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.



50 Replies to “June Steves: Losing My First Travel Partner”

  1. My condolences to you on the loss of your mother. We met your mom and dad on a Turkey tour in 1993. I remember your mom as this lively, energetic woman. We so enjoyed getting to know your mom and dad.

  2. My heartfelt condolences to you, Rick. The words you chose to describe your Mom and her life, as well as your relationship to her, are powerful and poignant. Born in Edmonton and now living in Vancouver, I feel a link to your family. I remember my own mother’s passing and mourn with you for your loss. May you and yours be showered with blessings from above and feel at peace. ~ Marguerite

  3. Please accept my condolences for the passing of your Mother. As stated, Mother’s are one of a kind to each of us and the memories will always be recalled as we continue on our Life’s Journey. May She Rest in Peace.

  4. Dear Rick: What a beautiful tribute to your mother. She taught you well about travel. My 96 year old mother also has Alzheimer’s.

  5. Rick and Family,

    I am so sorry for your loss and will pray that you find comfort in the wonderful memories that you have so beautifully shared with all of us.


  6. Rick, I am so sorry for your loss. What an inspiration to read. All of us in our 50’s tend to have to endure all these losses. My dad passed away last June and it gets easier as time goes on. But you will always find yourself wanting to run and tell your parents the next exciting news and oh remember they aren’t there anymore. The empty chair on Christmas eve was really hard. But we have to have faith that life goes on and we are only here on a temporary basis. So live your life everyday as full and kind a person as you can be. Your mom seemed to have so many wonderful experiences on earth.

  7. I would like to offer you my condolences on the passing of your mother. I have traveled with your books so many times I feel like I know you. You had a wonderful relationship with your mother. I feel privileged to be able to read your heartwarming letter about her. My thoughts are withyou and your family.

  8. Rick, I’m so sorry for your loss. My mother, also 80 is at a similar stage in her life. I can only hope to write such a beautiful tribute to my mother. Bless you.

  9. I am terribly sorry for your loss Rick. And for your children and your wife too. Your words made me tear up and really feel what you are feeling. Thank you for sharing the wonderful memories of your beautiful mother. May she rest in peace! France from Ottawa, Canada

  10. Rick, I am so very sorry for your loss! Love the picture of you & your mother at the end. She does indeed look like someone who loved life & was willing to share it with anyone around her. Chris

  11. Truly sorry for your loss, Rick. Thank you for sharing the wonderful memories of your beautiful mother. May she rest in peace and patience until you see her again.

  12. The loss of parents is one of the hardest things in life. Life does go on but it’s never quite the same. Cherish those memories, especially the travel ones. They will sustain you as time goes by.

  13. Rick – When I read your mom’s obituary in The Beacon I thought it to be a very nice tribute and description of a life well lived. After reading your tribute I am sorry I never bumped into your mom in the streets of Edmonds. She sounds like such a fun, wonderful, wise and witty woman. You are fortunate to have shared so much with her and I’m sure those memories will make you smile. I was at the Travel Festival this weekend and wanted to give you my condolences – but the time wasn’t right. It was good to see you joke, laugh and be the teacher you are. Your mom would be proud. My mother is also 80 and we are very close. I cherish every day I have with her. Thanks for sharing your tribute about your mom.

  14. Rick – Thank you for sharing a bit of your profound journeys with your mother, both in life and into death. It is a gift to accompany someone on such a path. Please accept our sympathy and our prayers from my husband and myself. Sometimes those remaining here need to give a little smile and nod of reassurance as their loved one, especially a Mom, looks back on their journey to heaven.
    Nancy and David Boyd

  15. It’s good that we have empathy and sympathy and good that we support government health care initiatives targeting Alzheimer’s beginning this week in Washington. Maybe a few less wars would help us address the issue with the money necessary.

  16. Rick, my sympathies and condolences go out to you and your loss of a great mother. Thank you very much for sharing your beautiful tribute to your mother. My thoughts and prayers will be with you. May the wonderful memories carry you through. God bless!

