For our mother’s memorial service, the weekend of her 102nd birthday, my sisters and I each eulogized her by focusing on the trait(s) of hers we most thought we embodied. Mine were courage and love of the natural world.
The past nearly six years were some of the hardest of my life. That I thought I was sacrificing my independence to take care of my mother, and that she seemed to think I was coming to be taken care of, was a constant source of conflict. It was only later I realized I had disrupted her independence too. And while I would get mine back, she would not. She was fighting her last battle: old age. And it would take massive courage.
When I arrived, she had been intrepidly navigating her life alone for the seventeen years since my father died. True, Rebecca had been helping her for the last ten, and grandson Joel lived with her briefly. I wonder if she lived to nearly 102 because she had all these darned children to take care of.
But her courage did not begin in 1995 when she suddenly lost her husband. It began back in the 1930s rural south when she survived childhood in a challenged family, spoke out against racism in a “senior sermon” at her church, and was the first in her family to attend college.
She hiked in a skirt in her beloved Smoky Mountains with her girlfriends, and later with the Michigander who would become her husband. When I unearthed and read the six hundred surviving letters they wrote to each other during WWII, I learned some new things about her pluck.
She didn’t expect she would marry, didn’t think anyone would want her. Then along came George, handsome and smart and kind. And completely smitten with her. As I sat in the early morning dark, I read letter after letter in which he agonized over her refusal to say she loved him. Finally, at wit’s end, he nearly ended the relationship because he figured she must not.
“Why wouldn’t you tell him?” I asked her, aching on his behalf seventy-five years later, fifty-one of which they were married.
“I guess because we hardly knew each other,” she finally said, after a pause so long I thought she wasn’t going to respond. “He was the first man I’d dated; and we had never been on a date alone. A courtship by mail seemed artificial.”
Wow, I thought, here was her ticket to a better life than she ever dreamed of, and she had the wisdom to take time to examine her own heart and be sure before she leaped.
While George was at New York University in officer training as the war in Europe escalated, Stellajoe decided she needed to leave her job as secretary to the director at the Tennessee Valley Authority and do something she felt would contribute to ending the conflict.
She had long been fascinated with the territory of Alaska. She studied for and took the Civil Service exam, then requested an appointment to an air base in Alaska or Washington. She didn’t consult her best friend, her parents, or George. When she was assigned to Geiger Field in Spokane, she announced her plan, packed a footlocker, and adventurously crossed the country by train at the age of twenty-six. She arrived knowing no one and with no place to stay. She found a room in a rooming house and went to work.
She hated Spokane, so seven months later, when George finished school and was stationed in Dallas, where he figured he would sit out the war, he made a rare phone call to her.
“Do you wanna get married?” he asked. She said yes, bought a wedding dress, packed her footlocker, and boarded a train again. They were married a week later. I guess she decided she loved him.
Six weeks after the wedding, he got marching orders—he was going to Europe after all.
Stellajoe moved to Michigan to live with his family. It took a new kind of courage to live with the strong mother-in-law she barely knew, but she loved his family, including her young niece and nephew. They listened to war news each evening gathered around the radio. She and her sister-in-law Ruth embroidered pillow cases and wrote and received hundreds of letters that took weeks to crisscross the ocean between them and their husbands.
Stellajoe got a position at the University of Michigan School of Forestry where George had been a student, until once more she decided it was too frivolous a job in the face of the turmoil her husband, brother, brother-in-law, and sister-in-law were in the midst of. She got another Civil Service job at the Housing Authority nearby. After a year in Michigan, driving George’s Ford on rationed rubber tires, she moved to Florida to live with her parents, working at another air field, where she remained until George returned.
Other than the six weeks in Texas, she had seen him three brief times since he enlisted three-and-a-half years earlier.
I know all of this, of course, only from story. My experience of her until I returned to live with her, was not of a courageous woman. Sadly, I hardly knew her during the three-and-a-half decades we spent on opposite coasts. It’s only now that she is gone and the hard years for both of us are over, that I recognize the courage she continued to have.
She was an introvert, and yet when she saw something that needed to be done, she summoned strength from deep inside and, with great humility, did it. She spoke out for world peace. She became an advocate for issues faced by the aging. And she often defied George in her passions, or dragged him along for the ride. We all know how she led the charge to save the hill behind our home, standing up to her “trees are a renewable resource” forester husband and facing city officials. She joined the Sierra Club, which George abhorred, putting a bumper sticker on the car. Born before women gained the right to vote, she voted her own conscience in every presidential election from Franklin Roosevelt to Hillary Clinton, often canceling out my father’s vote.
