June Steves: Losing My First Travel Partner

While two weeks has passed since her death, I’m still coming to grips with my mother being gone. I’ve had a busy holiday season and, in the midst of so much else churning all around me, I wanted to share with my friends on Blog Gone Europe the news of her passing. In case you might be interested, I’ve gathered here memories of my first trip to Europe when my travel partner was my Mom, photos of us in 1969 and in 2011, her obituary, and an essay I wrote from the notes of the talk I gave at her memorial service.


Memories of Travels with June

When I think of how my Mom catapulted me into the wonderful life I’ve enjoyed, it was she who first took me to Europe. As my Dad was busy doing business with European piano-builders (he imported pianos), Mom was my first travel partner.

Back when I was a 14-year-old who had hardly set foot on an airplane, together we were immersed in the wonders of Europe. On that first dip into Europe, we stood in front of our first hotel in the Netherlands watching bicyclists gather at a stoplight on the way to the fields — wooden shoes filling their little handlebar baskets. Mom helped me collect a cigar box full of sugar cubes wrapped with advertising from the restaurants we visited all over Europe. Together we collected souvenir pins to fill my Bavarian felt hat. Venturing into our first subway ride ever, we found our way to a stop called Trocadéro, emerged, turned the corner, and set eyes for the first time on the jaw-dropping Eiffel Tower. Together we puzzled at buildings that looked both new and ancient (Neoclassical monuments in Paris) — built in the style of ancient Rome, but dating only from the age of Napoleon. When friends in Germany gave us a tin of white asparagus, we opened it and marveled together at what looked like a rare albino vegetable. And, with Norwegian relatives, we traveled to the fjord where we found the actual house from where my mother’s mother left for the “New Land” — in her case, Canada.

On that first trip, I was attached to my Mom — literally — as back then a mother and her child could share the same passport. And flying home from that first foreign adventure, I have a hunch my Mom had a hunch she had helped plant in me a seed that would sprout into a lifelong passion for travel. One of my favorite photos is of me and my Mom with our hosts in Austria in a dusty village on the border of communist Hungary. It was 1969, and Mom had just introduced me a man (far left) who claimed to have witnessed the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, which kicked off World War I. Whether he actually saw it or not, the story he told had me wide-eyed — and when I look back on it, I think it was a pivotal moment in my life that directed me toward my history degree and a passion for learning and teaching through thoughtful travel.


June Erna Steves (1931-2011)

June was born of Norwegian immigrants Harold and Erna Fremmerlid on June 29, 1931, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. She died in Seattle early in the morning on Thursday, December 29, 2011. She passed away from complications after a heart attack, surrounded in love by her family and pastor.

June grew up skiing and enjoying family, friends, and the great outdoors as a child in Edmonton. She left the homestead and moved to White Rock near Vancouver, where she went to high school. Her family then moved to Seattle where her father started and ran Oslo Electric Company. She lived near Green Lake with Harold, Erna, and siblings, Harold Jr., Sylvia, and Norman.

Once in Seattle, June soon met Dick. (June struck him as so gorgeous; she nearly knocked him off his skates at a local roller rink.) They were married in 1951. June supported Dick as he finished his university studies, taught band in public schools, and tuned pianos. June ran the home front in Crown Hill, Kenmore, and Edmonds with love and energy, raising with Dick three children: Rick (born 1955), Janis (born 1956) and Linda (born 1958). Later, June helped Dick run “Steves Sound of Music” — their store, in which they imported great European pianos.

Each weekend for decades, June organized camping and boating excursions. She harvested the sea and cooked it up expertly. She was a traveler, a skier, a parent, a partner, and a friend who complemented Dick as if a match designed in heaven. She will be remembered as a loving wife, mother, first mate of the good ship Junie, and friend who provided a Christian foundation for an entire family. Those who survive June — her husband, three children, six grandchildren (Caleigh, Nicole, Tyler, Kelsey, Andy, and Jackie), and brothers Norman and Harold — will remember her with thanks and love.

While we will miss June dearly, we celebrate her eighty years on this earth as a lifetime well lived and filled with adventure, a passion for life, and love.


June Steves, My Mom

Losing your mother takes you places you’ve never been. There’s a void. You see things differently. You realize how much emotion is inside you. You find there’s a bucket of tears reserved especially for our mothers.

As this experience unfolded around me, it was as if God had a plan. Just hours before Mom’s death, I visited a friend of mine who has just a few months to live as cancerous tumors take over his brain. I wanted to spend a few quality moments with my friend, and we ended up talking at length about death and love. His mystical Muslim approach to love and God and his passion for the teachings of Rumi inspired me. I had a rich afternoon with my friend exploring how we are here to give love. How death is part of life. How people are good. Nature is good. God loves us. And how, in death, we see God’s love and learn more about how we can love each other. I had never had such a talk before. I had never thought so deeply about death.

My phone rang during our time together, but I didn’t answer it. After leaving my friend’s house, I checked in and learned that my Mom had been taken to the hospital. First diagnosis: pneumonia. But it was worse. A few minutes later, we learned she had had a heart attack and would need a pacemaker. Half an hour after that, the doctor was on the phone asking about Mom’s end-of-life wishes. Within the hour, I gathered with loved ones at Mom’s deathbed.

Exploring the meaning of death with my friend serendipitously helped prep me for my mother’s death. At 1:30 a.m., on December 29th, 2011, I held Mom’s hand and stroked her head as she peacefully took her last breath.

