I only knew Elaine McCarthy for 74 days, but in that time she gave me some incredible gifts.
Elaine was a very special lady and I immediately knew that when I went to interview her in early January of this year. She had sent me her book, which documented the lives of seniors whose families were instrumental in founding Lake Tomahawk. My intention was to find out more about her publication, but I was soon to learn that her book was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to this woman’s contributions to making the world a better place.
Elaine came to Lake Tomahawk in the mid-1950s from Milwaukee when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The McNaughton Correctional facility was originally built as a sanatorium for TB patients and Elaine was ordered to go there by the government to recover. She was only 15 years old when she was pulled from her family and familiar surroundings to live at this institution. But she came to love the Northwoods, even graduating from Rhinelander High School when she recovered. Then she took an aptitude test which indicated she would make a good nurse. She took it to heart and graduated from the St. Agnes Nursing School in Fond du Lac, becoming a maternity nurse at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Milwaukee.
Elaine loved her career as a care giver, but she was also an adventurer at heart and in her mid-fifties she decided to change course in a big way. She sold her car and most of her possessions, and signed on to be an itinerant nurse in Nome, Alaska. There she would fly by bush plane to administer to her patients in five remote Eskimo Villages throughout the area. For two years she embraced the culture of these people who lived by hunting and fishing from the Bering Sea. She passed a rigorous survival test in the wilderness, endured makeshift conditions in many of the villages she worked at and stoically endured the long, dark winters of this rugged land.
Eventually she “retired” from this position, only because the unpressurized planes she had to fly in every week were causing her ears to bleed and wreaking havoc on her hearing. She came back to Lake Tomahawk then and bought herself a home where she continued to administer to those in need. She became a home health care nurse for Oneida County and when she wasn’t busy with that, she volunteered her nursing talents with global organizations traveling to other exotic places like Tahiti, the Cook Islands and the Marquesas.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this when I stepped into her cozy kitchen for our interview about her book. There was a plate of homemade peanut butter cookies waiting for me when I arrived, and as we sat at her kitchen table talking, I knew that I had not only discovered a good story, but I had made a wonderful friend as well. I was especially enamored with her little dog, Bobbi, who greeted me like a long lost friend the very first time we met.
And those friendly doggie greetings continued when I would make my way to Elaine’s house for visits. It was as if this woman and I had a special bond and we talked about how we would go fishing this spring, and play Scrabble on her deck. She had a sense of humor that could make me roar with laughter and she was a good listener. And I loved listening to her, too. She regaled me with funny stories about her experiences and frequently told me to get out of my comfort zone and find some adventure I could sink my teeth into.
And then one day, she called and told me she had a dilemma. She wanted me to have her journals that she had kept while she was in Nome. I knew she was writing a memoir about this time in her life and so I was confused as to why she wanted to give them to me. “Well, I went to the doctor today and was diagnosed with cancer,” she told me. “I only have two to four weeks to live.”
It was as if I was punched in the stomach and I sputtered in confusion at this devastating news. But her wish was for me to visit again, so she could show me what she had written so far and to give me these personal accounts of her Nome adventure. I agreed and the next day I was once again seated in her kitchen, but barely able to keep my composure. However, Bobbi made it better and as he jumped on my lap, I was so glad for his company. He was a happy bridge between us that I was very thankful for. And then Elaine offered me another incredible gift: Bobbi himself. I couldn’t believe it and accepted this precious bequest with astonishment and gratitude.
Elaine died March 23 and Bobbi has been a part of my household since that time. Before she passed, I took my dog Homey over to meet Elaine and Bobbi, and I could see things were going to work out OK. While I’m sure this little white fluff ball is confused, he is adjusting to a new routine but I know, like me, he misses his former owner.
It doesn’t seem possible that a friendship that lasted only 74 days could have such a lasting effect on a life, but it is so. I think about this special lady daily, not only when I look into the big brown eyes of my new dog, but when I hear the melodious song of a bird or make a batch of the peanut butter cookies from the recipe she gave me.
There will never be any fishing forays for us or hard-fought Scrabble games played, but the walks I take with Homey and Bobbi reveal to me that the world is filled with special gifts, no matter how short-lived they may be. And I am grateful.
Elaine’s Peanut Butter Cookies
- 1/2 cup butter, room temperature
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
- 1/2 cup peanut butter
- 1 egg
- 1 1/4 cups flour
- 3/4 tsp. baking soda
- 1/2 tsp. baking powder
- 1/4 tsp. salt
Beat butter until creamy, then add the sugars. Mix in peanut butter and egg. Combine all the dry ingredients and add to peanut butter mixture, stirring well. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least four hours. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Make 1-inch balls from the dough and flatten with a fork, creating a criss-cross pattern. Bake for 9 to 10 minutes.