I never met the late Camille Whiterabbit, but I wish I had after reading slices of her life on her daughter’s Facebook page.
Even Olympic gold medalist and skating commentator Scott Hamilton knew her, as I learned from Sharyn Whiterabbit’s post on Jan. 28. In the message, she wrote:
“The start of the Winter Olympics will begin in a few days. The Winter games were viewed non-stop by Mother especially all the ice skating competitions. Did you know one of the 1984 Olympic Gold Medal winners absolutely adored her? That young man who called her Grandmother was Scott Hamilton.”
Whiterabbit, a Ho-Chunk tribal member who lives in North Hudson, Wis., lost her mother to cancer on Nov. 1. She said she cared for her mother for seven years, and that the cancer diagnosis came just two weeks before her 88-year-old mother passed away.
She is sharing memories of her mother on Facebook as a way to deal with her grief.
“You just never know when you’re grieving, how it’s going to come out or when it’s going to come out,” Whiterabbit said. So she said she has chosen to take a healthy approach by writing about the interesting experiences she remembers from her mother’s life, and some lessons she learned from her and things she admired about her.
Her Facebook posts come at a time when the Ho-Chunk and Nebraska Winnebago (two tribes that come from the same people) and other tribes have experienced unexpected losses. It’s been a bitter winter for many northern tribes, and the harshness seems to be felt more deeply in times of mourning. The social media posts that reflect a daughter’s love for her mother, alive in the Spirit World, seem uplifting to me amid the sorrow.
Whiterabbit acknowledges that this way of dealing with one’s emotion is not for everyone. But she said she has been encouraged at the response she has gotten.
“The people that knew her, they just could relate to everything so well,” Whiterabbit said in a telephone interview this week. “Or they said they could hear her say” or “see her” doing the things written about in the posts, “or were amazed at some of the things that she did.”
Among some of her memories are: her mother performing cartwheels in the yard; teaching her granddaughter how to drive; decorating her home with artwork made by her family; being a spectator at the annual North Hudson Pepper Fest parade; watching performances of her favorite actor, Hugh Jackman; and cheering for her favorite professional football team, the Baltimore Ravens.
“It kind of really stretches your memory, going back to when you were a child and different stages of your life,” she said. “It’s not only good to remember, but it’s also a good exercise for yourself to bring that all out.”
Her writing made me want to learn more about her mother. I found out that Camille Whiterabbit grew up in Lancaster, Pa., and that she met her husband, the Rev. Mitchell Whiterabbit, when he came to speak in her hometown. The story goes that Camille’s mother sent Camille and one of her brothers to hear the young Navy chaplain speak, along with instructions to invite him over for dinner. The two quickly took a shine to each other and were married within about a year.
They eventually moved to the Black River Falls, Wis., area, where Mitchell Whiterabbit became pastor at the Winnebago Indian Mission.
Sharyn Whiterabbit said her mother called the Indian Mission “heaven on earth.” She said she loved the people there.
According to her mother’s obituary, Camille Whiterabbit was an avid gardener and canned much of the produce that she served to her family and frequent visitors. “She was an excellent baker, especially her homemade rolls and cookies. She was a gourmet cook and loved to prepare everyone’s favorite dishes.” Her great granddaughter, Jae Helene, voted her “best cook hands down.”
In 1980, the elder Whiterabbits moved to Colorado to support their granddaughter Sharyn’s “competitive ice skating.” According to the obituary:
“Camille and Mitchell created, produced, and sold skating bears all over the world and held a U.S. patent to the skating bears. Camille also cooked at the Colorado Ice Arena for world-class figure skaters and Olympic Gold Medal champions. On the days that Camille made Indian frybread, coaches allowed their skaters only one frybread – much to their disappointment.”
I thought about that last night as I listened to Hamilton’s commentary on the ice skating pairs competition at the Sochi Winter Olympics. I wondered if Hamilton ever tasted Camille Whiterabbit’s frybread. I’m told that Hamilton and Sharyn Whiterabbit’s niece had the same skating coach.
Sharyn Whiterabbit said she doesn’t know how long she will continue making the memorial posts about her mother. She began on Jan. 2, the day that her mother would have turned 89. Before she started, she had written down “almost a couple hundred things” about her mother.
“I think it’s nice to share good stories, just a few lines here and there,” Whiterabbit said. “When somebody lives to be 88, there’s a lot of interesting things” that they lived through that are worth sharing.
Follow me on Twitter @karenmichel.