Something happened that really touched me today. It was Scott’s last day of the quarter at WWU and, unbeknownst to me, he brought in one of my books – Are You Taking Me Home Now?: Adventures with Dad – as a prize for whichever student was the first to find out who’d painted the highest painting in the world. “Dee Molenaar?” one of his students asked, after a quick search. And she got my book! Scott explained to the class that Dee Molenaar was his father-in-law and that his wife had written the book. It just really warmed my heart that Scotty thought my book was worthy of being a prize.
It has been a year and a half since Mom died. Dad had been in the hospital, suffering from delirium caused by an infection, when Mom passed. When he was released from the hospital after her death, he never returned to the apartment they’d shared together before he went into the hospital. He, basically, woke up from his delirium to find himself in a new home and without his companion of 62 years. I know he’s been working hard in the last 18 months to make some sense of it all. His courage since Mom’s death has been awe-inspiring for me to witness. I always knew he was brave – his mountaineering adventures are proof of that – but I never realized the amazing depth of his steely inner resolve until the last year and a half. I think I finally understand now how he survived those weeks on K2. I finally understand why so many people look on him as a hero. He is one. A genuine real life hero. And he’s my father.
Epic afternoon. Dad (Dee Molenaar, aged 99 and 10/12) was visited by three of his old mountaineering buddies – Tom Hornbein, Jim Wickwire, and Bill Sumner – extraordinary climbers all. Dad arm-wrestled Tom (Tom and Willi Unsoeld were the first men to ascend Everest from the West ridge), looked at a K2 book with Jim (Jim and Louis Reichardt were the first Americans to ascend K2), and had a good laugh with Bill (who was a member of the expedition that included the first one-legged person to reach the top of Denali). They talked about old friends, old climbs, and the Mountaineers Lifetime Achievement Award Tom is going to receive tonight. (Tom picked up the award for Dad last spring when Dad was in the hospital, and says that helped him prepare for accepting his own award tonight.)
Watching these old pals reunite – men who have shared adventures together that most people probably can’t even imagine – men who are living pieces of history – brought tears to my eyes. What a privilege to be there with them…
Preface to Dee Molenaar’s book, Memoirs of a Dinosaur Mountaineer
A light breeze came up the canyon and through the pine boughs overhead, and soon isolated white specks began descending. The snowflakes increased and soon we were encompassed in a flurry that blotted out the semi-arid valley far below, and the trail penetrating the pines below the granite walls high above. In our present light apparel and on a short, leg-stretching hike after motoring from Death Valley 80 miles in the east, our “Old Cronies Expedition” took another prolonged look around, and turned back to the trailhead at Whitney Portal.
It was then that my brother K and I and our friends, George Senner and Bob Johnson, found we were not alone among these rugged mountains.
Coming down through the mists was a lone hiker.
The heavily-bearded, long-haired chap was traveling beneath a bulky backpack that suggested he’d been out for some time. However, the big coil of fiberglass rope tucked beneath a hatchet, a large cast-iron skillet, and soft-toed boots indicated this was no modern-day mountaineer with a fetish for the latest in lightweight travel.
He stopped briefly and we questioned him about his travels. He was originally from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and more recently from the Stockton area across the mountains. Tiring of the Bay Area drug scene, he was aiming for a change of pace and was now returning from a trip into the mountains. He talked confidently of his climbing experiences and we enjoyed his free-spirited philosophy before we parted. At a distance through the mist we followed his burdened figure down the trail.
Meeting this hairy 40-ish fellow on the Mount Whitney trail rekindled my thoughts of a half-century earlier – in 1937, a late-summer trip into the Sierras Nevada with my brother K, similarly clad in jeans and carrying unwieldy loads. In that day we also had the trail and the mountain pretty much to ourselves. But in today’s world, had we passed here a couple months later, during the summer’s climbing season, we would have been part of the mountain’s allowable 75 hikers registered daily for the 20-mile roundtrip to the top of Mount Whitney.
How times have changed since those youthful days of the 1930s, during the Great Depression and prior to World War II.
Yet my life since has been a succession of fortuitous circumstances – in many cases being in the right place at the right time and meeting the right person. And though the breaks never made me rich, they provided a bounty of fond memories of fascinating places and events, people and good friends.
