For the holidays, they’ll be together

  • Julie Muhlstein / Herald Columnist
  • Wednesday, November 29, 2000 9:00pm
  • Local News

On Thanksgiving morning, I awoke in my girlhood home.

Miracle of miracles, my 2-year-old, on most days an early riser, was still snoozing beside me at 9 a.m. From my upstairs room, I smelled turkey roasting and heard my older children chatting away in the kitchen. I woke the little guy, and down we went for breakfast with Boppa and Gram, as the kids have nicknamed their grandparents.

On a day of giving thanks, I felt lucky. My appreciation grew this week when I met Tommie Brown and Patricia Elton.

The coming yuletide has been no cause of cheer for the Snohomish County women. In their households of one, family chatter is but a memory. Happy, bustling holidays idealized in cheery carols and Christmas card scenes are far from their reality.

Elton, 68, lives alone near Granite Falls after losing her husband to cancer two months ago. It has been 50 years since she has seen some of her relatives from the place she once considered home, Newburyport, Mass., near Manchester, N.H.

For Brown, 79, home is an Everett apartment where she lives on little more than a Social Security check.

A tiny, frail woman who relies on hearing aids, Brown counts herself fortunate to have a "good buddy" in Paula Conway, a young woman who worked as part of the apartment cleaning crew.

The young Lynnwood woman and her two children "are all the family I have here," said Brown, who grew up in Atlanta but hasn’t been to Georgia since 1968.

It has been that long, 32 years, since Brown has seen her only child, Norman Turnipseed. Now 60, he lives with his wife in Sugar Hill, Ga.

I can’t imagine being away from my children this time of year, never mind for three decades. I generally don’t jump when companies suggest stories. But when I got the call about this one, I jumped.

Elton and Brown are going home, thanks to the Southwest Airlines Home for the Holidays program.

They are among 16 senior citizens in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties receiving round-trip air fare from Southwest this season. They were chosen through applications, facilitated by Snohomish County Human Services staff.

Both Elton and Brown have been assisted by the county’s Long Term Care/Aging division, which helps about 1,300 senior and disabled county residents stay in their homes.

While we all dream of a family Christmas, we forget that for many seniors, travel expenses make that impossible. Since 1979, the airline has reunited families through Home for the Holidays. Recipient must be at least 65 and live on a fixed income. They can travel between Dec. 4 and Jan. 20. To date, more than 11,000 seniors have traveled to 29 states through the program, which won a 1986 Presidential Award for Private Sector Initiative.

On Tuesday, this region’s travelers gathered at the Sorrento Hotel in Seattle for a ticket presentation and buffet lunch. There weren’t many dry eyes in the penthouse suite as people stood to accept their tickets and tell their touching tales.

Leona Prentice, an 86-year-old Seattle woman, will fly to Oklahoma City to see a sister she has been missing for 44 years. Sydney Carter of Seattle can’t wait to see his two granddaughters in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

For Elton, the trip is an escape from deep grief. She and her husband, George, "always watched PBS together and went to concerts together. I get so depressed. I don’t want to do those things."

"This is something we didn’t do together," she said of her trip to see an aunt, a niece and other relatives. "It will probably snow, but I don’t mind. It will be fun."

Fun, that would be the understatement of the year — of 32 years — for Brown. She is overwhelmed at the thought of seeing her son. She has seen pictures and knows that "his hair is turning beautifully white, and he has a full beard."

"I have never been so surprised," Brown said, sitting in the fancy Sorrento nibbling on a chocolate truffle. "Nothing like this has ever happened to me in my lifetime."

Next time I’m tempted to complain about the holidays, about all the family and all the hubbub, I’ll remember the gratitude of some very infrequent fliers.

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