Their mother/daughter cross-country "Live Huge" sojourn is over. But the memories built honoring the man they loved will last a lifetime.
In November of 2008, Troy Hemmerling was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. The disease claimed the life of the 48-year-old husband, father, Oregon Shakespeare Festival set designer and Ultimate Frisbee guru, in April of 2011.
Shortly after his death, Hemmerling's wife, Ginny Auer, found letters he had left behind for her and their 8-year-old daughter, Tess Hemmerling.
He urged Auer to "Live Huge" for them all.
Auer decided to honor his legacy and to teach Tess about the people and places that meant the most to her father by using her husband's two-word mantra as inspiration for a summer-long adventure. Auer also hoped the trip would help them plot a path for their future.
On June 2 the summer adventure in healing and hope began. The journey took them to four corners of the continental United States and many points in between.
Broadway shows in New York, a cooking class in New Orleans, an art class in Houston, sightseeing at the Grand Canyon and visits with family and friends.
"There are a lot of things that I'm glad Tess got out of it," Auer said. "Certainly I'm glad she got to meet people who were important to Troy."
They say an army travels on its stomach. So did these two. They saw, and ate, it all, Tess says.
"It was big, fat fun!" she said.
Tess munches on a Medford pizza as she giggles and announces she prefers the thin crust New York pizza to Chicago's deep-dish style. However, Windy City hot dogs definitely top those found near the bright lights of Broadway, both agreed.
Montana was a place that was "home" to Troy, Auer said. Tess loved her time with on a little bay gelding named Rowdy as they rode along wildlife trails in Glacier National Park. She couldn't get enough time in the saddle, Tess said.
"I wanted to go again," she said.
Auer said she and Troy had always planned to take their daughter to the Grand Canyon. But Tess lists her visit to one of the wonders of the world as her least favorite parts of the trip. Altitude sickness made her nauseous and unable to eat, Tess said.
"I lost two pounds," she said.
Memories of visiting her Uncle Mike brought big smiles to Tess' face. She managed to finagle a secret rib sauce out of her dad's brother.
"Culprit of rib-burning," Tess says, teasing her mother for burning the first batch.
"They were just dry," Auer responds, smiling.
The pair were also treated to stories about Troy as a little boy, and they got to see an old newspaper article telling of how he'd won a drawing contest when he was 12.
While the duo were wowed by the amazing talent on display at the Broadway plays, and the majesty of the wild open spaces of the western United States, it's clear it was the simple things that often brought the biggest delights.
Troy was also a great cook. His French toast was Tess' favorite. Visiting friends in Minneapolis, Tess listed another high point as the morning her mom prepared everyone a pancake breakfast.
"Homestyle pancakes," Tess says, grinning at the memory of her mother's whole wheat pancakes made from scratch.
Auer and Tess traveled by train so they could relax and enjoy the sights and share stories together.
They ate communal-style meals in the dining car, said. "We met some really interesting people," Auer said. "The train ride was a key part of it. When you're on the train, it provides intimate time to go and decompress."
Auer's plan was to blog every week, several times a week, and post them to the LiveHuge.org website. But Auer said she is still catching up on her writing and video editing that will allow everyone to participate via a vicarious vacation.
"I have about five more blogs to write, including one just on the train," she says.
First stop on their journey was Auer's parents' home in South Carolina. Both her parents have been facing life-threatening illnesses, Auer says. Being there for her father's surgery, being able to take her ailing mother for drives in the country, being there with Tess: It was all possible because Troy urged her to take a risk and to embrace life.
The trip has given Auer and Tess a "new vocabulary," she said.
"What happens is when you're married to someone, you make up your own vocabulary," Auer said. "Family favorites, quirks, fables, stories. You build that language together. As we experienced things together, we began to build a vocabulary that is just for the two of us. It doesn't mean that we're getting rid of the old. We're adding it into the mix."
Tess is happy to be home. Back to school. Back to sleep-overs with best friends. Back to reading the newspaper, she said.
"I love the Sunday funnies," Tess said.
For Auer, re-entry to their Ashland life is much more bittersweet. Troy's 50th birthday would have been last Tuesday. Their 19th wedding anniversary would have been today. Auer posted a link to "If I didn't care," by the Ink Spots on the Live Huge Facebook page. It was the song they first danced to, she said.
But Auer knows life goes on. And so do their adventures, and so will their memories. She is grateful that her daughter got a chance to see so much of the United States on their summer-long tour that took them from coast to coast — and lots of places in between. They reconnected with family, old friends and made new ones along the way, she said.
"That, I think, is priceless," Auer said.
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.