Friday, June 27, 2014

Barely A Pot To Piss In: Eugenia Burney Christensen

Eugenia woke up every morning with a great desire to live joyfully.* At least that’s the impression she conveyed to me. 

I met Eugenia Burney Christensen (1913-2012) on her 83rd birthday, July 4, 1996 in the tiny mountain town of Dubois, Wyoming. Much of her life had passed but she wasn’t one bit ready to slow down.

On the day we met, a local artist/tanner had dressed Eugenia in buffalo hides and a long black wig with a bone tied to her head and situated her on one of the home-made floats for the town’s Fourth of July parade. She waved gaily and laughed until tears streamed her cheeks.  “It was a hoot,” Eugenia told us later that day. A phrase I would hear for years to come. To say Eugenia enjoyed life is an understatement. She was always happy even when she barely had a pot to piss in.

We didn’t know about Eugenia’s illustrious past but we got a glimpse when we had to side-step through a tiny subsidized apartment overfilled with antique furniture, paintings, sculptures, books, a stack of papers, and a typewriter balancing on an ottoman. Eugenia was a writer and we could already tell just how enthusiastic she was about it. We were immediately drawn to her as she graciously both welcomed and accepted us. We toasted our budding friendship with cheap champagne in Dollar Store glass flutes. 
   
Eugenia was born in South Carolina and even though she lived in Idaho, New York, Wyoming, and California she never lost her refined Southern accent. Perhaps that’s what drew her to me—I’d been raised in the south and that great accent offered me a bit of Southern hospitality that I’d found missing in Dubois. She pulled Bud and me into her life and we spent the next ten years captivated by the wondrous tales of her past. She had to be a writer because she was a fascinating storyteller.

Together with her husband Gardell Dano Christensen (1907-1991), Eugenia published several books in the 60s and 70s including Colonial South Carolina in 1969. 


Gardell was an artist as well as a writer. After working at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC for seven years (in the 50s), he was asked to represent the museum on expeditions to Africa and Alaska to collect animals for building dioramas in the museum to “tell the world of faraway places”.  



Gardell set out to fulfill his dreams and spent a lifetime living them. A former student, Nan (Morgan) Smith, said, “Over the years the Christensens continually invited friends and pupils into their home and into their hearts. Together they made the people and places around them sing with the beauty of art.”

It seems that everyone who knew Eugenia and Gardell knew an endearing story about them. A local plumber told us that when they first moved to Dubois, Gardell bought a plot of land and built a house mostly with materials he’d scavenged from the landfill. Sometime after they’d moved in the plumbing went haywire. When the plumber arrived on a rainy morning, he found Gardell and Eugenia sitting at the table eating cereal while the rain dripped on them through holes in the roof. That was their life. It was a good life even when the roof leaked. 

Eugenia often boasted that she’d written more books in her retirement than in her career which included an editorial position at one of the big five New York publishing companies. Most of her later writings were biographies of colorful and influential people who shared their life stories as she typed and edited. The most notable being Fremont Miller, a WWII war hero (who had spent 76 hours in the frigid North Sea after his P-47 Thunderbolt caught fire over Diepholz, West Germany) and a retired legislator of the Wyoming House of Representatives. Together they published, Growing Up With Wyoming, a fascinating story of a man who loved Wyoming. 


Eugenia is listed in the World Who’s Who of Women. No wonder. She was as comfortable mingling with dignitaries as she was with cowboys.

The next fall Eugenia convinced a local outfitter to photograph her upon a horse for her Christmas cards. She wanted to show her family and friends that she lived in cowboy country. The outfitter had to have been very brave and must have had an old calm horse to be talked into posing an eighty-five-year-old unsteady woman horseback. But he did and it was, yes, a hoot!


Bud and I moved to Eureka, California in 1997 and the next year Eugenia followed because she had gotten tired of the small town that rolled up the sidewalks at nine p.m. Eureka had a few bright lights, but I honestly think she longed for not only the bright lights but big city as well. She applied to a five story senior assisted living complex and could have moved in that same day but she wanted a room on the top floor! What she lacked financially she made up for grandly. After all, the top floor was the best and Eugenia wanted nothing less.

Eugenia dreamed big, just like Gardell had. Every single time she saw a convertible she’d stop and stare. “Oh, I want one of those,” she’d say dreamily, “except I want a red one!”

In early December 2002, when Eugenia was 89 and frail she called Bud and asked if he’d photograph her on the beach at sunset for her next Christmas Card. She wanted her friends to know that she’s moved back to California. “I have an old bathing suit that I still look pretty good in,” she said. On the next sunny day we headed to Samoa Beach even though the temperature measured just 45 degrees. The sunset was glorious…just as Eugenia had ordered and Bud shot photos until the sun gloriously sank into the  ink-blue ocean. Unfortunately the camera didn’t cooperate and the shoot failed to give us even one acceptable shot. If Eugenia was upset, it didn’t show. We fixed the problem and headed back to the beach several days later. This time the temperature measured in the 30s and while we waited for the sun and sky to burst into orange, peach, and lavender, I wrapped Eugenia in warm blankets. This time the sun and sky refused to cooperate. Instead of setting like a big red ball the sun turned completely white before sinking into a bank of gray clouds. I wanted to cry when I saw the photos. But Eugenia, always positive, was thrilled beyond measure.


She was always thrilled beyond measure…even when she went through cancer and surgery and especially when she decided to move to Santa Rosa for even brighter lights and bigger city.

The last Christmas card we received before she died had been taken in her brand new red convertible…a mobility scooter. And she had a smile on her face.


We miss her terribly, our wonderful friend of ten years. Eugenia taught us that we didn’t have to be wealthy to be rich and she showed us how to live joyfully every day of our lives.



*From a quote by Alexandra Stoddard

5 comments:

  1. How wonderfully lucky the two of you were to have one another! It's a tender story, told with love and sensitivity.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you. We shared so many good times.

      Delete
  2. What a wonderful tribute. Eugenia was my grandmother and I love randomly running into articles and info about her and/or Gardell. Even though I grew up with them, I find it harder and harder to remember them... Thank you so much for sharing this, and keeping her spirit alive!

    ReplyDelete
  3. What a wonderful tribute. Eugenia was my grandmother and I love randomly running into articles and info about her and/or Gardell. Even though I grew up with them, I find it harder and harder to remember them... Thank you so much for sharing this, and keeping her spirit alive!

    ReplyDelete
  4. What a wonderful tribute. Eugenia was my grandmother and I love randomly running into articles and info about her and/or Gardell. Even though I grew up with them, I find it harder and harder to remember them... Thank you so much for sharing this, and keeping her spirit alive!

    ReplyDelete