Scanning the obituaries every week in the Observer becomes a habit, especially when you have friends and neighbors who are up in years. I’d been expecting to see my friend Elma’s obituary, and I might have missed it if I hadn’t been drawn to a photo of a woman I never knew, a woman who seemed somehow familiar. Was it the direct, even gaze, the broad forehead, or the slight smile that turned up one corner of her mouth? Only reading the whole thing would reveal my indirect connection with this mystery woman.

    My friend Elma, however, was no mystery. She lived on Lake Street in the same house she’d lived in since she married her husband — a commercial fisherman, a Finn, and therefore an automatic colleague and friend of my dad. Chuck had died just before I met Elma. She was quite outgoing and in a straightforward encounter in our front yard, she asked, “Are you Butch Pitkanen’s daughter?” referring to my dad. After that, she’d often stop by on her walk to the post office.

    Even before moving away, I didn’t see Elma that often, but I thoroughly enjoyed my encounters with her, especially in her kitchen, which was almost a museum of late 1940s and early 1950s domesticity. The array of kitchen tools hung on the walls and in evidence on all available surfaces took me back to my childhood in a visual time machine. To most people’s eyes, it was probably clutter, but to me it evoked a nostalgic beauty.

    Elma’s woodpile was also legendary in my household. My husband, who came to “making wood” in his adulthood and was still learning the nuances in his 50s, noted the ordered array, the discriminating attention that Elma used in organizing her firewood, right down to a barrel of bark that had been knocked off the big pieces. All this fuel had been brought to her yard by her faithful son, sometimes from the beaches upstream on the Columbia.

    Two things stand out in my memory about Elma: One was her use of color — a sparkly pin that zapped your eye with purple against her otherwise mundane clothing or the red pottery vase in the window of the tiny “mother-in-law’s cabin” in her rear yard. The other thing was her unabashed membership in the working class, blue-collar way of life — no pretensions and no apparent striving toward a middle class veneer. Old things were good enough for her. No lacey tablecloths, no good China that I ever saw, just a warm welcome with a mug of hot coffee, upgraded a bit during the holidays with her own baked goods. Elma was not one of the grand old ladies of Ilwaco, as far as I could tell. She didn’t seem to be part of the group of fishermen’s widows who walked together most mornings, ending their stroll with a coffee klatch at the Harbor Lights Restaurant at the port, but I always felt comfortable with her because I, too, come from a blue collar background, even though my mom’s family had some middle class pretensions, including the fine China, the lace tablecloths and silver plate if not Sterling — acquired objects and habits in an attempt to “pass” for middle class.

    But, back to the mystery woman. As I read her obituary, I realized that this woman, who had led a diverse and to me rather adventurous life, was our editor’s mother; the family likeness was what made her seem so familiar. There was one intriguing parallel with my own mother’s life. Lois Winters and my mom were both X-ray technicians during the 1940s and after WWII that part of their lives slipped away, probably because women were no longer as needed or welcome in the work force. Lois Winters’ “voracious reading” about history, politics and comparative religion must have influenced her son to not only read widely, but also to become an editor. Like the old ladies in Ilwaco who knew my paternal grandmother and therefore understood my sometimes fire-breathing opinions, I now said to myself, “Oh, that’s where he gets it.”

    From afar, it seems obvious how Lois Winters must have influenced her family but it isn’t so easy with one’s own mother. It’s taken me decades to realize how my mom’s personality and interests stimulated my curiosity, love of reading, and sometimes surly independence. And so it may be with Elma’s family: It takes time for a person’s intergenerational legacy to settle in and be recognized.

     Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer; her dad and Elma Saari were both children of Finnish immigrants and born a year apart. You can reach Stoppiello at

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