  17. Thank you for sharing your beautiful message, Rick. You, and your family, are your Mother’s legacy. May warm memories comfort and give you strength.

    Sincere condolences,
    Karen Wood and family

  18. Rick,

    I’d like to extend my sincere and deepest condolences to you and your family on the recent loss of your Mother. The entry on your Blog was an incredible tribute, and I’m sure she would have been very honoured.

    I’ve also lost my parents, and that was truly one of the worst times of my life. One of the things that I most regret is not being able to tell them of the wonderful travels I’ve had in Europe, something which you helped make possible.

    I only learned of this yesterday, reading your Blog while waiting in an airport departure lounge, and it was hard to keep the tears at bay. It made me realize how incredibly difficult it must have been for you to maintain such a cheerful disposition while hosting us all at the Tour Reunion sessions on the weekend.

    My thoughts and prayers are with you, and I sincerely hope that you and your family find some degree of peace and comfort in the days ahead.

  19. Very sorry to hear about your loss. She sounded like a wonderful woman who’s legacy will live on with you and your family for generations.

  20. Dear Rick,

    I watch your show religiously as it is the only show around with a truly wondrous sense of adventure and naiveté, mixed with intelligence, wisdom, and charm.

    My heartfelt condolences goes out to you and your family on this most personal of loses. Thankfully, both my parents are still with us but, I dread the day when their time comes. To be sure, your words and insights have prepared me just that much more for that inevitable time.

    I too share your wonderment for the world and, you sharing your travel experiences with all of us are a timeless treasure to cherish.

    Best wishes,

  21. My sympathies to you and your family. Mom’s are very special people, and kudos to her for instilling in you your love of travel, so that in turn you have been able to help so many of us enjoy “becoming a temporary local”. Your tribute to her was lovely beyond words!

  22. I lost my beautiful mother in April last year. She was not just my Mom but my best friend. She was 95 years old. Her body was ridden with arthritis so needed my help so she could remain in her own home. Her mind was as sharp as a tack which was a wonderful gift for the two of us. We had such fun times together and I enjoyed every minute we were together. My husband loved her as much as I did….Mom and I travelled a lot together over the years when she was able to travel. Before I retired, I was a travel agent and tour co-ordinator and Mom came along on many of my trips. She was game to do anything! People loved her for her upbeat personality and as her friends passed away, she seemed to acquire new ones with great ease. I shall miss her forever and I share in the sorrow of your loss.

    Posted by Pat – January 20, 2012 3:40 PM

  23. Rick, this is the most powerful piece I have ever read about a mom. You brought me to tears. God Bless You, from another Lutheran

  24. Rick, you have my deepest sympathies. My dad died two years ago this May. He and my mom had one of those incredible marriages as did your parents. They were Morgan and Daphne and they had such a strong love for each other. As children we don’t really understand, but as 50 something’s we realize how lucky we all were to be a part of it as I think you understand. I’m thinking about your dad. I’ve been amazed at my mom’s strength and her continued adventures in life as she lives alone fore the first time in 60 plus years. My wish is that your dad finds the same as he deals with this. Someone said it gets easier. I’m not so sure. As you say there is hole and you have to figure out how to live with that gap and find ways to lessen it. I wish you well in that search. Pam

  25. So sorry for your loss Rick. I lost my beautiful mom on Dec. 14th 2011 to cancer. I know how it feels. Peace.
    Estela, ex Edmonds

  26. What a beautiful tribute. My condolences. My mother has dementia and is in a nursing home, but still remembers all of us. She continues to have a cheery attitude and positive look on life which I try to emulate.

  27. You inspire countless people in many countries to see the world, enjoying the cultures of others along the way. Your enthusiasm and generousity for sharing your knowledge is appreciated. Now we know that these talents of yours were passed down to you by your dear mother. May she live on in you. Our sincere condolences on your loss. God bless!

