These two people are our "why" in a nutshell. This is their story.
Cleo Erstrom was born on an unusually warm day in late February on a farm just outside Bismark, North Dakota. Her home was a one room building heated by a wood stove. Few of her siblings survived to adulthood. On Christmas her father would load them all up on a literal horse drawn sleigh and ride to the nearest neighbor's farm for a barn party. She remembers the adults dancing whilst she and the other children played in the hay lofts. Sadly, before she was in HS the Great Depression would hit and the farm would be lost. In eighth grade her father moved the family to Auburn, WA in search of work. They settled on a multi-family lot just two blocks south from what is now City Hall. There used to be a giant beautiful oak tree on the corner of the parcel, and as a former resident of Auburn myself I'd think it marking the seasons of her life each time I walked or drove past. Unfortunately they fell the tree 3 years ago and the lot I used to be able to imagine Grandpa calling on her at is now an unrecognizable mixed used senior housing building, block to block today. As a young girl and even after moving to WA, Cleo's mother was often quite ill. Cleo being the oldest was often charged with taking care of her mother, as well as, working to help support the household as soon as she was able and of course, keep up in school. She did not complain. Each day she would walk a mile home on her school lunch hour to feed and care for her mother whilst her father was working, then quickly eat her own lunch, and walk the mile back to school. After school and in the summers she worked in the local bakery. In her words, it was always hard, but its just what you did.
Clarence Paul Reardon was born the youngest of 8 children to a working class couple in Kansas. He attended a catholic school. His mother's name was Olga. He recalls his grandmother, who also lived in town, as the hardest working woman he's ever known. If she wasn't home fixing the roof or some odd thing the only other possible place to find her would be the church. His father on the other hand, CP never saw at church during his childhood. But then, "You did as Pop Reardon said, not as he did," as Grandpa would say. A principle that would influence his parenting in future, but he's let loose a lot since then.
Sometimes I sit with Grandpa at the counter in the kitchen when he takes his lunch. Its usually a banana and half a 1950s esq sandwich, or half an apple and a hard boiled egg. When he eats the fruit he tells me he recalls there was no money when he was growing up, but lots of mouths to feed (as all of his siblings survived to adulthood.) Christmas was the only time they ever got fruit with a meal, and some years they didn't.
As soon as CP was able, he started working in the local bakery. Every week he'd bring home $7 pay, and $4 of that went immediately to his Mother. By age 15 he had achieved a respectable repertoire of professional baking skills and experience. Times were hard, and I believe a part of his core understanding of life is that "it is what you make it." For CP, humor was the world's release from hardship. He was a jokester, and a class clown, and he still is. He was fond of getting in trouble throughout his youth, but took professional responsibility and achievement seriously starting in his teens. In High School he played basketball, but we're not sure he was any good. He also participated in ROTC.
Its sad to me, their grand-daughter, that a biography of anyone who lived through the second World War cannot be told without mention of it, for that is how greatly it influenced the lives, the emotions, the decision making of every single American at the time.
I would not even exist to be telling their story, if it were not for the second World War. It is in essence, its own character in the story of the lives of an entire generation of young men and women. A cruel terrible thing.
Growing up, if I was at my grandparents' house I was probably with Grandma. Not because Grandpa wouldn't have me, but I just felt drawn to her. I'm sure it had nothing to do with the fact that we would stay up crafting til three in the morning drinking home made milk shakes made with an immersion blender and some vanilla. No, nothing to do with that. The point is, up until present day the majority of stories I had heard about WWII were Cleo's.
There were two main theme's to her stories of the war, hard work and patriotism. She spoke of taking shifts in airplane watch towers and harvesting in the local bean fields every summer. She spoke of the women with whom she worked at all the shops in downtown Auburn - how everyday they traded leftover goods among one another. Her go to example being doughnuts (Cleo also worked in a bakery in her younger years) for women's stockings from the gal she knew that worked at JCPenny's.
Of course whilst Cleo was feeling overwhelmed taking care of her mother, going to high school, working in all her spare time, and coming of age, CP was in Kansas making the decision that would ultimately bring them together.
