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Ann Quackenbush Sutton Berkery

Courtesy Photo

Ann Quackenbush Sutton Berkery


Ann Quackenbush Sutton Berkery: 1944-2010

Summer Solstice Celebrant


Growing up in the ‘50s in Ontario, California, my mom, Ann, had a classic American childhood on a gracious tree-shaded street, surrounded by citrus groves where now there are housing tracts and strip malls. Her father, David, was an architect who designed the house she grew up in and also built and restored furniture. Her mother, Trudy, was the art and P.E. teacher at the local high school. Mom and her older brother, Peter, had many other kids to play with, and family friends, some who remained close for life, in their neighborhood. (I never met my Grandpa David, unfortunately, as he died of a sudden heart attack when little Ann was only 11.)

She began baton twirling at a young age, and throughout high school marched and twirled in countless parades and sporting events. Always a spirited soul with a love for the outdoors, she was a Girl Scout and camped, hiked, swam, and rode horses with her friends. She was also a gifted artist, excelling at drawing, painting, and ceramics. She loved to dance.

When she married my much-older father, who lived a bohemian life aboard his boat in Long Beach, and had me at age 22, it understandably caused my grandmother fits. Given my mom’s rebellious streak, this was okay with her. Also understandably, the marriage didn’t last much past my sixth birthday.

Raising me as a single mom for the next several years, she continued to display that spark of a free spirit—surprising me with a drive up into the mountains to play in the snow after school one winter day, taking me to see and the original cast production of “A Chorus Line” and the King Tut exhibit in L.A.—parent-approved ditching on a school day! She said it was educational. And I loved that she would do that. She didn’t buy junk food, did crafts projects with me, and wore an armful of silver bangle bracelets that jingled, letting me find her when we got separated in stores and such. When she suspected I was faking being sick just to stay home from school, which I often was, she would unplug the TV and take it with her to work so I couldn’t lie on the couch watching it all day. I didn’t love that. But I see the merit of it now.

When I was 12, she married my wonderful step-dad, Emmet, and they had a pre-honeymoon weekend at the Miramar. I recently saw the hotel brochure, menu, and “What to Do in Santa Barbara” booklet from that trip. Oh my, how things have changed since 1979! The following year, we moved into our house in Santa Ana’s historic Floral Park neighborhood and my little sister, Erin, was born.

This phase of my mom’s life was much more suburban, as she cut her long hair sensibly short and drove a station wagon to PTA meetings, soccer practice and dance lessons. She settled into this life happily, along with her career as a civil engineering drafter. She loved working in her garden and making improvements on the house over the years. Along the way, she and Emmet took up kayaking and went on many paddling trips with their club.

When we went to visit UCSB as a prospective college for me, I fell in love with it and don’t even remember if I got accepted anywhere else. After college, I continued to live in Santa Barbara. Several years after I had discovered the Summer Solstice parade and become a devotee, she came for Solstice weekend to see what it was all about. And voila! The free spirit in her came alive again. We hit the de rigueur pre-party at the home of a dear friend—her place was named Daisy Lu. This involved drinking liberally before noon, painting our faces (and other exposed body parts) and anointing ourselves with glitter. Then we got to the actual parade! The joy and wonder and just plain happiness on her face shone like the rays of the sun. As we oohed and aahed over every glorious sight, then boogied up the street after the last float on our way to the park for more festivities, I felt a wondrous shift in our relationship. I was offering something new—and educational—to her, and we were enjoying it together as grown-ups. It was the start of a fantastic new chapter in our enjoyment of each other.

It became our yearly and much-loved tradition to enjoy Solstice together in this way. I found that my mom was not shy about showing some skin when it came to putting together festive Solstice attire, like her legendary black-and-white checked ringmaster coat, held together with one button at the front center, and worn with nothing underneath. Hot Momma! She also began to bring her old baton, adorned with feathers, and to twirl it just for fun. I saw that side of her come out more—the performer who likes the attention of the crowd. And the twinkle in her eye shone brighter.

In March 2008, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Having gotten safely clear of breast cancer in 2001 with only a lumpectomy and radiation, she cried when she gave me the news that March afternoon. I remember clearly standing in the parking lot of my work talking to her, still somewhat hungover from a rollicking St. Patrick’s Day party at Daisy Lu, site of so much Solstice fun. It was one of the rare occasions I heard her sound scared or sorry for herself over the next two-plus years. She said that after all the horror stories she’d heard from her breast cancer support group sisters (the Boob Group, as they called it) she was afraid of the chemo more than the cancer.

After that, she moved forward into treatment with great optimism, telling me she just hoped they didn’t schedule her surgery too close to Solstice, because there was no way she was missing it. Her voice was jubilant when she called in April to tell me it was planned for mid-May, giving her an entire month to recover. She came up on the train that year with a borrowed wheelchair, and we got to sit in the VIP section! We also spontaneously jumped in toward the end of the parade and had a fabulous time, me wheeling her up State Street, waving to the crowd.

For the next two years, she fought that fershlugginger cancer with every ounce of courage and optimism and guts and humor she had. She tried many different chemos, and each time one failed to work, she said, “Next!” Luckily, most of them did not cause her to feel terribly sick or weak. In December, she retired from the City of Long Beach Gas Department after 15 years of service, and enjoyed her life of leisure. She joined two support groups for those with all types of cancer, and there made more bosom buddies, so to speak. She did lose her hair, and when it started to get too wispy and spare, had it all buzzed off close, rocking the look with eye makeup and big earrings.