In thinking about my Mom’s life in the context of her death, I see God’s love more clearly, and I’ve been learning about how we can love better.

I appreciate that divine love in how my Mom and Dad were such a great couple. Their love inspired people in its simple purity. The way they loved each other, especially those years when it was within the dictates of Alzheimer’s, was emblematic of what love is all about.

My Dad chose not to talk at Mom’s memorial service. He didn’t need to. His love of June was more powerful than any spoken message. It was love 24/7, all over town. It was “June and Dick.” Dick loved June and June loved Dick. They were a team.

In the last few years, it was an Alzheimer’s love. While Alzheimer’s disease is a terrible curse, with my Mom’s death, I found it actually had a silver lining. Alzheimer’s, while a horrible shroud that keeps out so many joys of life, also blanketed away the aggressive and shrill dimensions of modern life. Alzheimer’s made Mom and Dad’s love more simple: two children of God together. Not fancy — just pure. To me, their love became even more inspiring.

I see Mom’s heart attack as divine deliverance from a very difficult road ahead. Mom suffered a cuddly, cheery, even humorous brand of Alzheimer’s. And, with death, she was spared its ugly stage. On December 29th, June Steves flew out of her riddled brain. She left Alzheimer’s on the hospital bed and was given freedom.

We are so blessed that she was cheery and a joy until the very end. She sang her heart out by candlelight at church on Christmas Eve. Together we lit each other’s candles and sang “Silent Night.” The day before she died, an unusually big and joyous assembly of grandchildren gathered with Mom at a Chinese Restaurant. Mom was high-fiving, singing, spinning a lazy Susan heavy with yummy dim sum, and snatching dumplings off Dad’s plate.

Sorting through photos in preparation of Mom’s memorial service, it was clear that Mom dedicated her life to family. Some may wonder: What did she do? In a conventional sense, not much. She held no prestigious positions. She won no big awards. But if we are here to love — as Jesus teaches us, and as my ailing friend helped teach me — she was a true champion.

In retrospect, Mom’s life was one of selfless devotion. She made it her purpose to help her family spread its wings and for each of us to fly. Mom lived the prime of her life in a Mad Men age when women were silent heroes at home. She never took her eyes off the target: caring for her family. And all of us were huge beneficiaries of that.

In my Mom’s family, being “good stock”  was the ultimate compliment. Her mom and her mom’s mom always talked about that. It must be a Norwegian thing…good stock to survive a hard life. It was as if offspring were plants that needed to survive a winter snow. Mom certainly was good stock. In fact, my fear was that her tough Norwegian body would long outlive her Alzheimer’s brain. In that regard, her death was both timely and a blessing.

At home, she was the classic mom…very traditional. But at sea — vacationing on their beloved boats (the RikJanLin and, later, the Junie) — look out. June Steves was a fierce hunter-gatherer. Across the San Juan Islands, when it came to catching clams, oysters, and crabs, she was like Xena…“June the Warrior Princess.”

Mom never tried to be a fancy intellectual. But looking back, she was wise in disguise: Work hard. Be patient. Pull up a prawn trap using your body more than your arms. To stretch your juice, simply add more water. Never fold up a canvas tent damp. The best way to control nature is to obey her. Learn to type — you might find that useful someday. And Jesus loves you (one of her favorite hymns).

A hospital is a sterile place to die. I’m not comfortable in that environment. That night, after considering the industrial efficiency of it all and how death must get almost routine in the ICU, I met a woman whose job title was “flow supervisor.” Despite being surrounded by softly beeping monitors, stainless steel, and latex gloves, I was struck by how—gathered around her bed–we created a completely different zone, a circle of love.

For the last few years, my Mom has been an Alzheimer’s June. It can be pretty unglamorous. Looking at her on her deathbed — even with her pale face, drained of life — I saw a noble woman of beauty and strength. I saw the power of maternal love. I saw, and I will remember, a strong, timeless woman of good stock — Viking stock.

Collecting my thoughts about Mom’s death, I find myself going ethnic…going primeval. Coming together as Mom died, we cradled her. It was as if we created with our family, loved ones, and pastor a Viking ship in some torch-lit burial ceremony a thousand years ago in Norway, the home of her ancestors.

At that dreaded but epic moment, I appreciated cyclical nature of life. June Steves brought us in, and those she raised and loved saw her out.

They say we get four score, and anything beyond that is a bonus. Mom lived four score and six months to the day. God blessed us with her. He blessed our Mom with a full and well-lived life. Her life was a beautiful 80-year-long arc. She lived her last few years as a child again. And, finally, God took her home in a merciful way.

On the last day of 2011, friends and family filled Trinity Lutheran Church in Lynnwood, creating another circle of love. While we grieved Mom’s death, we also celebrated her life and all she brought to this world. You understand the treasure of friends and loved ones in a new way when they come together at such a memorial.

If I could tuck a little note for my Mom onto that Viking ship as it sails away, here’s how it would read:

Dear Mom: I now enter a stage of my life with that void that only those who have lost a mother can truly understand. I’ll savor precious memories of you until I see you in heaven — where I have a hunch we’ll ultimately sit together with Dad, Jan, Linda, and other loved ones too, enjoying the heavenly equivalent of a campfire on the beach at sunset in a place very much like Sucia Island, sharing a bucket of fresh-caught butter clams. As you look down on all of us as we carry on, enjoy the view. We love you. And we’ll treasure how you touched us and how your beautiful spirit will endure in our lives forever. Amen.


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