I had one more question about going against her husband’s beliefs, and I asked it: “Would you have been so accepting of your gay daughters and grandchildren if he had not died?” “Oh,” she said, uncharacteristically quickly, “he would have come around. I would have persuaded him.” I didn’t know she had that kind of influence. After he died, she left membership in the [Presbyterian] church they had known for decades to join [the Methodist church] because of its passion for equality and social justice.
After George’s death—I only recently realized because I hadn’t been paying attention before—she did not ask her daughters for help in negotiating the river of things that have to be done when a loved one dies. As my sisters and I did the tasks together following her death, I could not comprehend how she did it alone. Later, she did not ask advice about staying in the house, nor for decision-making help in its maintenance. She never asked us to come home and help her. I’m sure she didn’t want to disrupt our lives; and she was a do-it-myself person. Apparently I inherited that trait too.
She called her eighties her favorite decade. “Why?” I asked. She was seventy-nine when my father died, so it was curious to me. She didn’t use these words, but the sentiment is the same: “I got my mojo back when I was alone and had to fend for myself.”
I don’t think she thought of herself as brave, and—as Queen of Worry— there was much she was afraid of. But as she arrived at each daunting task, she faced it down and beat it. Not the least of which were the health issues—literally from head to toe—that dogged her and that she dogged many doctors about, refusing to accept that they were a product of old age. She wanted a name and a fix, preferably without drugs or surgery, and she was, by golly, going to get it. She railed at doctors who told her she was “doing well for her age.” One of the last recorded books she listened to, at age 100, was a two-parter on the life-styles of the world’s oldest living people, hoping to learn something. My sisters and I express our gratitude to every health care professional over the decades for their patience in her pursuit of the fountain of youth.
Losing her vision was the most significant of her health issues. Last month, I ran across one of her prolific notes in which she wrote many years ago that blindness was the thing she most feared. Indeed, she worried about it for three decades. Consuming foods containing vitamin K, wearing hats with visors, and using brand-name only preservative-free eye drops probably held off complete loss as long as possible. But when she finally outlived her eyes, which would have put most of us under, she faced it with courage. Not without constant talk about it, but she kept on keeping on. If she had had her vision at one hundred, she would have been unstoppable.
I also learned love of the natural world from her. From the dish gardens we made together when I was a child to selling American Seeds and planting nasturtiums in my first childhood garden, to my love of hiking mountain trails, to my finally-developing curiosity about what is happening in the woods behind our home—and writing about and photographing it all—I have her to thank.
She loved spring, not only because of the stark contrast to the Pacific Northwest season called Grey, which she detested, but because of the persistence of each bird and blossom to bounce back to life in hopeful exuberance. She always bounced back then too. I’m glad she left us just as her beloved dogwood and trillium were in bloom, as the lilacs filled the air with sweet scent, as the fiddleheads on the sword fern unfurled. I hope she can see them now.
She loved the Pacific Northwest and her beloved Appalachians differently—and she instilled in me a love of both. She reveled in hearing stories of my hiking and camping adventures, while admiring—and fearing—my courage to go it alone. “Got that from you,” I would say. Her love of nature and these two ecologies is a love she passed to me, to my children, and is being gifted to theirs. I hope my own great-grandchildren will learn the story of their ancestor’s love of this beautiful world and carry on with her in their hearts.
In my mother’s courage to face whatever came and to watch carefully the natural world, though only a part of who she was, she had an overarching curiosity about the world and everything in it. I read this quote by Elizabeth Gilbert to her some time back, because, I told her, I thought she inhabited it:
“You might spend your whole life following your curiosity and have absolutely nothing to show for it at the end—except one thing. You will have the satisfaction of knowing that you passed your entire existence in devotion to inquisitiveness. And that should be more than enough for anyone to say that they lived a rich and splendid life.” —Elizabeth Gilbert
She had much to show for her life, but by that definition, my mother did indeed have a rich and splendid life, and she thought so too. She claimed in recent years, not to believe in heaven. “I’ve had an abundant life,” she told me, “I don’t deserve or need anything more.” My father didn’t believe in a life after death either. When he died without warning, I wanted so desperately to know I would see him again. I asked my minister what happens when a person who doesn’t believe in heaven dies. “I guess,” he said, “they are surprised.”
I hope my mother is hiking through wildflowers and old growth forests and stream-laced mountain meadows with her true love.