Babe’s Lesson: How To Be a Good Guest (and Get Invited Back!)

Today is Mother’s Day.  Now that I’ve been a motherless daughter for 3 years, and a grandmother for 8 years, I’m thinking about lessons I learned from my mom, how she  passed them on to me, and how I might successfully pass them on to the many children in my life.


I realize now that the lessons that stuck with me, as fiercely as if they’d been velcroed on, weren’t what was said, but what I witnessed and observed over time, first-hand at home. 


It would have been out of character for my Mom, who was called Babe, to say, “I’m role-modeling the behavior I expect of my children.”  But that’s pretty much what she did. 


 I’m thinking of one lesson in particular, a social nicety that really stuck-- never show up empty-handed.  Even if the host says, “Oh, just bring yourselves.  We’ve got it covered.” I learned from watching Babe, and my dad, that you always bring something to welcome yourself into someone’s home, to show your appreciation. 


I’m pretty sure Babe never said this gentle etiquette lesson in so many words.  She didn’t need to because over the years I had observed her behavior.  When she and dad were preparing to go out, to visit someone—for dinner, to play cards, a sick visit—they always brought a few goodies.  When I was a child, my parents were middle-class, so the goodies were 1950s modest but still thoughtful. 


Even if she’d been a wine-drinker, which she wasn’t (Scotch and soda was her go-to drink), she would never have recycled to someone’s home a bottle of mediocre wine that had been brought to our house.  And by the way, how did one sad bottle of wine that gets passed from house to house start qualifying as a hostess gift these days?  Babe would’ve been puzzled by this recent practice of ultra-convenience.  Not to be too picky here, but not so long ago a acquaintance in the neighborhood arrived for dinner, and brought a half-quart of ice cream that was half-eaten.  True, she didn’t show up empty-handed, but how did that ice cream, complete with nasty little spoon marks dug in it, pass as a thoughtful gift for the hosts?


Babe favored bringing something she’d made—maybe her clam dip, which was everyone’s favorite, and flowers, fresh flowers, and sometimes a box of special candy from our favorite store in Seattle.


I learned always error on the side of generosity.   Not lavish, look-at-me generosity, but friendly, thoughtful generosity.  And I think just maybe I’m succeeding in passing Babe’s lesson on to the next generation, or at least it’s getting noticed.  Because recently when I was visiting my grandchildren, one of them yelled out, “Jo always brings stuff!”  Right.  And maybe they will, too, when they grow up.


 Jo with the next generation, Walker Giese

Jo with the next generation, Walker Giese

Ditch the Grief Group and Go Hiking

This article was first published on April 2016.


Jo Giese, 2004, Sycamore Canyon Valley, Ventura, California

When my former husband died in 2004, a hospice counselor suggested I join her young spouses grief group. (I was flattered that, at 57, I still qualified as “young.”) One evening about a dozen grievers gathered around a conference table in an office in West Los Angeles. The large windows let in the gloom of pitch black night as we took turns telling our sad stories. An Asian man, still formally dressed in business clothes, black suit, white shirt, tie, said that after work he locked the door to his apartment, and cried. The only time he didn’t cry was when he was playing in a band, because “I can’t cry and play the sax at the same time.” Someone mentioned losing a favorite neighbor. And someone else a second cousin. Not to be too picky, but where were all the other young spouses? To me, who was new to grief, it didn’t seem like a level grieving field.

“Everyone’s grief is the worst,” said the therapist as she opened the session.


If that first group experience hadn’t been helpful, why did I try another? Because I couldn’t stop crying, and it felt like an icy cold draft was blowing in my chest, as if I’d had open heart surgery and the surgeon hadn’t closed up. The second bereavement group was at Agape, a trans-denominational spiritual center where thousands of congregants and a one-hundred-plus gospel choir met in a warehouse in an industrial area of Culver City. I persuaded a friend who had lost his wife to go with me. Tom, who was still so angry that his beautiful wife had died, had insisted once that I sit through an entire slide show of every one of their gorgeous wedding photos. During the three years he’d cared for his forty-four year-old wife as she’d battled a brain tumor, he’d let his business, designing museum exhibitions, slide; eventually, he let his staff of eighteen go; just the previous month, he’d closed his office. He mumbled about rebuilding his business — he had medical bills to pay, but stuck in grief limbo, he asked, “What for? What’s the point?”

