Birthday a time to mark life’s transitions and achievements

You’d think it’d be easy coming up with a column this time of year. But, going on eight years of filling spaces in local newspapers, the obvious has already been done.

Lists are typical compilations of personal activities, meaningful friends and acquaintances or public figures, things to be grateful for or to rue, events that shaped the year, prognostications about the coming 12 months. I’ve mined all that material over the years.

For someone who’s spent time in the public eye, a quick answer is to write about current events. Two out of three of my columns since joining The Daily Sentinel in October have been about politics, a ratio I’d like to reverse in the coming year. There are other important things in life.

So when my mother asked Sunday night what I’d be writing about this week, she got the usual answer. “Haven’t figured that out yet,” was my reply. “Something will come.” She just shook her head, a not infrequent occurrence over the years as she’s considered the antics of her eldest son.

Come it did a few hours later, although 5 a.m. is not my favorite time to welcome the muse. Only one topic fit for this week, the transition week between the old and the new years.


Helen Marie Spehar began her 10th decade of puttering around our planet a few days before Christmas. These days, it is puttering, mostly. That and gauging the width of her garage door by sound rather than sight.

Puttering wasn’t an option during the previous nine decades. During those years she was either seizing life by the throat and squeezing until it came out the way she wanted or desperately hanging on for, well, dear life.

These days, reminiscences of growing up a coal miner’s daughter in Crested Butte are mostly fond ones. But it was truly uphill both ways in the snow back then, carrying feed and buckets of milk to and from pastures outside of town. Turning 10 as the Great Depression began, hard times formed a work ethic and ways of frugal living that served her family well over the years.

After high school, she cut a deal with my grandfather, whose own grade school education convinced him that learning was the surest path to a better life. She could become a nurse over his objections. But she’d also get a college degree. A few months ago, a weekend reunion brought together the handful of remaining members of her University of Colorado nursing class and, while bodies might now be betraying some of them, the laughter and joy were ageless.

Life had its ups and downs as the decades unfolded.

There was the excitement of beginning married life with the grocer’s son from down the street. There was the challenge of creating a home when his job brought them to Grand Junction more than 60 years ago.

She had to make damn sure that both the doctors and nuns at the old St. Mary’s Hospital down on Colorado Avenue, and later administrators in School District 51 and at Mesa College, knew that the nurse who started out walking to work from Riverside was a professional caregiver, not the servant her father had worried she would become. And there was creating the large family that today is her proudest achievement.

Life is not without tragedies. Most of us expect to outlive our parents and she has, though oftentimes we wondered who might leave us first, our grandparents or their dedicated caregiver and daughter, whose days and night were filled with sustaining two families.

We all hope to live long lives with our spouses, but that’s something denied her when she was left widowed with six children ages 3 to 14. No parent, she tells us, should have to bury their children, something she’s endured with two of her sons.

Transitions are also about looking forward, not just back. Helen Spehar began her 10th decade helping move her grandson back home after attending his college graduation and, in a few days, will help send him off to the first job of his new career. In a few months she’ll become a great-grandmother, welcoming a sixth generation of Spehars to the Colorado that’s been her home her entire life.

It’s a good view, I hope, both backward and forward from her worn blue recliner.

“Any bloodline is a carving river and parents are its nearest shores.”  Ivan Doig, “Heart Earth”

Jim Spehar wishes his mother a belated Happy Birthday.  Your thoughts are welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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