Montana Wolf

Monday, November 3, 2014

Spirit Exhumed: Remembering Nora May

Everyone knows Halloween. Not as many are familiar with the traditional roots that surround it -- that the spirited costumes are linked to world-wide belief that this is a time when the souls of the dead return to visit. Treats are offered to appease, lest there be tricks and consequences. It is also a time of seamless communication with the dead. Thus, Halloween is followed by November 1st and the Day of the Dead, when altars to the dead are constructed. Rituals include a place setting at the dinner table for the deceased. Favorite meals and libations are taken to the cemetery (camposanto) and placed on the dead's grave. Any departed one you miss will do, even a precious pet; or perhaps there's someone with whom you have unfinished business and you want to clear the air over a bottle of their favorite single malt scotch.

Trumpeter Swans Return to the Skagit Valley
Corresponding to the Day of the Dead is the Celtic New Year. Like Janus, our January 1st God of Doors and Gates who looked forward and backward, November 1st marks the new year as we look back and forward. Thus we enter a time of new beginnings as the old dies. Dies, but is not forgotten.

So it was that on the Day of the Dead I was driving across the Skagit Valley and excitedly spied the first group of Trumpeter Swans, arrivals from their summer Siberian and Alaskan homes. So it was that I placed the past few weeks of my elbow break into a perspective to carry into the next season and fresh writing. So it was that the voice of Nora May, my great-grandmother, became louder in my ear from beyond the grave. For you see, until a few weeks ago I had never heard of Nora May. Then, these newspaper clippings surfaced from the early 1900's (the spellings are as they appeared in the original article) --

"Breaking into the basement of his own home last night, Albert Dunlap at 7 o'clock this morning brought a sordid drama of domestic unhappiness to a culumination in a flash of vivid tragedy when he murdered his wife, May Dunlap, who was sueing him for a divorce, and turned his revolver against himself, dying instantly."

Another article:
"Only last Friday Dunlap was released from jail, where he has served a 30-day sentence of intoxication and assault and battery on his wife. While in jail he wrote a letter to his wife saying that he would kill her when he was released. As he had made similar threats before, no attention was paid to the contents of the letter." Nora May was dressing out two chickens for her four children and her mother-in-law. She descended the basement stairs to add coal to the furnace. It was Thanksgiving Day.  

One newspaper account refers to Nora May only as "the wife." The other mentions her name once. Even in death she remained, "Mrs. Dunlap," the legal property of her murderer. This woman who garnered the courage in 1917 to have her abuser jailed, who worked to support her children in impoverished conditions, who played piano at church and dreamed of playing for silent movies, has no visible gravestone. There were no freshly-picked lilacs left for her on Decoration Day. No speaking of her name.

So it is on this Day of the Dead I build her an altar of words. I exhume her spirit, that this woman born on exuberant May Day, might live again through our stories. It is important to know that her genes flood my body. It helps me to understand who I am, as I remember Grandmother Velva and my mother. There is much to unearth, through myriad rich layers, right down to the newspaper prose and punctuation that told the tale. 

Once re-membered, perhaps a daughter of the future will be named Nora May, and this daughter will understand the courage and creativity that instills her name. 


  1. What a lovely tribute to a wonderful woman and ancestor! I am reading this account on election day, when all women in this country can vote on laws affecting this country and their bodies, and the candidates who do or do not support them. Thanks to earlier women who fought for that right, and the right to be safe, respected, and their own thinking person. Thanks, Christina
    Nancy Rose

    1. Thank you Nancy. And yes, thanks to the courage of the women who have come before us, to stand up in the face of violence and disrespect. Onward for all of us ... with heart.

  2. That is a fantastic blog. Thank you for writing it. I think that you and I are cousins (my dad and your mom are brother and sister) - so that makes Nora May my great grandmother too. A great tribute to her. She will be remembered.

    1. Thank you, Vicky. Your words mean the world. Nora May's courage is an integral part of who we Keith's are. To think she took action on behalf of her children and herself in that day and age. Women could not even vote.

  3. Thank you for this post. I am a cousin of yours that you've never met (your mother and my father are sister and brother). That makes Nora Mae my great grandmother as well. Because of your work, she will be remembered. Vicky Keith -

  4. If your great grandmother was a drinking woman, I am sure she would have loved having you share a bit of single malt along with a conversation bringing your lives together. How sad that we are marching backwards with regard to earlier times when women were legal property of husbands. But how wonderful there are women like you who tap into the genes of such a woman and carry forth her standard into this battle. There is no doubt in my mind you are imbued with your great grandmother's grit. Thank you for sharing her courage and showing us the legacy she left via those few paragraphs.