At age 17, CP knew he wanted to enlist. All the men were doing it, it felt like the right thing to do, and the military would offer him a short career with a nice early retirement. He tells the story simply. "My dad looked at me and plainly said - 'Are you sure this is what you want to do? You can't change your mind.' And I looked at him and I said, 'I'm sure.' Because I was 17, my Dad had to sign for me to enlist. And he did." Not the most detailed and enchanting war time story, but if you sit long enough you can coax those out of him too. 17 year old CP completed basic training in Kansas and was then sent to Washington state for higher training and to await his deployment orders.
I do not know the story of how my grandparents met, but I know that it was here in the timeline. Cleo living in Auburn finishing High School, CP yet a boy and newly anointed US Navy sailor. I know that he went with her to her Prom, no doubt in his dress blues. They loved to dance, and were quite good from what I'm told. They both loved big band music and swing. I imagine that they fell in love dancing, but that's neither here nor there. *update 9/2018: I've since learned the story of their meeting. You can hear me tell it in the video below.
Eventually the day came that CP received his deployment orders. San Diego. CP's orders would take him two states away to the South. A devastating blow to teenage love. Its not clear to me if they had a plan prior to the orders arriving, but one arose once they were received.
As chance would have it, one of CP's friends, a fellow sailor, received his orders at the same time for the home port of Tacoma, WA. His friend was single, and didn't want to see anyone lose his girl in hard times like those, so the two men came up with a plan. They would ask the commanding officer if they could switch orders, on account that CP wanted to marry the woman and start a life with her. So so many young Americans were getting married at the time, because in those days, you didn't know what the world was going to even look like tomorrow.
The amazing part is that the commanding officer when approached said yes.
Cleo and CP were wed right away. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, CP immediately shipped out on an aircraft carrier bound for Hawaii, and eventually Japan.
What happened after he arrived in Hawaii is not a topic that has been broached. All he has to say about this time is that he'll never ever forget the sound of the jets taking off and landing from the galley of those ships at all hours. And that in the peak of the war they had bunks stacked 5 high on the decks to accommodate all the sailors. After that he gets quiet, although I'm sure his memories are noisy and dark. It breaks my heart to think that such a sweet old man had to endure the soul splitting atrocities of war, and then I can't stand to make him relive it any more and I move on to better times.
After the war, CP returned home to Cleo. They started a family right away, and settled in Milton, WA in a small three room post-war home on a large lot.
Happily Ever After
Cleo and CP had four children from 1947-1954. They added onto their little house a room at a time, doing all the work by hand themselves, including the landscaping. CP took a job as a cabinet maker in Tacoma, whilst Cleo raised the kids. Money was tight, but they were both accustomed to surviving with so much less. They become little homesteaders, each using their skills from childhood and the war to be as self sufficient as possible as a household. Not because it was on trend, but because its what they could afford.
Whilst the children were young, CP was just starting working on the dinning room addition when his good friend and fellow sailor got called up for the Korean War. Grandpa said, "Couldn't of happened to a nicer man, Frank!" and laughed as he went back to building his house, his wife onlooking - pregnant with their third child. Two weeks later with the dining room still more of a hole in the side of the house than an actual addition - CP received his call up orders. He requested an additional two weeks before reporting for duty so he could close up the house, and it was granted. His third child, a red headed girl, my mother, was born whilst he was deployed.
When my mother was 6, (1958) Cleo was diagnosed with a brain tumor and underwent a successful surgery. It was a tense and scary time for CP and the kids. Modern medicine was not what it is today. She made an amazing recovery, for what wouldn't be the last time in her life, and continued to go on and be very active in the church, with her children's extra curricular activities, and eventually her grandchildren. Every moment was a teaching moment when she was with children. She would be diagnosed and overcome cancer two more times over the next 25 years.
CP and Cleo's four kids came of age in the late 60s and early 70s, and all fell in love and settled down. CP and Cleo hosted Christmas parties every year on Christmas Eve where the whole family would get together joyously, and Cleo loved it.
