help her Father and Step-Mother. She continues to act in theater and television, and is studying for her BFA in Film at Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta. Sadly, Stephanie’s Father passed while we were working on this profile piece.

In memory of Commander William Dunnam, USN Retired.



Things That Should Be Discussed

911 blog


Family Secrets – Talk About Your “Stuff”

In an earlier blog, I wrote about how “perfect” my Mom was.  I never met my Mom’s parents and it wasn’t until I was 40 that I learned why my Mother strived for perfection.  She had high expectations for me as a daughter (including the white glove test.)  She was upset when I told her I wanted to be married at a local B&B. Nothing less than a fancy church wedding and reception would do.  She hand sewed my bride’s maids’ gowns and helped over see the selection of music, flowers and catering.  It was perfect.  I couldn’t and wouldn’t have done it without her.

It wasn’t until the failure of my marriage, that I bothered to asked her why she had cared so much about those fancy things when I did not.   We just didn’t talk about “stuff” in my family.  Then, she told me that while she was getting married in a court-house, her own Mother was living in a sanitarium.  She wanted to do for me what her own Mom could not do for her.  She added that she was born out-of-wedlock and raised by an extended family.  As a teenager, she had her name legally changed to match that of a step-father. She worked very hard in order to escape judgement.  She did not want me to be judged either.  Insecurities aside, my Mom turned out to be a high functioning bad ass of a Mom.  Though her perfectionism annoyed me at times, she made up for it with a great sense of compassion for people in similar circumstances plus a wonderful, sometimes devious, sense of humor.  As she continued to age, she opened up more and more about things.  I just wish she had the chance to have those conversations with her own Mother.

Talk about “stuff” while you can, it’s good for your mental health.

The Assistance We Need – Ask for Help

Mom's makes me laugh

Mom Making Me Smile

Mom had been in hospice for a year and half.  Even before this, I was reluctant to travel for business or pleasure.  After completing several months of FMLA I broke down in a conversation with my brother.  He asked if I needed help.  I did and his response was, “I’m coming.”  He and my sister-in-law relocated from California to help care for my Mom.

One day,  before my brother was here, I took my Mom to the grocery store.  At the time, I was single-handedly putting her in the car and stowing her wheel chair in the trunk.  A kind woman stopped to help in the Kroger parking lot when she saw me struggling with Mom half in/half out of the car. The struggle continued as the two of us together could not move my Mom.  We stopped to catch our breath,  introduced ourselves, and she said she was a nurse.  She was experienced with transitioning, so wasn’t sure why this was so difficult (Mom wasn’t helping at all.) She asked “Can I sit here with your Mom while you go in to do the shopping?”  I laughed, hugged her and said “we’re done shopping, I’m trying to get her back in the car!”  Once our goals were aligned, we quickly got Mom into the front seat.  We thanked her and as we drove off Mom said “I was wondering how long it would take you two to figure that out.”  I told you she could be devious.

Talk about what you need in order to avoid working at cross purposes or working yourself to exhaustion.

What You’re Afraid Of – Getting Over Yourself

During Mom’s illness,  I spent 3 years thinking I wasn’t doing enough for her and affraid she would pass away in my absence.  I finally talked this over with a friend who said, “Tracey, your Mom appreciates you and hasn’t asked you to never take  trips, right?  If you go and something happens, you’ll come home.  That’s it.” beach before Mom diedI finally decided to go to the beach, but sat on a blanket with my cell phone and never got in the water.  My friends went out on this super raft while I fretted.  The second day at the beach I got “the call” from our hospice nurse….I needed to go home.  Ironically, this was the day I’d been dreading, but I knew just what to do.  I went home and sat with my Mom as she passed.   Perhaps she was just waiting for me to leave.

The death of a loved one is about them, not you.  You don’t have to be there all the time, but be present when you are.

My Mom died September 11th of last year.  I’m publishing this early because I’m going back to that beach and getting on the raft this time.



New Traditions


angel and dogCreative Pension Payment:  Learning New Things About Old Friends

My friend Judy Mackey told me about the red string of fate.  I was not familiar with the Asian legend of gods tying an invisible red string around those that are soul mates destined to be married.  Judy had written a short story about this, and it came up when I told her I wanted to start writing about traditions.  As a military dependent with no roots, I felt like my life was lacking in traditions.  I started to wonder how people with similar circumstances created traditions for themselves. I decided to start with Judy since we are similarly situated; middle-aged, no children/grand-children, grew up as a military dependent, etc.


