McCleary’s cemetery love lights explained

A column by Linda Thompson

Several years ago, I drove past the McCleary Cemetery on Christmas Eve. The whole cemetery was glowing. I had to pull over and see what was going on.

It looked like paper bags – wait, it was paper bags, mostly white, but some brown, holes in some, not others. And candles burning brightly in each and every one. My Christmas Eve plans got put on hold for a few minutes as I sat reflecting on the souls remembered in that cemetery. I have no family there. Many friends, but no family. Looking at the glow and the little bit of mist setting around them on the ground let me reflect on my family that wouldn’t be with me that night.

Christmas afternoon I drove by the cemetery again and it was normal. No signs of the bags or burned out candles. Had I dreamed the previous evening? No. It was too real. I set out to find the story behind the beautiful Christmas Eve candle lighting.

If you’ve lived in McCleary more than 15 minutes, you know, or know of, Kathy Elofson. She was the receptionist for two generations of dentists in McCleary, working a total of 42 years. Every kid in school knows her as ‘Grandma Kathy’ and she donates more than physical items. She donates time and love. She is very emphatic about the love. It’s not to be tossed around like a frisbee or football. It’s to be whispered, sincerely, into the ear of the sleepy child you are tucking in for the night, for example. She and her husband, Jerry, live in a comfortable home that once belonged to her parents. Like many of us, it’s really too big for two people, but when the family comes home, it’s just right. Filled to the brim. Family for Kathy includes many foster children. Trips to Disneyland are not out of the question when you are a foster child of the Elofson’s.

After a visit, getting to know Kathy more, we delved into how the cemetery project became what it is today. Throughout the conversation, Kathy referred to her sister as “Baby Sister.” Dianne was 3 years younger than Kathy. Kathy said they had the best childhood. They moved to McCleary when Kathy was 10 years old, 68 years ago. She was raised here, and she raised her family here.

Kathy’s sister, Dianne Berry Dotson, was working for a doctor in Olympia. She had a slight cough and the doctor insisted she get a chest x-ray. It showed the worse case scenario. Dianne Berry Dotson had but two months to live. But, Heaven can wait. Dianne was not ready to go. She had too many things to do. Two years went by before Heaven got Dianne. At one point, near the end, Dianne Berry Dotson asked her sister, Kathy Elofson, to please keep her grave “as clean and decorated as my house.” It had been two years since the fatal diagnosis of cancer, but by sheer determination, Dianne beat the odds by 10 times the original prognosis. Marilyn Olson visited Dianne and Dianne told her to go home and tend to the sweet peas because she wanted the best of them on her grave. Dianne was only 49 years old. For the past 26 years, Kathy has been making sure Dianne’s grave is clean and decorated.

The Christmas project has grown substantially over the years. There are just about 1,000 graves in that little cemetery, and each and every one now gets a candle. The first friends to join her in the decorating were Jenny and Dave Reed and Sharon Geer. Denny Clemmons comes to help. Paul Knot and Jeff Geer, of the city crew, bring the sand to weigh the bags down and hold the candles in place. The Carnell family is there. Ruth Creekpaum joins in. There are so many that naming names is dangerous, for many names are left out. For that, I apologize. There are newbies who join the group from time to time. Last year I showed up, for my first, but not last visit. And there was Susan Malloy, her first time, also.

Then, the next day, Tim and Ann Hartman go to the cemetery and clean up. Hanukkah is celebrated earlier in the month. What a beautiful way to be a part of this beautiful custom.

Linda Thompson is the editor of the McCleary Museum Newsletter. She has been a volunteer at the museum since 1990.