On our way to Culver City, he said, “The question is if talking about grief in a group is healing, or leads to healing?”

“We’ll find out,” I shrugged.

We arrived early, and while Tom wandered off to the taco truck, I sat, dazed, at a picnic table that had been set up in the parking lot. A twenty-something woman wearing a pretty cotton sundress was eating a tostada salad at the far end of the table on the opposite side. She asked me what I was there for.

I hesitated. It was going to be hard enough to reveal my story inside to the grief group after it started, but opening up out here in public, in the parking lot, to a stranger? But she kept looking at me. “I’m here for the bereavement group,” I said.

“Who’d you lose?” she asked.

In the bright California Sunday sunshine, I could not believe someone was prying like this. She stared at me, waiting. Finally, and reluctantly, I revealed my loss. “My husband. We were together for seventeen years. He’s been gone for eight months.”

“I understand your loss,” she said.


“Two weeks ago my roommate’s hamster died.”

Just then Tom returned and he offered me a slice of his organic quesadilla.

“We gotta get out of here,” I whispered to him.

As I got up to leave, the woman said to me, “I hope you find your way back to joy today.”

When we were out of earshot, I told him about the hamster. “A hamster?” he said. “A hamster!”

“It wasn’t even her hamster. It was her roommate’s.”

Tom probably hadn’t laughed since Dale died four months earlier, but the hamster did the trick. It dug in and reached a raw deep place and split it wide open. “I wonder if she had a personal catharsis when she had to toss out the hamster food?” he said.

“I hear the hamster scrapbook was another trauma.” I said.

From then on my grief was pre-hamster and post-hamster. Post-hamster was when I turned the corner and realized I was probably going to be okay.

Ten years later, in 2014, when my mother, who was called Babe, died in May on Mother’s Day weekend, you can bet that I did not scout around for a bereavement group for motherless daughters, though I thought about it. Instead I laced up my boots, cinched on my fanny pack, and went hiking. With Ed.

Ed and I had been introduced via e-mail by a mutual friend. Alice wrote: What fun it would be if the two of you decided to have a meal or hike together sometime soon. Both of you have lost a spouse and both love the outdoors. So now I have made the introduction. You two take it from there. On our second date we hiked in the Santa Monica Mountains, and it was on that second date after we’d gone hiking, and we laid side by side on the double-wide turquoise chaise lounge on my deck, and after Ed had responded tremulously to my touch — I’d never felt a man tremble when I touched him — that we talked about marriage and our getting married (yes, this on our second date). Nine months later, we married on a rugged mountaintop at a nature preserve in the Santa Monica Mountains, and Babe, with her red walker — we called it her Ferrari — decorated with so many colorful flowers it looked like a moving bouquet, walked me down the dirt path which served as the “aisle.”

Babe Giese walking Jo Giese down the “aisle,” May 23, 2009

Ed had a cabin in Montana, so post-Babe that’s where we hiked. On high altitude trails with no cell reception where the trees smelled green and the air tasted fresh.

Scientists at the New York Academy of Sciences tell us that being outdoors — sometimes even looking at a picture of the outdoors — can make us smarter, can reduce stress, can be restorative, and can elevate our mood. As I velcroed a bear bell to the handle of my hiking stick, I wondered: can being in nature also make us less grief-stricken?

That summer we hiked the shady Hyalite trail to Grotto Falls with its spectacular vertical drop. If you’re extra careful you can balance on the slick stones down in the river bed, and on a hot day the powerful waterfall gives off a cool, refreshing spritz. Strolling past an alpine meadow filled with waist-high wildflowers, we hiked the strenuous (for us) Spanish Creek trail to Pioneer Falls where it scared me to death when we spotted three grizzlies just to the left of the trail. Ed had a new canister of bear spray, but still. With a guide we side-hilled on gravelly terrain up to a frightening ledge at Storm Castle, a peak we wouldn’t have been brave enough to summit by ourselves. On a top-of-the-world hike at Beehive Basin on our way up to the lake at 9,200 feet, we were forced to turn back because of a snow bank. A snow bank in July? And we slow-picnicked at Fairy Lake, a place so aptly named you wouldn’t be surprised to see gossamer fairies emerging from its pristine emerald waters. (When a friend saw my photo of Hyalite Reservoir with its perfect early morning mirror reflections, she accused me of photoshopping the picture. I told her, “You don’t need to photoshop Montana.”)

