Sally’s Life of Ups and Downs

November 4, 2020

Sally Hamel is, in her words, “an Eastern snob!” She was born in the middle of New York City on May 27, 1943 and was deprived of her father before she was a year old. He joined up as a geriatric private (32 years old) to help finish WWII, so that “we’d never have to do it again” (the contents of one of his daily letters from the front to his beloved wife). Sally was raised in privileged Westchester county by her mom, 2 sets of grandparents, godparents, and a good amateur photographer who documented her first five years. Her early childhood involved a lot of changes including a baby sister, and a move to an old town on the coast in Southern Connecticut.


During her early education, she was considered a sort of prodigy as soon as she entered the Guilford school system. Her school decided to skip her from the second grade into the third grade in the middle of the school year. This made her the smartest kid in the class, but Sally recalls that this change made her immature when compared to the other kids. This affected her all the way through school, and college at the Ivy League women’s college she attended. When she entered college she was humbled by the brightness of the other students, but she became an art history major and a year away from graduation she was able to catch up in age with her other classmates. Sally regretfully made a lot of life mistakes during this time of her life and she believes this immaturity played a role in this.


Sally recalls that during this challenging time in her life she went on a trip to Germany, where she “flunked Europe” and came home pregnant. In 1964, a middle-class girl was supposed to disappear in such a horrifying situation, and her mom made sure she did by finding her an “au pair” position in an upscale Greenwich County, Connecticut town. Sally’s son was given up for adoption, and that fall she entered graduate school to get a M.A.T. in Secondary School Education. It was a 2-year program and she finally got A’s! With her degree, she taught a whole year and a half, started skiing in Northern Vermont, and decided to try out the powder snow in the Rocky Mountains instead of teaching.


To get to these mountains, Sally volunteered to drop off her baby sister at the University of Utah to let her sister follow her dance ambitions. Sally then visited some friends who had recently moved from New York to Seattle, Washington. After stopping at a couple of National Parks on her way, she drove into Seattle on a perfect Northwest fall day, and subsequently learned that it was more than perfect with no high heat, no humidity, and no mosquitoes, unlike the east coast!


She fell in love with the city, and after one disastrous romance, becoming broke, selling real estate when Boeing, then Seattle’s largest employer, had laid off 37,000 workers and you could pick up a house on any street corner, she ultimately fell into a fantastic job as radio talk show host. She was paid to talk to anyone she wanted and read all sorts of books and newspapers to keep current, both of which she loved to do and excelled at! Unfortunately, the station was short-lived due to several sad reasons, none of which was a programming problem, so, after only 20 months, she joined the other 41 employees in the unemployment line.

As Sally was sunning on her back porch and living quite well on unemployment, she was made aware of a tenant who was moving into the basement apartment next door. “He’s nothing but a playboy – got a girlfriend and a boat!” announced the man’s curmudgeon landlord. Sally soon found out that this girlfriend turned out to be this man’s soon to be ex-wife. Sally quickly became fascinated with the boat this man had. This fascination with the boat, and a desire to learn how to sail, led to Sally realizing that this man “was the nicest guy I ever met.” Less than two years after they met, John and Sally were married, and 43 years later have had 7 different sailboats, and a “ridiculously happy marriage and practically perfect life together!” With a few bumps along the way.


When Sally met him, John was working at a new electrical wholesale operation right down the road that already was quite successful. He eventually was sent to run a branch just north of Seattle, so Sally, John, and their new baby girl, Sarah, bought a house north of Seattle, in Lake Forest Park. They lived in that house for 39 years and it was the only home Sarah ever knew in the area. Sally reminiscences that it was a happy place in a friendly neighborhood where they hosted 33 years of annual Christmas parties, with “the real” Santa visiting as a regular guest.


When their daughter, Sarah, was 2, Sally joined with a group of “geriatric mothers” who founded the Seattle Children’s Museum. Sally became one of the museum’s first Exhibit Directors. Sally thoroughly enjoyed this job as she combined education and art into different designs. She left that job when the young director decided to leave and said she didn’t want to train another director. Also, that year Sally’s mother got cancer and died, making it a very difficult time in Sally’s life.


One morning in 1990, very early, Sally got a phone call asking, “Does the date 7-20-1965 mean anything to you?” Sally’s son had found her, 25 years after she had given birth to him, and this made her so happy! After a year of correspondence, Sally’s son and his wife flew from their home in New York City to Seattle to meet her, John, and Sarah. It was a very rewarding visit. Over the years Sally and her son have had a bit of an up and down relationship. However, she was among the first to be notified that his wife was pregnant with twins! Sally’s life had come full circle. Sally’s son was working on a PhD at the time and became a college professor. Sally recalls that she could write a book about the twins, one of whom is now in Patagonia, and the other has several strains of Lyme Disease which is very difficult to cure. This twin still lives with her parents, now in Connecticut, only one town away from Sally’s hometown!

