SHALL WE GATHER AT THE RIVER?
Shall we gather at the river?
Where bright angel feet have trod
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God
Robert Lowry, 1864
The subtle influence of grandmothers is a topic for poets and psychologists alike. It can supply strength when you think you have none. It can also carry a loving imprint that tells you who you are no matter what the world seems to be telling you. More often than not, this benevolence comes in the form of an unconditional love. It’s conveyed by the mere “doing” of grandmotherly things. The ironing of a special dress, the unasked for purchase of the item you’ve been eyeing, the cookies on the porch when you most need a friend. Grandmothers have a way of filling the gap. It’s what makes us still miss them decades after they are gone, still think of them when eating a family recipe perfected by them, and still wish we had one more afternoon to just be with them.
Debra Facer, like so many of us, had such a Grandma. Her life would have seemed ordinary to many but she planted seeds of comfort in Debra. Those seeds would bloom when needed and the fragrance of that bloom would remind her of just how extraordinary her grandmother was. The seeds that Debra’s grandmother Dealia, and also her mother Joann, planted in her would bloom and help her to survive childlessness, widowhood at 37 and an ovarian cancer diagnosis.
Dealia the way Debra remembers her – loving life!
Debra was born in Pomona, California but never considered herself a California girl. Debra’s dad was a hard worker who rarely took vacation. She doesn’t remember family vacations but she remembers camping with her grandmother Dealia and Popo Joe. They headed out to camp on weekends and it was from them that she says she got her “love of vintage campers and the smell of birch wood.” Fishing was always the center of their camping trips and Debra says she comes from, “a long line of women who like to fish.” She naturally fell into fishing and still fishes today. They were happy times and created lifelong memories that Debra treasures.
A favorite fishing hole of Debra’s! You know how fishermen are – she won’t tell me where it is!
After high school she moved to Alaska to help her aunt open a restaurant in Eagle River. She ended up living there for eight years. Debra fell in love with the wild beauty of the state and her fishing heritage had a continual outlet. It was there that she met her husband Ordell. After they married, Debra and Ordell moved to his home state of Idaho to care for his sick father. They lived in Mackay on the Big Lost River, 100 miles from the nearest town. Debra says it’s her “favorite place in the world.” She worked for the Fish Hatchery and then the Lost River Forest Service on the timber crew as a lumber jack and fire fighter. When working as a lumber jack she lived in the forest at “camp” with the crew. They got up in the morning, donned their gear and drove to where they would be cutting, passing herds of elk along the way. From there they would hike to the cut site carrying their pack, gas and saws. Needless to say she was in great physical shape and loved her work. Debra and Ordell also raised Appaloosa horses and enjoyed all the outdoor activities that life in Idaho has to offer.
Debra’s grandmother Dealia hams it up with her father and mother on a family camping trip.
In September of 1992 Debra’s husband was diagnosed with the same cancer that took his father’s life. It was a tough diagnosis to hear because they knew the prognosis was not a good one. Sadly, he died the following March leaving Debra a widow at only 37 years old. With that loss came the loss of so many dreams- of children, of growing old together, of happily ever after. Thoughts of her grandmother flooded back in – her ‘get up and soldier on’ attitude kept reviving her spirit. She recognized her love coming back to remind her that life, while sometimes very hard, is good! She stayed in Idaho enjoying the Big Lost River area for another eight years. She took that hope and rebuilt a new and happy life. However, she missed her mom and dad and only brother who now all lived together in Georgia. The family, ever close, visited each other often and spoke frequently. When Debra needed surgery for a back injury, her retired parents moved temporarily to Idaho to help out with what was expected to be a long recovery. During that surgery the doctors discovered ovarian cancer that might otherwise have gone undetected. She underwent a hysterectomy and cancer treatment. As bad as things seemed Debra was happy to have the family all together again. When Debra was well enough to not need their daily help, and they returned to their life in Georgia, she made up her mind to live near the people she loved the most. She packed up and moved to Georgia. She had lost Dealia and Popo in her twenties and she just wanted to be near her family for however long she would have them. It was a good move. Debra and her mom were more like sisters and they had nine fun years together before Jo was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. The roles were reversed now and Debra had her parents move in with her. The doctors thought her mom had 2 weeks to 2 months to live but with the exceptional care of Debra, Gary and their dad she lived another full year.
Debra’s close knit family created a lifetime of fish tales and laughter.
While Debra was caring for her mom she knew she needed to find something to keep her going, in the moment and afterwards. She says, “one day while sitting at my desk I started looking on Ebay and there she was…a 1963 Shasta Compact with wings. It was like a sign from God. A little tin can angel. Something came over me and before I knew it I was bidding on this little thing. I was bidding money I didn’t have and had no idea where I was going to get it, but I knew I needed something happy in my life and this was it!” Initially she lost the bid but the seller contacted her an hour later and said it was hers. She came up with the money and “from that day on she was my happy place. A place to go and sit when I thought I might not make it through another hour. The smell was enough to bring back those memories I so needed to hang on to and the coziness was like a warm hug.” She named her “Dealia Jo” for her grandmother and mother and in her warm birch interior created her own little fishing cottage. She says it was “a place to honor my grandmother and my mom. A place to always have them with me.”
Debra’s favorite hymn from childhood reminds her of her favorite family fishing days.
A few years later Debra found out about Sisters on the Fly, a women’s fishing group whose members traveled around fishing while towing vintage trailers behind them. Eureka! She knew how to fish and she had the trailer. There was an obstacle though. This woman who fought forest fires in Idaho and lived in a lumberjack camp was afraid to tow. “I think the biggest obstacle I had to overcome was towing. I was so scared, but, after a few trips it was no big deal. I then conquered backing up. I discovered there is always someone there to help you. Now I do it myself and help others to do it too. Sisters are like that.” Debra camps all over Georgia and hosts an annual Sister on the Fly event there, but it was her dream to take her trailer to Texas and attend the Round Top Antiques week. Another sister traveled part of the 900 mile one-way trip with her, but Debra finished the trip by herself. She made the return trip alone stopping along the way and having a wonderful time. “When that trip was over I felt like I could conquer the world. I had never felt comfortable traveling alone. Could get lost in my own driveway but this trip changed my life. I cannot explain it. I hope to do it again this year.”
Debra in a photo taken on her 1800 mile solo trip to Texas that changed her life!
Debra has since purchased a reproduction Shasta trailer and uses it for longer trips but she will never get rid of “Dealia Jo”. “She was my first and will always be my favorite. Probably not worth much to anyone else but no amount of money could buy her from me.” One of Debra’s favorite songs is, “Shall We Gather by the River?” She had the title painted on the back of her trailer and says, “Sometimes when I’m sitting on a river or lake…I know I feel Dealia and Jo there with me. I know they would be proud to see me out enjoying my life and hanging with other likeminded women. They were two of the strongest women I have ever known. They would have made great girl campers!”
The interior of Debra’s Dealia Jo trailer pays homage to her strong fishing roots.