Friends, family and homemade pool enriched baker’s life

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While our country anticipates the red, white and hoopla of the Fourth of July, Mary Jennings’ family is running strong toward July 3.

Wednesday already carries a date weighty with personal significance for my friend and her siblings. This year the group will add another layer when they celebrate their father by dunking each other as much as possible.

Maybe spitting water whale-style at one another and pushing the unsuspecting over the edge.

Phil Underwood died last winter at age 71, nine days before Christmas. No one is sure just why, but her dad was dead before he hit the ground, Mary said. “Exactly the way he wanted it to happen.”

Phil feared little in life, except how his own death would play out, she explained.

“It gave him nightmares. I think he just had this fear of cancer, he had watched so many of his siblings die of cancer.”

I didn’t know Phil well enough to claim anything other than someone on the outside looking in as he sat with his grown children across church on Sundays. I saw grandkids claim his lap for the length of a sermon while Phil focused his eyes up front, a half-smile constant.

In the darkest years following David’s death, I tended to sit just across the aisle from this tableau. It brought me great comfort, and I remember thinking, “Family. I can survive this for family.”

Phil, a 1959 Walla Walla High School graduate, was about family at the end of the day. He spent his working career as a baker in this Valley.

He started at Albertsons when he was still in high school, then worked here, there and everywhere. He twice worked in the kitchen of Washington State Penitentiary — the last time a 26-year stint.

Despite his proficiency, her father did not especially enjoy baking, Mary recalled with a laugh.

“When he would come home, it was the last thing he wanted to do. His experience was baking for 800 people and he’d have to pare it down for, like, five. But he could do it, just off the top of his head.”

Baking was a job; the paycheck came from the lifelong friends he collected along his journey, Mary emphasized.

Nonetheless, because family was the driver for her dad, he decorated his children’s wedding cakes, and most of the cakes for extended family. Phil took care of the birthday cakes, too, Mary said. And she wasn’t talking about the ones baked in a foil pan and spotted with candy sprinkles.

“They were, well, Albertsons birthday cakes.”

Phil liked to do everything from scratch, it seems to me.

Especially when I heard about the pool, one of his most “from scratch” projects on a well-populated list of ambitious efforts.

A glorious project only the brave or foolish would undertake.

Twenty years ago, Phil developed an interest in building a koi pond, Mary said. Remember, that was at the crest of the age of koi-ness, when every third homeowner seemed determined to have a lively aquatic circus featuring the colorful fish.

Her uncle had an elaborate setup with bamboo plantings, waterfalls — the works. It inspired her father to try his own hand at it, Mary told me. “He was going to go out and dig every day.”

Which led Phil to hitting a long-buried fruit cellar in his quest. Instead of more digging, he simply needed to remove bricks, she said, adding that her young sister had been begging for a pool instead of a fish pond.

That was that. He had no experience in building a pool, but that didn’t stop Phil Underwood from creating by hand a 3,500 gallon swimming spot, 15 by 10 feet, able to hold a lot of Underwoods.

It took a lot of trial and error but — like the rings of a tree — each year’s work on the pool showed growth in skill, Mary said. “He even bought himself a tiny cement mixer.”

The project became a family favorite, a retreat for cooling off in the summer heat or basking in the good company of each other.

My friend is determined it will be the same this year. Mary is “chiseling down to the bone” to get the cleanest pool surface possible. Then she’ll paint and seal Phil’s concrete legacy, and turn on the taps.

As I write this in the last hours of June, Wednesday is shaping up to be hot and sunny. A perfect day to celebrate Underwood Day in the pool that Phil built.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at 509-526-8322 or sheilahagar@wwub.com.

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