ARLINGTON – The daughter of a man who died in the Oso landslide said his nurturing spirit is reflected in a new mural she painted to honor the victims and families whose lives were forever changed by the tragedy.
The mural by Caroline Neal on the wall of the Arlington Community Resource Center depicts a series of interwoven vines and roots extending from a tree trunk recalling a single massive spruce that withstood the slide, which bore a handmade plank that read “OSO 10:37 3/22/14.”
Tucked amid the mural’s branches are photographs of the 43 people who lost their lives, including her dad, Steve Neal.
Neal said she thinks her father would be proud of the mural; he always encouraged his children in what they wanted to do.
“He was always there for me; he was very supportive that way,” Neal said. “That’s something that I miss a lot is we used to have these very long conversations on the porch about whatever. He didn’t tell you what you should do. He let you talk it out, and ask the right questions to come to the conclusion yourself.”
While some families met at the Oso memorial site on March 22 to observe the four-year anniversary of the slide, Neal spent her second of three days busily painting the mural.
“We closed the center so that Caroline could work in peace and quiet, and let her have her music to listen to,” said Katherine Jordan, director of Family Services with Lutheran Community Services Northwest. The organization manages the resource center at the Stillaguamish Senior Center, 18308 Smokey Point Blvd.
Neal said painting the mural was cathartic.
“In the days leading up to the anniversary of the mudslide, it weighs very heavily on your mind, and a lot of thoughts come in and out of your head,” she said. “It felt really good to be able to feel like I was doing something positive, and a good way to spend the day.”
Neal had a vision in mind before she started several sketches. When the image of branches fed into the roots and vice versa took hold, she knew she had her design.
“I’ve been painting for a few years now, but I’ve never done anything this big, though,” Neal said.
Peggy Ray, resource center program manager and a grief counselor after the Oso slide who continues as a family advocate for those who lost loved ones, was touched by the mural.
“We could not be happier,” she said.
A heart-shaped wood carving bearing the words “Forever in Our Hearts” tops the mural, designed by Ron Thompson who, with wife Gail, lost their house in the slide.
“When Ron came in and saw the mural, he asked if he could make a memorial sign,” Ray said.
Scattered among the branches are positive affirmations such as joy, strength, hope and unity.
Neal put “community” and “family” at the base of the tree as the foundation from which support, healing and resiliency grow.
The resource center has served as a community and family connection since not long after the slide. Grief support and outreach services for the families was initially handled by Catholic Community Services downtown, then shifted to the ACRC.
“This site is the hub for the families who lost loved ones in the slide,” Ray said. “We still have people that come through here for different kinds of counseling and talks,” with a recent meeting topic the proposed Oso memorial, raising money to build it, and what families want it to look like.
Neal works for Lutheran Community Services as a Resource and Support specialist mostly out of Lake Stevens center, helping others in need, paying forward the help with grief she received for her and her children. She likes the memorial idea.
“Each person at the site has their own tree – it’s been hugely important to me and my children to go out there,” Neal said. “We leave trinkets on the tree and go out there at different times of the year, so having a more permanent memorial is something I’m excited about.”
Neal’s kids liked the mural as she was painting it, and both wanted to know when they can paint on the walls, too.
“They also ‘Facetimed’ me multiple times asking me when I’m coming home,” she said with a laugh.