– Dee Molenaar
In one of those stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night. And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend… I shall not leave you. – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Mell has been a presence in my life for… well… ever, really. In 1953, before I was even a twinkle in my dad’s eye, Mell’s husband, Pete Schoening, and my dad were comrades on the 1953 American Expedition to K2, the second highest mountain in the world. In fact, Mell’s husband saved Dad’s life and the lives of four other men on that climb with his belay – known as The Belay amongst those familiar with mountaineering history. If it wasn’t for Mell’s husband I wouldn’t have been born.
Pete was an amazing man with a passion for life and adventure. And Mell, although maybe less well-known, was no less amazing than her husband.
My first memory of Mell is of a visit my family made to the Schoening domicile on Lake Washington when I was maybe seven or eight. I remember clearly Mell’s laugh – an exuberant, infectious, no-holds-barred royal gem of a laugh – the kind of laugh that never failed to make those within earshot start grinning. The Schoening children were there that day – ranging in age from a little older than me to a little younger – and a livelier, more energetic group of playmates I have never known. I remember swimming in the lake with them, gathering around a campfire later and roasting things over the coals, and I remember being in a dark room with the Schoening youngsters and being introduced to the joys of a strobe light for the first time.
Although neither my dad nor Pete had been at all religious men, they had both managed to marry themselves to women who were Christian Scientists. Actually, now that I think about this, Christian Science wives were perfect for those two outdoorsmen. There wasn’t a whole lot of dogma and “religiosity” in Mell’s or Mom’s denomination – no belief in eternal damnation, no belief in an anthropomorphic god who zaps his children to hell periodically, no fear, no guilt, no rigid strictures, or a literal interpretation of The Bible. In short, their wives’ religion made absolutely no demands on Dad or Pete to live any differently than they were already living, and Mom and Mell’s positive view that things always turn out alright in the end was probably a huge support to men who occasionally launched themselves out onto epic adventures in the highest mountains in the world.
In 2005 I published my first book of stories and essays, Blessings: Adventures of a Madcap Christian Scientist. I started writing Blessings in April and I’ve never had a book pour out of me so easily and effortlessly. By Mother’s Day I had a rough draft ready to give to my mom for a Mother’s Day gift. And, because I’d made mention of The Belay and what I called “The Children of the Belay” (the descendants of those who had been roped up to Pete’s belay on K2) in my book, I also sent a copy to Mell – I wanted to get her approval before I published Blessings in a more public way.
A few days later Mell called me up. She told me that my book had really touched her and she wanted to share it with the rest of her family. Mell was my first book fan. By the time our conversation ended I was feeling all galvanized and inspired by her enthusiasm and encouragement – and ready to get Blessings published.
Over the next few months as I prepared my book for publication Mell’s unfailing support was crucial to me. She had the uncanny knack of always calling just as I was getting discouraged – right after some weird computer glitch stalled me out, or the printer stopped working, or I couldn’t figure out how to re-work the formatting. And her words of encouragement always set me back on track with a renewed energy. She helped me feel that what I was doing was important. She helped give me a feeling of mission.
A year or two after Blessings was published, Pete passed on. At the reception to his memorial service, several of his children began talking with me about bringing together the COBs (Children of the Belay) for a kind of reunion. The reunion took place the following August and it was a blast! The Schoening family put it all together for us, and even printed out t-shirts for everyone to commemorate the event. Mell played a huge part in all of that.
After Blessings I published several more books, and every time one came out in print I’d send a copy to Mell – my first fan. And every time she received one of my books Mell would call me, or email me, to thank me and offer her words of encouragement and inspiration.
Mell passed on a couple weeks ago.
Publishing my books is not going to feel the same for me now. I think it’s going to feel like it did the first time I climbed a mountain without Dad. It’s going to feel like there’s something – someone – missing from the whole experience.
I know Mell lives on in our memories of her, in our love for her, and her love for us – and I believe who she is has moved on to whole new adventures. I know her laugh is blessing others right now, as it has blest me.
But I miss her just the same.
And I really wish I could share this post with her.