Hyalite Reservoir, Bozeman, Montana

On miles and miles of steep and rocky trails I did not think I am deliberately doing this — step after step (so many steps two toenails had already turned black) — to heal myself. I used to hike with a group in Big Sur that did a ritual before every hike. The Shinto ritual — clap-clap-bow! — is done in front of Shino temples in Japan. Before we took our first step onto a trailhead, we stopped and performed that ritual; it’s a deliberate call to attention that we were leaving civilization behind and crossing the threshold into wilderness. Without my Big Sur hiking buddies, I also did not do that prayerful ritual.

I never left for a hike without first thinking, I’d better call Mother first. After a lifetime of checking in with Mother every morning, how could it be otherwise? Out on the trail when a tear slipped down my cheek again, and I let out another long sorrowful sigh of “I miss my Mother!” it helped that Ed had known and liked Babe, too. The first time the three of us went out for dinner at a neighborhood restaurant, we had such a good time we closed the place down. When the big check eventually arrived, to our surprise we had no way to pay: Mom and I didn’t have our purses; Ed hadn’t brought his wallet. But that wasn’t the worst of it. After I signed an IOU, and promised, promised our waiter I’d return tomorrow to pay, we straggled, laughing, out to the parking lot, and that’s when the attendant asked Ed to point out his car, and he couldn’t figure out which of the four or five cars left was his.

“He can’t find his car?” laughed Babe. She’d been married to my father, the kind of handy guy who changed his own oil, and now her daughter was in love with a man who had been a fancy lawyer in Washington, D.C., but he forgets his wallet and can’t identify his car? Babe, who was 92 at the time, thought it was hilarious, and with a twinkle in her eye, never let Ed forget it.

“I can’t find it because I just bought it,” he said.

“It’s green, and we call it the Lovemobile,” I said, laughing.

That first summer post-Mom, I soothed myself in Montana’s green cathedrals. Hiking in the quiet of the woods was the balm that healed this daughter’s soul. Besides, Babe, who had loved visiting us in Montana, and who said, “Life is for the living!” wouldn’t have wanted me moping around inside in some grief group. Mother would have approved: Mother Nature as nurturer, as friend, as grief counselor.

Grotto Falls, Bozeman Montana

How This Journalist Renewed Her Sense Of Self While Helicopter-Hiking

This article first appeared April 2017 on Swaay:


I’m still glowing from having just returned from helicopter-hiking.  

To be dropped into a remote landscape and to hike to a hidden glacial waterfall is a heaven-on-earth experience. I’d already been heli-hiking for several days in New Zealand when I had the quintessential helicopter-hiking experience. Dion Mathewson, the pilot of the R40, the 4-passenger Robinson helicopter that he operates out of Cedar Lodge where we were staying, flew my guide and me into Boundary Creek. 

He swooped us down into a wild valley in the middle of nowhere, exactly like I’d imagined. With the propeller still whirling, he yelled that he’d be back about 4:30, in six hours.



The low valley floor was crisscrossed with rocky streams, and steep mountain ranges rose on all sides. We slogged through a swampy, muddy marshland toward the trickle of a waterfall we could barely see.  Since there are no predators in New Zealand, no bears and no snakes, no poison oak and no poison ivy, those weren’t the dangers we had to watch out for: Instead we had to be careful with each step–to lift your boot all the way up out of the muck, and then locate a safest spot to place it back down. This was mindful-hiking at its most extreme. Out in the middle of nowhere with no one around you don’t want to twist your ankle, or worse.  

The sight of the first graceful waterfall was worth wading through swampy marshland for a hour. “Just wait,“ said Ket, my guide. “The best is yet to come.” 

After inhaling that first waterfall, we headed back, and started fording the chunky creekbed.  Sometimes we were wading in freezing mountain water up to our knees.