Me with Judy in Japan 1976

I first met Judy in Japan where our Fathers were stationed and we were attending Camp Zama American High School.  I got to know Judy a bit better the summer of 1976 when  I vacationed in Japan and visited her family.  Over the years we stayed in touch sporadically, due to the distance and lack of technology, until Zama started having multi-class reunions.  We didn’t actually see each other for about 30 years. Once I moved to Texas, we started getting together occasionally for “mini reunion” breakfasts or sushi dinners.

After 40 years, we find ourselves nearly neighbors in Texas and talking about traditions.   Judy commented that Military Brats are “OK” not doing the same thing over and over.  I agreed. Moving all the time, different homes, schools, friends….what would our traditions be anyway?  Her comment was the prelude to learning she didn’t think she had many traditions of her own.  As a half Japanese, Buddhist married to an Italian Catholic, traditions were a challenge.  The first Christmas dinner she had with her then husband  was anything but traditional – shrimp tempura at her parents’ house.  She laughed as she explained how he showed up in a 3 piece corduroy suit, while she was in t-shirt and jeans.

However, hanging around with Judy these days she tells a different story.  She actually does have traditions, or customs and rituals, that she practices.  She is a unique combination of East and West: IKEA furniture with a formal kimono hanging on the wall; chardonnay served with wasabi peas; salt on her front door steps for luck backed up by a “ring.com” security camera; and an “Echo Dot” within inches of a crying Buddha sculpture.  angel and dogShe posts cheerful coffee memes on Facebook each morningShe paints angels.  She believes in the red string of fate, eating noodles at new year to celebrate a long life, and staying in touch with old friends like me.




Judy now


Judy is an accomplished palette knife artist, who loves painting still life, people, pets and angels. Her work can be found at Crate & Barrel, DaVinci Gallery, Facebook and at www.judymackey.com.















The Art of Trees – Part 1

Tree sign

European Black Pine in Sapporo, Japan


Creative Pension Payment:  More Time to Appreciate Nature


Trees are badass.  They provide shelter and shade for other living things.  They’re beautiful and diverse.  Artists and photographers love trees.  I live in a community where trees are protected and I can see them from every window in my home.  This is a collection of photos of trees that are special to me.  That’s all.

garden stairs IMG_0983

I took this at Shikinomori Park in June.

Mark Vicksburg Tree

Taken on Washington St. in Vicksburg, Ms. by Mark Winslet.  I love this because it reminds me of historic down town, across the from Attic Gallery and Highway 61 Coffee Shop.

Lone Cypress Deb

Deborah Platt snapped this of the Lone Cypress in Monterey, CA last week.

Maple in Japan

I took this in Sapporo this May.











Writing From The Heart


Painting by Judy Mackey

Creative Pension Payment:  Being able to write about anything

I’ve always been a writer, of sorts.  When I was 12, I wrote a short story.  I even typed up the manuscript, but my Dad got transferred to Japan that summer and it was misplaced in the packing.  In middle school and high school I filled journals with poetry and teenaged revelations.  In college I wrote all the time (my BA is in Communications.) At work I wrote contracts, white papers and occasional articles for company publications. And then I went to graduate school…. It was exhausting after a while.

Now I’m a different kind of writer.  One of my goals for retiring was to research and write about three things:

  1. How people with non-traditional circumstances create traditions for themselves
  2. The non financial aspects of deciding when and how to retire, and how people spend their days
  3. Anything without a deadline

The purpose of my blog is to put that stuff out there, hopefully in an interesting way.  I’ve been told that I write “easily and with confidence”  using “vivid descriptions.”  I’ve also been told I’m too brief and provide insufficient supporting evidence for my “positions.”   The good thing about a blog is being able to write about whatever you want, however you want.  I like pictures and I like being brief.

Contact me if you have any unique traditions or crazy retirement adventures you’d like to share.