  28. What a heartfelt tribute to the mother who gave you wings. We hurt when we lose one we love. You are right, that we join an intimate group when our mother dies. You describe such a beautiful set of circumstances surrounding your Mom’s passing–God’s grace was there for you.

    Thank you for sharing with us, “out here,” about your mother, and for sharing with us all these years the love for travel that she gave you.

    My thoughts and prayers are with you, Rick.

    Ruth, a fan since your first book.

  29. That was absolutely the sweetest tribute to your Mother that I have ever read….the Viking ship, the symbolism, the devotion. Beautifully expressed. I just stumbled onto your blog today as I explored some future travel. I am so glad I did. Yes, it is a void that I have felt for the last 24 years which cannot be filled by anyone else.
    God Bless You.

  30. What a beautiful and moving tribute to your Mother. I have tears in my eyes as it is obvious how much your mother meant to you by how tenderly you speak of her. You are in my thoughts and prayers.

  31. Best wishes, Rick, in a difficult time. Your writing was an eloquent reminder to all of us who have lost a parent and, for a time, we feel especially a part of the Rick Steves travel family.

    Jim Ellsworth
    Caldwell, Tx

  32. Dear Rick:
    I, too, lost my mom this past year. She loved to travel and I’ll always be grateful that she got to go on her dream trip, a cruise of Alaska only a few years ago in her late 70’s. She traveled vicariously through the videos and photos of our trips. How I wished she could have had the opportunity to travel more. You have my deepest sympathy.

  33. Rick, What a beautiful tribute to your Mom! She sounds like a wonderful person and I know you must miss her terribly. (I lost both my parents in ’91, and I still miss them.) But what a wonderful legacy she leaves to you and your family. Hope your cherished memories help comfort you as you adjust to life without Mom. Sincerely, Anne Corke

  34. Not much can bring me to tears but this post had me boo hooing. Such a lovely tribute and so very sorry for your loss

  35. So sorry Rick and my thoughts and prayers are with you. My mom passed away 14 years ago at the age of 80 and to this day, she comes to mind many days. It is something a person never gets over, at least that is the way it has been for me.

    As you, I was extremely fortunate with the childhood like I had and then years of love of a beautiful person. She came from Austria as a companion to a blind person at the age of 13. Her life was not easy and maybe this help make her the perfect mom. I too, hope and look forward to meeting up with her one day.

  36. What a lovely tribute to your mother, your first travel partner. My thoughts are with you and your family. My mother is still alive at age 93 and very ready to join my father, who died 10 years ago. She and I both hope she will be able to make her last journey soon.

  37. We are richer people because you chose to share the treasures of your families “life with June” with us. It is a rare and beautiful thing to hear a son sing the song of a “silent hero” who was wise in disguise. Her wisdom and love will most assureadly live on. Thank you for sharing with us the gifts she shared with you.

  38. Thank you, Rick, for expressing what many of us feel when our parents die.
    Death is a blessing as is life. Your mom will always be with you in spirit. She gave you such a gift for sharing love with the world.
    I want to thank you for talking about death and the love of your family.

  39. My mother died at age 93 on Dec. 11, 2011. As you say, it takes me to “that stage of life” only those who have experienced the death of a mother can know. It was, to me, as if I had woken one morning to find someone had suspended the laws of gravity, that the balance of the universe had been upended. I know so well how you feel.

    I took her to France when she was 82, the first time she had flown. It was 2001, but in the summer before that September day. She had a ball, although I had to just about drag her on to the plane in the first place. For the rest of her life, she had the “when I was in Paris” bragging rights at the retirement home. I’m so glad I I didn’t listen to the noise about how “she’s too old” and “you will kill her with that long trip.”
    It’s a memory I will have forever, until that inevitable day I will join her again.

  40. Dear Rick

    Reverend Harvey Martz at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch,CO. spoke today of your tribute to your mom. It was lovely, powerful, and deeply from your heart. We feel connected to you and are saddened by your loss.

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