For almost four hours we crossed the creekbed sixty plus times, and still we hadn’t heard or seen this next huge waterfall. I teased Ket that it didn’t exist.  Ket Hazledine, 57, and a world-class mountain climber—she intended to climb the Matterhorn in Switzerland in the summer— smiled, and kept charging, sure-footed, ahead.

Finally, we came around a corner and hidden by a mountain ridge–was the waterfall!  Ket called it “Spectacular,” and it was. To reach such a stunning sight, untouched in nature, unnamed on a map, is a once-in-a-lifetime hiking experience. And it was available only because we got helicoptered into a totally inaccessible valley. At the top of the 70’ vertical drop there was no viewing ledge with a protective guard rail with the obligatory caution sign for tourists, because there were no tourists. And at the edge of the glacial pond there was also no green and yellow government sign like at other tracks in New Zealand because the “Spectacular” waterfall is off the charts.

We positioned ourselves on rocks, wearing raincoats for protection against the spray, and just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, Ket produced a picnic lunch: a salad picked fresh from her garden, and, because I’d commented that I hadn’t been getting much shellfish in New Zealand, her husband, a fish exporter, contributed crayfish. Biting into the delicious sweet crayfish, in the spray of that waterfall—and I know this will sound corny– but I felt, I’ve died and gone to heaven.

Because we’d arrived by helicopter, we didn’t have to trudge all the way back. We could lay down and relax until the helicopter came for us.

It was my best day in nature—ever, and it caused me to question why when I take out my passport I’m most likely to travel to places in nature. Whether it’s trekking in Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia, struggling across the Nature Walk marshland in Bhutan, or hiking in the mid-Atlas Mountains in Morocco, why am I also always lacing up my hiking boots, strapping on my fanny pack, and grabbing a water bottle?

I suspect it’s because I grew up on Lake Washington in Seattle. It was around that gorgeous evergreen lake where stately evergreens grow down to its shoreline that I first started walking in nature, though I wouldn’t have put it that way when I was five years old.

Back when kids could wander out safely by themselves, I’d leave early, carefully cross Lake Washington Boulevard, meander over to the swing sets–take a pump or two–and then I’d leave the public playground and enter my very favorite private place–the walking path in the forest that led up to the middle of the peninsula. That path, always unpopulated by other people, was my hidden, secret place. I still remember the green, musty smell and the spongy softness of the footpath.

My parents and I certainly never thought little Jo Ann is getting smarter by spending her days out in nature, but recent scientific studies prove that getting outside not only does people good but makes them smarter. In an experiment at the University of Michigan, participants took memory and attention tests after strolling in a botanical garden and along city streets. The nature walk improved their results as much as 20 percent, while the sidewalk version had no effect. The research found that even looking at nature imagery had a positive effect on concentration. But we know that’s not nearly as much fun.  And many of us are familiar with that well-publicized study where patients recovering from surgery were facing a brick wall versus recovering in rooms overlooking trees. The patients confronted with an expanse of brick requested narcotics at a higher rate, complained more, and spent longer in recovery than those with the leafy vista.

My next travel adventure? Hiking the glaciers in Iceland with a favorite grandson.

When you arrive home to find a bear in the house

A different version of this article first appeared in Montana Outdoors 

Our place in Montana is called Little Bear Ranch.  The name is a joke because the place isn’t really a ranch, and the bear in the kitchen wasn’t so little.

My husband, Ed, and I had gone out for a morning hike, grabbed a quick lunch, and picked up a few things at the Safeway.  Coming back into the house, I’m carrying too many plastic grocery bags, and they’re just about to slip out of my arms.  So, I wasn’t looking into the kitchen at the end of the hall.  When I finally glance up, I am eye-to eye with a bear--a black bear, standing about eight feet away in our kitchen.

I read somewhere that a bear inside your house seems as tall as a skyscraper, and that’s about right. 

Ed, who was following me into the house, says I yelled, “Bear!”  

Before the kitchen, off the hallway on the right, is a laundry room, and I duck in there, dump the packages on the washer, and slide the two pocket doors close.  Those flimsy doors are a screen to hide the laundry, not anything sturdy enough to keep out a bear.