Last year at Solstice, she was feeling pretty well, and we engaged in our usual festivities, followed by our traditional ocean dip the next morning at Miramar Beach and lunch at the Nugget. With her positive attitude, and the fact that she had made it well over a year past diagnosis, it was easy to believe everything was going to be okay.

On Christmas night, she began to have abdominal pains which lasted for several weeks as doctors tried to find the cause. She was admitted into the hospital twice in January, and the second time was told it was a partial bowel obstruction and that she probably had six months to live. Not only that, but she would have to take all her nutrition by I.V. and have a drainage tube in her stomach from that point on.

This was devastating to our family, as it began to sink in for all of us that she was likely not going to survive this battle that she had so courageously fought for so long. But she was not willing to give up yet, and got a second, more optimistic, opinion. She gradually began to eat small amounts of food and within a couple of months, was able to completely go off the I.V. Her goal was to have the stomach tube removed and go back to eating and digesting normally. The next chemo, determined to be the best option by a special biopsy procedure, seemed to be working well, her CA-125 numbers dropping drastically. We were so encouraged. But it turned out to be false good news, as the next set of scans showed new tumors and considerable growth of the existing ones.

For a couple of years, I had been thinking about wanting to be in the parade again, feeling a bit restless watching from the sidelines. The last time had been 1996, when I was Glinda the Good Witch in the Wizard of Oz ensemble—so much fun! But of course I couldn’t leave mom on her own on the sidelines, and certainly not with her health in the state it was in, so I started to think, “We should be in it together.” I envisioned joining an ensemble that would work with us on making sure she had a comfortable place to sit on the float, and that I, with knee problems of my own, would have someplace to rest when I needed to.

After putting out a few feelers in this direction and coming up empty, around mid-May I decided to jump in with both feet: If it was going to work the way I envisioned, I needed to head my own ensemble. I knew it was most likely to be her last Solstice, and I wanted to give her that peak life experience of riding at the front of her own float in the parade. She liked the idea when I proposed it, but was reserved in her enthusiasm. She and I both knew there was a good chance she wasn’t going to be in any shape for it when the time came.

The parade theme this year was “Carnival,” and I envisioned a colorful old-time gypsy carnival with a circus caravan for a float. As my performance persona is Queen Justine, I dubbed my ensemble, “Her Majesty’s Secret Circus.”

Suddenly, much of my free time was consumed with the Solstice workshop—evenings after work, weekends, power tools, plywood, paintbrushes. And trying to recruit people to be in it! I was so worried I wouldn’t have enough people to push the caravan, let alone frolic around and fill in the gaps. And then, a wondrous texture was added to my group when the accordion players who join in the parade each year, sometimes on their own, sometimes with another group, let me know they were interested in joining me. Accordions for a gypsy carnival? Mais oui! Things seemed to solidify at that point, and from then on, gypsies joined my carnival clan from the most unexpected channels—but that’s a story for another day.

While immersing myself in this effort, I was also keeping in close touch with my mom and getting reports from my sister. She told me one day, “Mom is so proud of you for doing this, and she wants you to be proud of yourself.”

I drove down to Orange County to see her whenever I could. Memorial Day she and I drove down to Laguna Beach, where her family had rented a cottage each year during summer vacation, her favorite place. We walked on the beach and dipped our toes in the ocean. Getting back up the stairs from the beach was a long and difficult process and she had to throw up when we got to the top, but she told me later it was worth it.

One weekend in June when she was back in the hospital, I was torn between being with her and working on the float that was for her. I called and said I thought I should be there and she said, “No, you need to be working on your float and getting ready for Solstice.”

As she became increasingly plagued by nausea caused by the blockages, she was unable to even sit upright and was only able to be somewhat comfortable lying down. The last week before the parade, she was in the hospital again. But she told me she was so happy I was doing this and that she would see photos. I did go to visit her the last weekend before the parade, and she gave me her ringmaster coat and the top hat she had gotten for this year. I proudly wore her hat, and a young man I knew at the workshop happily took her coat to wear in another ensemble. She was glad to know her clothes would still be in the parade, even without her.

Two days after the parade, my mom came home from the hospital with hospice services. They told us she could go at any time. I went down and spent six days with her and my family, bringing images from the parade. She loved looking at them on a digital photo frame. I also brought one of the horse heads made by Solstice mask maker Edwin Shaw for the pair of circus ponies who pulled our wagon. She exclaimed over how beautiful it was, touching the long curly mane and the feather plume. This was really the last coherent conversation we had. And it was a good one.

She was pretty stable by Tuesday, July 6, so I came back home and to work, planning to be back down Friday evening if not sooner. Friday afternoon my sister called me around 4:00 and said, “I wouldn’t wait until later if I were you. Come now.” I got in my car straight from work and just drove. When I got there she was still with us, but not really conscious of much. When I sat down next to her bed and took her hand, though, she squeezed it. And throughout the weekend we were all there with her. She was someone who loved life so much I think she didn’t want to let go of it.

Not until late Sunday afternoon, the 11th, did she let go and cross over. She was surrounded by loved ones and as hard as it is to get my mind around the fact that she is no longer living in the world with us, I am proud and glad for the way we sent her off.

I think that all along she knew on some level that she wasn’t going to make it to Solstice this year. But that was okay with her. What gave me comfort was that she had told me months before that she was not afraid to die—she was happy with the life she’d lived, and while she wished she could stick around longer, she was content and had no regrets. What more could anyone ask?

I want to thank everyone who worked on and participated in my ensemble—and to everyone who saw the parade—for making it possible to bring to life the beautiful Solstice ensemble that made my mom so proud and happy. In a way, it feels like it was her way of pushing me out of the nest to fly on my own. And she was my muse.

I love you, Momma.

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