Jolene Unsoeld: A Powerful Presence in a Small Frame

On Sunday Jolene Unsoeld’s son, Krag, called to let me know that Jolene had passed that morning. Jolene Unsoeld was a dear friend to my parents, and one of my heroes. The last time I saw Jolene was on the day after Dad’s epic 100th birthday celebration at Mount Rainier. She held a presence in her small frame that, even in her eighties, was powerful and bolstering.

Here’s a little of what I wrote about that day (in Are You Taking Me Home Now? Adventures with Dad):
I wake up and peek outside the curtains. There are blue skies out there! My thoughts immediately turn to Dad. Yesterday he missed seeing Mount Rainier from Paradise because of the clouds. It would be a tragedy to get him this close to his mountain – knowing he’ll probably never come back here – and not try to get him up to Paradise one more time to see Rainier up-close and personal.

I confer with Scott and Gwen, Dave, and Xander (whose birthday it is today) to see what they think. They all agree that if Dad’s up for it, we should try to get him back up to Paradise. I ask Dad if he’d like to go back to Paradise today to see Rainier – and he nods his head and says yes. So it’s a go!

Dad’s dear friend, the incomparable Jolene Unsoeld (a former state representative and widow of mountaineer Willy Unsoeld) and Jolene’s son, Krag, join us at 9:00 and we let them in on our plans. They’re happy to join us on our trip to Paradise.

Dad: But where is Mom in all of this? Will she be with us?
Karen: (I have fielded this question so many times in the past – but, for some reason, I find myself at a loss today.) No…
Krag: She’ll be with us in her own way.
Dad: (Looking confused.) I don’t understand. I didn’t hear that.
Karen: (Repeating Krag’s fine answer.) She’ll be with us in her own way, Daddy. (Changing the subject.) Let’s get you loaded up in the car…

The drive to Paradise is quick and without complications. Every now and then I look back to see if Dad is checking out the scenery from the car behind us. I can see that his head is up and he’s awake. I smile, imagining him catching glimpses of Rainier through the trees…

Pretty soon Dave, and his daughter, Claire, her husband, Michael, Xander, Krag, and Jolene join us in a circle around Dad. We turn the wheelchair so he’s facing the mountain…
Karen: Do you want me to turn you back around so you can see the mountain again?
Dad: It doesn’t matter. I’m happy whichever direction I face. (This is a good answer, but I turn Dad around so he’s facing Rainier. For a while we all enjoy the mountain together.)

…We load Dad up in Gwen’s car.The rest of us head to our cars and start the trek back down the mountain…

We’re all feeling hungry now and turn into the parking lot of a Himalayan restaurant that Krag suggests to us. Dad and Jolene sit across from each other at the table and the rest of us sort ourselves out into the rest of the chairs. We talk about mountains and Nepal and the Peace Corps and politics and old friends and music and Himalayan food. Tibetan prayer flags hang around us, gently wafting in the breeze. It is peaceful out there.

When we’ve finished lunch, we load Dad back in the car with Gwen.
Dad: (Smiling and happy he had a chance to see his dear friend, Jolene, again.) Did you meet Jolene?
Karen: Yes! I love Jolene! (Kissing Dad’s cheek…) I love you, Daddy.Dad: I love you, Karen.


Here’s the part I left out of the book: As we were all saying good bye in the parking lot of the Tibetan Restaurant, Jolene came up to me, looked me directly in the eyes and said, “You make good things happen! You do!” And those few words were exactly what I needed to hear in that moment. Jolene saw the good in me.

I will miss her.

1 thought on “Jolene Unsoeld: A Powerful Presence in a Small Frame

  1. Reading this post takes me right back to your dad’s 100th birthday celebration. It is also how I first heard that Jolene had passed. That is the last time I saw her (and Krag). It is also the first time I met you. So many great memories! I think often of that event, but even more often of your dad. He is one of my heroes.

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