Ed yells that he’s going around to the front to let the bear out.  Apparently, he’d caught a glimpse of it moving away from the kitchen.

In the laundry room, I get out my cell phone to call 911, but my hands are shaking so much I can’t dial.  It wouldn’t have mattered: I was so scared I’d forgotten the cell doesn’t work at the house.

Ed yells that I should come out to the garage; we’ll go get help.

How am I supposed to make a run for the garage?   To escape, I have to slide apart the rickety pocket doors, but what if the bear, or bears—the previous summer we’d had three on the property--are waiting in the hall?  (Last summer the bears had left paw prints on the windows, but they never ventured inside.)  Even though I’m the most scared I’ve ever been, I separate the doors, and since I don’t see a bear, I run for my life to the garage.

 Bear paw prints

Bear paw prints

People ask if we have guns.  This is Montana.  Although all the neighbors on our mountain have guns and ammo, we do not.  But what difference would it have made? If we had a gun, it wouldn’t have been stored in the garage or the laundry room.

            In the car Ed explains that when he got to the front door, he realized maybe opening the door, and coming face-to-face with the bear, or bears, wasn’t such a good plan.

He pulls out of the garage, and just to the left of the front door is a large picture window, and standing in the window is--the bear.

“He’s waving,” says Ed.  “He’s saying, ‘Look at me!  Look, who’s in charge now.’”


We head down the mountain to the fire station to get help, and I desperately dial 911.  The operator connects me with Fish and Wildlife, and although they don’t have a warden in the immediate area, they can get someone to us in about 45 minutes.

At the foot of the mountain, about a mile away, volunteers are high up on ladders painting the exterior of the firehouse.  Ed and I rush out, and yell up, asking if anyone has experience with bears.  These are Montana macho-cowboy guys, and, of course, all three say they know about bears.  If they didn’t, they wouldn’t admit it, right?

They hop into their trucks and follow us home.  The volunteers throw open all the doors and search the house. No one saw the bear exit, but it’s gone.  We thank them profusely.

The two wardens from Fish and Wildlife arrive ahead of schedule. “Are you armed?” is the first question they ask.

The wardens, friendly, young, attractive, and armed, walk through the house, which now stinks of a ugly musky bear smell.  

 “You can get rid of that nasty smell with Fabreze,” one of the wardens advises.

 Bear Wardens

Bear Wardens

The wardens piece together the story.  The bear entered through the window above the kitchen sink, which I’d cranked open a few inches for ventilation. The bear, it’s been determined that it was one bear, was attracted to the food on the kitchen counter:  it nibbled on the small hunk of parmesan cheese, ate the 3 bagels, but left the Finnish crackers in the cellophane wrapper untouched.  This bear was a dainty eater, and a graceful entry artist—he didn’t break any of the glasses in the kitchen sink. 

The kitchen window is high, about shoulder-height off the deck.  “Bears are acrobats,” explains the woman warden. “They can crawl up and into anything.” 

In the windowseat area next to the kitchen there’s pee on the floor, and bite marks deep into the green leather upholstery.  There’s bear scat in the dining room.  In the living room he clawed deep angry scratches in the wooden floor.  We’re told that’s a good sign: this indicates he was trying to get out, and he wasn’t a proprietary bear that wanted to stay.  Trying to exit, he also tore off every screen from every window.

 Bear scat

Bear scat

In Ed’s study, the bear bit a row of deep tooth marks in the windowsill, and that’s also where he climbed up over the electronic keyboard and stood in the window and watched us drive away to get help.

 Bite marks

Bite marks

The wardens walk the exterior and pronounce the place, “clean.”  We don’t have a outdoor barbeque, or garbage cans that are bear-attractive.  Their only suggestion is that we get rid of the choke cherry bushes, which bears love. 

The woman warden gives me her business card, and tells me to call her personal cell number when the bear returns.

“The bear will return?” I ask, shocked.

“Since the bear found food here, it will come back.” 

They tell us the best strategy to scare the bear off is to bang pots and pans.  They don’t like the noise.  Pots and pans?  That’s our dinky defense against a bear?

Ed, who has had this house for 14 years, is nonchalant.  He never had a bear visitation inside, and he doesn’t believe the bear will return.