Meanwhile, CP retired from the cabinet shop after 44 years there. Anytime a new kid would come in to work and complain about the job, he'd tell em to get out if they didn't like it and go find something they did like to do. "Life is too short to make a living doing something you don't like," he would say. The company bought him a gold watch when he left.
Retirement and "empty nesting" brought with it perhaps the sweetest part of their lives. They continued to "homestead" and stayed active in the church and with their friends. CP turned bowls and made custom furniture in his wood shop, as well as kept an amazing garden. Cleo canned and baked a 100 pies every fall. She also sewed all hours of the night, year round. She would say to the grand-kids, you can call anytime for any reason - I'm always awake and I'm always here to help.
And she was.
Til Death Do Us Part
For those of you that have read the short version of our "why" on our main website, then you have an idea of how the story goes from here. But do keep reading if you want all the nuances we weren't able to cram into the condensed version.
In her early 70s Cleo had a back surgery that lead to complications. She was in a coma for three months, and was told she would never walk again. CP never left her side the whole time she was at St Joe's. It was like Good Will Hunting, you could just see the words "visiting hours" didn't apply to him. The good news is, Cleo came out of her coma and surprised the doctors when she made an almost complete recovery. She had to re-learn how to walk at 73, but she did it, and even went on to drive again. This woman, was tenacious. And stubborn, and fierce, and also the kindest most nurturing woman I've ever met.
And I can honestly say, through all the above battles with her health, she never once complained. It makes me wonder if her mother exhibited the same grace and dignity? Was it, in their minds, just what was done?
As Cleo approached her mid 80s she began to suffer from dementia. Again, CP never left her side, even during the really hard nights. He took fabulous care of his wife. She passed in the summer of 2011 when all the best flowers were in bloom, at the age of 84 from heart and kidney failure.
CP and Cleo were married for 65 years.
Seven Years Later, Present Day
The immediate years after Cleo died were a living hell for CP. I always had this feeling that when she died, he'd be right behind her, such was the greatness of their bond. Their connection made you believe his body would simply cease to function faced with the reality of her perpetual absence.
But much to my present-day abundant joy, it did not.
In the last couple years time he's made friends with a younger widow via the church and she's become a great companion and part-time care taker to him. His youngest son recently retired and is our ever-present busy head groundskeeper. CP's daughters call him every night, oversee his health, and manage his finances. They even escorted him on a trip back to Kansas recently where he got to visit family and see his original Navy training facility.
On June 6th of 2017, CP planted his tomato starts in the garden as he has done every year since 1947, with the help of his daughter and granddaughter. After planting, he admitted the day's task was too much for him and he was realizing he wasn't capable of tending the garden any more. It was terribly heartbreaking.
That was the day grandpa gave me his garden.
Every day since Cleo passed, CP has kept fresh flowers in the house next to her picture. Always. I knew the day grandpa gave me his garden that I wanted to grow flowers for him and Grandma - and that's exactly what I did. Sadly, I lived about 20 minutes away, and never felt as if I had enough time for both Grandpa and the garden in a single visit.
I managed to produce a steady flow of dahlias that lasted from July through September. Grandpa was particularly fond of the Iceberg ones, they're a crisp white dinner-plate, and they graced grandma's favorite vase all summer long and clear into Fall. It made me feel great to know that even on the days when I wasn't able to stay and visit, he knew that I cared because of the flowers in her vase.
Last fall I moved to be closer, and I now live just 5 minutes away.
I'm there more than I ever have been, 3-5 days a week to work and keep him company. We're getting to know one another for the first time as adults, and I can't tell you the joy I find in hearing all the stories I haven't heard before and soaking up all of his wisdom. His mind is sharp as a tack, and his life is fascinating.
CP's biggest challenge these days is the frustration of not having a body that will support him in all the things he wants to be doing. He has chronic joint and nerve pain that keeps him resting in his chair most days, while he dreams of the past or being out in his wood-shop or garden.
I've come to the realization that I cannot take his pain away, or bring back his wife. But I can give him my time, and I can grow flowers - in his garden, with his blood pulsing through my veins.
It is my greatest hope that these gestures bring him joy, peace, and life fulfillment.
And that he lives to be 100.