‘I’m doing it my way, because this is how I want to DO it!’. So was the mantra of she who charted her own course, one beset with struggle, war, children, career, and independence.
Born in Hollywood in 1932, Eleanor Chatterton Dixon emerged via a Caesarean birth, ‘because all the women were doing that’. She didn’t grow up in the movie star town, but in the communities around it, as her father sought work in Depression-era construction jobs, sometimes states away, while her mother made do in cheap, rented properties. Propriety was never abandoned, however, and Eleanor always understood what was required and what was right. She also came to spot fraud and silliness, and never allowed her acquaintances or neighbors to peg themselves too far above their stations. Beating off bats and mice in orange-grove shacks, smuggling sugar over the San Diego-Tijuana border, or later, lining up for her mother’s cigarettes on the Seattle waterfront, Eleanor learned how to survive and even make the best of the situation.
The family moved to Renton during the war, taking advantage of the numerous jobs opened at Boeing. Construction took them to Fairbanks as well, and what she described as ‘really the wild west’, brought her into contact with Alaskan native communities, Canadian kilted soldiers, and even Soviet pilots training at American bases. What both experiences truly achieved was to imprint their vitality, mystery, and beauty upon the teenager. ‘Alaska’ and ‘Seattle’ grounded her as she grew into adulthood, their themes informing her ideals of interaction with the natural world. In later life, most telephone conversations included references to the state of the sky and appearances by Mt. Rainier (‘the mountain’) from behind the clouds. She returned to Alaska several times, reinvigorated with each visit, its mystique reaffirmed.
Her mother and La Jolla High School shaped her love of history, while pragmatism and a flair for numbers turned her into a bookkeeper, and she handled sets of books to the very end. Eleanor always identified with her work, and therefore her places of work. Like many, her jobs helped to write the chapters of her life. For her children, H. Salt, Esq., Alderbrook, Henry, and Murphy’s locate not only their growth, but the towns and states they lived in, their life experiences, their memories. Each job had its story, its characters, and each informed Eleanor of where she was, wanted to go, and finally where to land.
The family learned to understand what she was feeling and thinking, precisely by what she was not saying-often for hours at a time. Generally, these experiences were not pleasant, but they were informative and formative, and as the children went on to live their own lives and raise their own families, methods of communication and expression flowered from the soil of growing up in Eleanor’s house.
Ultimately and pragmatically, Eleanor lived on her terms. She spent her final years in Enumclaw, close to the mountain. Sometimes tired, sometimes despondent, and often in pain towards the end, she remained steadfast in her readiness with a laugh, a sharp joke, and a keen interest in her children’s lives, their challenges, and their successes.
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