Julie McDonald: Although death changes holidays, we forge new traditions


When my husband and I married 33 years ago, we knew we’d celebrate the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving near Bellingham with his family because those were the holidays he had his two children from his first marriage.

The Zander family settled in Whatcom County in 1907 and, for nearly a century, gathered on the Fourth of July at Whatcom Falls Park for a potluck picnic at 1 p.m. followed by a family softball game and then a large fireworks display on Dick and Rosemary Crandall’s dairy farm. Zanders, Harrisons, Crandalls and so many other relatives and friends knew about the open invitation to the annual gathering, so it provided a wonderful chance to catch up.

In fact, The Bellingham Herald wrote a story in 1999 about how a gasoline pipeline owned by Olympic Pipeline Co. that exploded in the park changed our notable, long-held family tradition. The explosion killed three people, caused $58.5 million in damage and temporarily closed Whatcom Falls Park.

In 2001, after Larry’s father died at 99, he and his three siblings sold the home place, but the traditions continued. We stayed with his brothers when we visited for the holidays, but gradually, as his brothers’ families expanded with grandchildren, the makeup of Thanksgiving dinners changed. We knew fewer people, and Larry wanted to start selling Christmas trees right after Thanksgiving, so we joined my sister in Washougal for dinner. Eventually, we began hosting dinner here for our expanding family.

Although we created a new Thanksgiving tradition, we still drove north for the Fourth of July, staying with one of Larry’s two brothers, visiting, playing pinochle and playing softball — or, in my case, playing at playing softball. Larry’s twin sister, Laurel, and her family often flew out from Colorado for the annual family gathering. Larry’s Uncle Oliver Zander, the last of the original 11 Whatcom County siblings (which included Vern Zander, who ran the Standard Hatchery in Winlock), died in January 2006, but the traditions continued.

Then COVID-19 hit. Everything shut down.

In the midst of the national turmoil, Larry’s eldest brother, Raymond, collapsed and died on April 18, 2020, at 86. We attended his funeral. Six months later, his brother Al died on Oct. 8 at 84. We attended his graveside service. The following summer, we traveled north for the Fourth of July, but without his brothers, it wasn’t the same. In the summer of 2022, we drove north again for the Fourth of July. I scanned photos for my sister-in-law Leona’s life story book, visiting with her and treasuring our time together, knowing she was dying of cancer. She died on July 25, 2022, at 86. We drove north again for a combined memorial service for Al and Lee.

Last year, we gathered again in Whatcom County for the Fourth of July, enjoyed visiting with family members, and watched the fabulous rural fireworks display now hosted by Al and Lee’s son, Duane, and his wife, Jodi. I’m so glad they stepped forward to keep the family traditions going.

But it’s not the same. Of course, nothing stays the same.

In June, we traveled to Bellingham for a happy occasion. Larry’s cousin Rosemary and her husband, Dick, celebrated 70 years of marriage. I asked Dick what was on the agenda, and he responded, “I don’t know. I just do what Rosemary tells me.” Perhaps that’s the secret to a long and happy marriage.

I kept saying how nice it was to gather for a happy occasion rather than yet another funeral. Dick and Rosemary booked a two-bedroom suite on the top floor of the Silver Reef Casino near Ferndale, where they set up tables for pinochle games. Family members also booked rooms on the same floor.

We had a great time, made even more special when my son Paul flew home from Helsinki, Finland, to clear his storage unit in St. Paul, Minnesota, and returned in time for the party. My daughter, Nora, and her husband, Chase, spent that weekend celebrating the birthday of Chase’s brother, but we met for brunch. I’m in my happy place whenever my adult children are with me. I drop everything to spend time with them.

We didn’t drive north for the Fourth of July this year. We enjoyed a wonderful red, white and blue pinochle party hosted by Edna Fund on Fourth of July Eve and stayed home on the Fourth itself, watching fireworks on television, celebrating our nation’s independence and birth. The next day, we drove to Hood Canal for an overnight stay with my stepdaughter, Amanda, and her family at the Reeder cabin. We played games, explored the beach, hiked to a waterfall and stayed cool on a hot day. Her boys both brought their girlfriends, as life continues to evolve.

Traditions may change over time, but as I thought about the Rayton legacy I wrote about last month, the family continues. The key is to treasure what we have while we have it — and in my case, take lots of photos so I can relive those moments time and again.

I’ll close with a quote from sportswriter Robert C. Gallagher, author of “The Express: The Ernie Davis Story:” “Change is inevitable. Except from a vending machine.”


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.