About a hour later, I’m in the kitchen, standing at the stove, where I have a clear view of the front door, which has glass panels on each side.  The bear—our bear--is standing in the glass panel on the left, almost as if he’s about to ring the doorbell.

I yell for Ed, and while I keep the bear in sight, I call the warden, who I’m now referring to as the bear warden.  To my relief, I’m not put on hold, no Muzak at a scary moment like this; she answers immediately, and says they’ll send out a trap, and remove the bear to a new territory, about 100 miles away.

A metal cylinder is hauled into our driveway, and the trap door is baited with fermentedfruit.  We go to bed with every window closed and locked because we’ve learned bears can easily climb up the logs to our bedroom on the second floor.

If the bear had been trapped during the night, we figure we would have heard a ruckus--the loud clanging of the heavy trap door slamming shut.  We heard nothing.  The next morning I tiptoe downstairs, out to the garage where a small window looks onto the cylinder.  The trapdoor is shut!  Is our bear inside?

I call our bear warden, and with the warden on the phone, I cautiously approach the cylinder.  The bear, looking smaller and meek and miserable, stares out at me through the bars. 

 Bear captured

Bear captured

Another warden arrives quickly to take our bear away—a adolescent bear, about two years old.  (At every stage, we are totally impressed by the super-quick response of Montana’s Fish and Wildlife wardens.)  This warden tells us how lucky we are.  The next house he’s going to wasn’t so fortunate:  In Big Sky the homeowners had gone to Bozeman for dinner, and the bear was trapped in the house for 12 hours.  It rampaged the house, tore it to pieces.  Luckily, we were only gone for a few hours.


Recently we remodeled our house.  (Yes, we kept the windowsill with the bear bites.) A friend asked what we were going to name it.  Ours is hardly one of those iconic Montana spreads with acreage, cattle, and a entrance archway that requires a name.  “It deserves a name,” insisted our friend.

“Little Bear Ranch,” said Ed.

 The name of our house

The name of our house

The following year we discover Robert McCauley, a artist who specializes in painting bears.  In many of his paintings he includes a microphone because, as he says, “I want to communicate with bears.  To hear what they’re saying.”  A McCauley painting resides in our front entryway.

 Painting by  Robert McCauley

Painting by Robert McCauley

A Woman's Path: Deborah Doane Dempsey, Marine Bar Pilot

I've always loved the water and messin' about in boats. I was raised in Essex, Connecticut, at the mouth of the Connecticut River. It's an active sailing community, a place where everybody boats. From the time I was ten and my sister, Linda, was thirteen, we'd take off for weekends-sailing a thirteen-and-a-half-foot Blue Jay and camping along the banks. Once we were headed for Martha's Vineyard on a twenty-seven-foot Tartan. There was fog, eight- to ten-foot ocean swells, and we ran off our chart. All we had left to use was a Texaco road map. And I guarantee that a road map doesn't show much of Rhode Island Sound. We pulled into Vineyard Haven after dark. That was cool! We did that! 

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Truth Like the Sun

AFTER MY GRANDMOTHER DIED in 1962, my mom blew her entire inheritance on a red Ford Sunliner convertible. She drove my brother, my baby sister, and my 15-year-old, bikini-clad, sun-seeking self, all the way from Houston to Seattle to visit her mother’s grave, and — ta dah! — to see the Seattle World’s Fair.

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Mom's Place

When I was young, maybe seven or eight, my girls’ club made terrycloth covers, with dog faces, that fit over bars of Ivory soap. When we distributed them to a nursing home, the residents’ naked neediness as they reached out for their silly hand-made gifts – their scrawny outstretched arms demanding that their little visitors enter their rooms and stay awhile – haunted me for the next five decades.

My ensuing aversion – dare I call it what it was? repulsion – to the elderly was ironic because as a child I’d shared a bedroom with my grandmother, the person after whom I was named – Josephine, Jo – and the person I loved best.

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Lessons From Babe

One day Babe and I were discussing why some people we knew were so unhappy and cranky. I asked her, “Why do you think I turned out so happy?”

“Because you take after me,” she said.

That’s when the idea of Lessons from Babe was born.

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