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  • Writer's pictureLinda Borromeo

Hermenia by the Sea: Meet an Intrepid Lighthouse Keeper's Wife

A lone figure walked along the beach after a fierce storm. With her long skirt twisting in the steady wind, she put up a hand to keep her elegant hat in place. Her gaze turned downward as she searched the beach for treasure brought in by the "northwester."

She bent to pick up an object, and it glistened in the sunshine. Hermenia held up a beautiful glass float to add to her collection.

In the late 1800s, Hermenia Zauner often combed the beach on an isolated island off the Washington coast. She could find all sorts of interesting storm-plunder, including the handblown glass balls separated from Japanese fishing nets. In the background, the Destruction Island Lighthouse stood watch.

Despite the alarming name of her home, Hermenia filled her surroundings with graciousness, love, and comfort. In a charming collection of stories, her granddaughter remembered that she always dressed fashionably with a hat "jauntily affixed," even while walking on the beach.

One of my own treasures is Mary Jane Armstrong Smith's small, spiral bound memoir of her grandparents, Christian and Hermenia Zauner.

Head Lighthouse Keeper Christian Zauner (I took this photograph at the Westport Maritime Museum. The light beam streaming across his picture seems very appropriate.)

Hermenia Zauner with daughters Mabel and Abigail (from the dedication page of Hermenia by the Sea.)

In Hermenia by the Sea, Mrs. Smith shares tales and recipes from the "The Ladies of the Lighthouse Kitchen." With such names as Sleep Overnight Cookies, Busy Day Stew. and Lighthouse Oatmeal Bread, Mrs. Smith brings back a time and a way of life we can only imagine now.

By pairing her remembrances of her grandparents with old-fashioned recipes, she brings alive a time when families lived at their "Light." They worked together against the elements and isolation to build a special life.

Destruction Island Lighthouse Washington Coast
Destruction Island

A lighthouse keeper's wife worked as hard as her husband to help keep the beacon going and provide a stable home for her family. When Christian Zauner brought his bride to Destruction Island, she might have become depressed or resentful about the duties and loneliness. Instead, Mrs. Smith wrote:

It was a nice warm day when [my grandmother] arrived on Destruction Island...Hermenia's trunks containing her few cookbooks and best china were unloaded from the boat...I wonder what she thought when she saw her new home where she was to live on this isolated island.

She probably took off her hat and gloves, put on her apron, made a brisk cup of tea and unpacked the cookies her mother had sent with her. Her life as a lightkeeper's wife had begun. It was a good life.

Mrs. Smith understood her grandmother well since she was raised by her grandparents. Christian and Hermenia's daughter, Mabel, had married a "local boy...a young handsome Native American logger with Scottish and Irish ancestry."

Sadly, her mother died when Mary Jane was five years old. Her father went to make a living in Alaska, and little Mary Jane resided with her grandparents. At that time, Christian Zauner had become the Head Keeper at Grays Harbor Lighthouse in Westport, Washington.

Mary Jane's father visited as much as he could, bringing gifts such as a lovely silver bracelet telling the ancestral history of her tribe and others along the Pacific coast.

Mrs. Smith wrote about how proud she was of her lighthouse and Native American background, and she took time to visit Westport where the stunning Destruction Island beacon is displayed like a work of art.

The Destruction Island First-Order Fresnel Lens
The Destruction Island First-Order Fresnel Lens

My husband, Peter, and I also enjoyed vacationing at Westport and seeing the museum and beacon there. I especially loved learning more about lighthouse life since I was in the middle of writing my book, Mystery Shores.

The setting for my novel is based on Hermenia's lighthouse island. Seeing the Destruction Island beacon and reading Mrs. Smith's book felt very much like coming home, at least in my imagination.

I could picture the scene when Mrs. Smith wrote:

The kitchen was the center of the [lighthouse] home—the cookie jar was filled—and the teakettle simmered on the big wood range where a cozy fire was kept burning.

May the memory of lighthouse families, who did so much to keep mariners safe, also keep burning. Reading memoirs, such Hermenia by the Sea, is one way to remember and honor them.

 Destruction Island Lighthouse Washington Coast
Destruction Island Lighthouse

Linda Borromeo is the author of Mystery Shores, a novel of secrets set along the misty islands of the Pacific Northwest. Each day, she enjoys learning something new about this beautiful area where she lives with her husband in Washington State. Linda enjoys hiking, reading, bird-watching, and discovering intriguing stories from history.

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