John went on to run a couple of entrepreneurial ventures, some more successful than others. He did own a successful low-voltage electrical business (burglar and fire alarms, security systems and audio-video installations) for 17 years. At age 50, he wanted to retire and take their current (5th) boat up the Inside Passage to Alaska. He and Sally still loved sailing, and after all those years of exploring Puget Sound, and acquiring lots of fellow boaters as friends, they were ready to take their newfound freedom a step farther afield, while they could. Sally had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1995, but at that time it hadn’t had any effect except to make them go from a big boat to a smaller one so that John could control it singlehandedly.


When they got home from Alaska, they went on a 12,000-mile trip around the USA. The next spring John and several friends went on another trip up the Inside Passage. Sally flew to join him in Ketchikan, and John and his friends, happy but soaking wet due to Alaska’s notorious rains, flew back to Seattle. On one sailing trip, Sally and John went a bit farther north, part way up the inside of Baranof Island. Sally’s favorite memory of that trip was when a guy paddled up in a kayak with a huge salmon across his lap. He asked whether he might interest them in it, and they asked him to join them for dinner! They were in a new state, with a new friend, with new tales. Sally and John loved sailing and all the adventures that it brought into their lives.


One of Sally’s least favorite memories happened after these boating trips. John felt they should invest some of their money from the successful sale of the alarm company. They chose a magazine store in the Capital Hill area of Seattle. It was in a great location, but it was the wrong business to be in when print was rapidly going to online. They decided to start an online magazine business and they learned that one unique customer source is the huge U.S. prison population. He started where they helped customers send magazines to people in prison. This was showing signs of success, but it was too late to save the store. They ultimately had to file bankruptcy in 2010. Luckily, their good friend and boat partner was their lawyer and advised them to keep the house out of the bankruptcy. They managed to do that, and when they sold, they made a huge profit off the value of their home.

Sally recalls that life can be so good for one moment, and so nasty in another. Sally has definitely had her share of challenges, and one that she is still experiencing is her struggle with MS. “I call it Multiple Stupidity, because you never know when it will strike, and what it will strike. Sometimes the ‘exacerbation’ only lasts a few days, and sometimes it’s forever.” In 2004 Sally experienced a new leg weakness that still lingers and has caused her to use an electric cart for long “walks.” Now the other leg doesn’t work well for her either. When asked by doctors and doctor assistants how much she hurts, she answers, “It doesn’t hurt, it just pisses me off.” Crude language, but an honest assessment of how she feels. Sally was able to walk up until 2004, quite actively, up and down the hills of her neighborhood with her dog, until one day she almost couldn’t make it up the last hill. That was after their trips to Alaska. Now, Sally can’t get comfortable on a boat and needs a special configuration of the outside cockpit to even get on. Her greatest sorrow is not being able to sail any more. It has been hard to give up something so dear to her heart. Sally exclaimed that in some ways it helps to be in Utah, and not see Puget Sound and its joyous memories.


Sally and John found themselves in Utah because their daughter convinced them to move here. Sally’s daughter has been living in Utah since 2009 with her wife and daughter. Since Sally and John couldn’t sail anymore, and since they already knew family living in Utah, John and Sally decided to sell their beloved home in 2017. They thankfully received a large profit from it because of the rising home values in the Seattle area.


When they got to Utah, Sally and John checked out dozens of senior living group homes and finally chose one. They moved in and lived there for 18 months. Sally recalls that it was not a pleasant experience and they felt like they were hemorrhaging money by living there. They decided they needed to find a new place to live.


Simultaneous to this realization, a large article appeared in the newspaper about another concept called “active senior living”. They learned about Summit Vista, with 3 restaurants, art center, classroom, pickleball courts, putting green, long walks, 24-hour protection services, experienced EMTs, and most attractively, an indoor 24-hour swimming pool. They were sold and couldn’t wait to move in!


Before moving to Summit Vista, they rented an apartment. John learned to cook a few things, they still ate out a lot and enjoyed their independence while waiting for Summit Vista. They moved into Summit Vista at the end of August 2019, and, as they put it, “lived happily ever after.” Sally has learned the pool is a miracle. She claims that “My legs will do everything in there, and maybe that will translate into the air and gravity world!” They love living at Summit Vista and go swimming almost every day.


From Sally’s experiences it is easy to see that life goes up and life goes down. Even though there are ups and downs, Sally still enjoys life, and she explains that John is a big reason why. When I asked Sally to tell me what has helped her the most to get through her challenging experiences, Sally quickly answered, “My husband.” Sally reports that he is the most resilient person she knows. He is always fixing things, and now that Sally can’t do as much because of her legs and MS, he does much more housekeeping and helping around with little tasks. He basically never complains and is the nicest person Sally knows. She is so thankful for his resilience, love, and support which helps Sally to also be resilient. Together they are very satisfied with their lives, optimistic about the future, and can’t think of a better place to be during this COVID-19 pandemic.


Having the support of someone you trust can really make all the difference during challenging experiences. Those around us who love us can really help us be strong, stronger than we ever could be alone. Friendships and connections facilitate resilience, and you never know when your love and support can help someone you know be resilient!