Water-Color Lessons

Creative Pension Payment:  Realizing the Capacity to be Creative

My Mother was an excellent artist.  She was also a stunningly beautiful model, a gourmet cook/entertainer, and excelled at gardening and interior decorating.  The perfect 70’s Mom.  Her clients, art students and friends asked if I shared my Mother’s artistic abilities. Uh, hell no!  A daughter’s perception of her Mother’s perfection.

model mom

Model Mom Head Shot


Glam Mom Entertaining


orange flowerIMG_1188

Arty Mom (Water-color by Jacqueline Stubbs)

I followed in my Father’s footsteps, a career supply chain manager and giver of unsolicited financial advice.  I was a tom-boy who liked being outside swimming, playing tennis or  riding dirt bikes with my brother.  I rarely watched my Mother paint.  Writing this makes me a bit sad.  I didn’t see the point in spending time doing something I would never be good at.  I felt inferior to my Mother, who would often remind me to comb my hair and suggest wearing lip gloss. Later in life I learned she also had insecurities and she became my best friend (but that’s another deep thoughts kind of blog.)

70s mom

Curly Hair – Not My Idea


Last year I started going through Mom’s art and was inspired.  I created a Facebook page for it and reported to her all of the “likes” and positive comments.  In a small way, it allowed her to relive her glory days.  Months after she died,  I really starting digging through her portfolios.  I found unfinished work and I thought, “what if I could finish this?”  I decided to take water-color lessons in that moment.

I had never picked up a brush, unless it had house paint on it!  Through a mutual friend, I met my art teacher Vernita Bridges Hoyt.  Though I’m just getting started, I realize water-color is a good medium for me.  Water is clean, like a fresh start that can wash away negative thoughts (“I can’t paint”).  The colors can be mixed to create anything you want.  The method allows for little imperfections or to correct them, as you wish.

I’m not proud of my art work yet, but I’m writing to let you know it’s never too late to learn something new or to be creative when you’ve spent your whole life thinking you aren’t.   I think Mom would be proud, even though I didn’t comb my hair or put on lipstick for this picture.  This is my first completed water-color.  It’s somewhat recognizable.  I think I need a few drawing lessons next.

me with sunflowerIMG_1165

Look Mom!

Eggs Trapped in a Berndes Pan


Creative Pension Payment:  A Lesson in Cooking

My Mother was an excellent cook.  I have many of her fancy pans and other cooking paraphernalia that she considered essential.  However, I was always too busy working and usually single, so I tended to assemble food items rather than create meals.  One of my fancy cooking items was an 8 inch Berndes saute pan.  After listening to a cooking show on NPR, I attempted to fry/steam the perfect egg, later to be laid upon a decorative smear of low fat plain yogurt and sprinkled with Herbs de Provence.

Day 1:  This perfect egg is cooked in olive oil, with a few drops of water to create steam so that the egg whites are cooked without having to turn the egg.  My Berndes pan didn’t have a lid.  I grabbed the closest sized one, a 7-7/8″ Revereware copper lid.  I planned to trap the steam for only a few seconds in order to cook the white without overcooking the yolk.  But I could not remove the lid! I had created a vacuum, complicated by two different types of metal fused together….in just a few seconds.

I was hungry.  I “Googled” the ways to remove a stuck lid.  None were going to solve the problem before I needed to eat some breakfast and move on to the gym.  I left the pan in the sink, with ice cubes on the copper lid thinking that it would shrink, allowing me to free the eggs.  I ate a banana and left for my Deep H2O class at the YMCA.

I was gone a couple of hours.  I returned to find the lid and pan still stuck, stubbornly. I got a screw driver out of my tool box and tried to leverage the lid off.  I’m not as strong as I thought I was.  I “Googled” again – try putting the pan in the freezer.  So I did, overnight.

Day 2:  The next morning I got the pan out.  Fused and completely frozen.  I thought it would be a good idea to heat the bottom of the pan to again attempt my “different temps will separate the pan from the lid” theory.  After a few seconds, I started worrying that the pan would explode on the heater element, so I put the pan in hot water (same theory.)  Nothing happened, still fused. I left the pan in the sink and went out for a while.  Surely returning to a normal temperature would resolve the problem.  No.  It stayed in the sink over night.

Day 3.  I can still hear the eggs inside the pan when I shake it.  Like ping pong balls bouncing off a hi-hat.  Maybe I shouldn’t attempt to get these eggs out.  They are starting to stink.  I realize I have only been trying to save my Mother’s pan.  I’m too sentimental. I say goodbye.  I have many other “essential” gourmet cooking gadgets I can use in my future attempts to be creative.  I toss the pan, still tightly sealed, with the stinky eggs inside into the dumpster and order a replacement pan on Amazon.  I think my next creative pension payment will be in another art form.  Watercolor lessons anyone?