Monday, June 29, 2020

PT 3: Who Loved Me Into Being

I stalled writing this because I told myself I could look for photos of the special people who made me who I am--the people who"loved me into being."  But I realized quickly I'm never going to find photos of many without a lot of effort. And even with photos, I realized it would be impossible to ever do justice to those special people.

It's been fun thinking about who the people were in my life who profoundly influenced me. I'm just going to name three of them in this post and identify how and why they influenced my person-hood.

Mary Anderson, lifelong friend of my mother. 
Mary had two sons who were younger than I. Our families spent our summers at a remote enclave of four large seasonal houses built on the shore of large Idaho lake. It was accessible only by water (or an arduous hike from an automobile 'landing' a mile away over rugged terrain), so once we arrived, we stayed put! The houses had no electricity, just plenty of sunshine, water, and socializing. There were numerous youngsters at the lake every summer, all within a ten year range, but most were older than I To fill my need for companionship, I played every day with Jimmy and Johnny, Mary's boys. Because they were younger, I got to be the boss, and we made up a lot of fun activities and games, but I was in charge--quite a treat for the younger child in a family of two children. Mary loved that I paid so much attention to her little boys, and through that relationship, I felt great kinship. She hung out with my mom a lot, and I used to love to see and hear Mary laugh. Her style of parenting seemed so joyful and relaxed. She listened to my stories, and always seemed so pleased to share tidbits of my life. Mary and I began corresponding while I was in college--it was especially fun to hear her take on my student life, because she was a faculty wife at another university. By then we'd formed a deep, affectionate bond. She reminded me of my mother, but without all the 'strings' of conflict that accompany a young woman's bursting from the nest.

Ben Weatherwax: Friend (along with his wife) of my parents.
Ben made his living as a designer in an architect's office. He had great talent and an eye for style. He designed a beautiful year-round cottage for my family on the ocean, which endeared him to all of us, but even more exciting--he had a weekly radio show! I thought he was the most overtly talented grown up I'd ever met. When Ben would visit our home (with or without his family), he and my dad could talk and chuckle together, and I loved listening to them. Ben always asked me, a young-to-mid-teen, my opinions about current events! I really wanted to be an adult when Ben sat down to visit with my dad, because their topics were so vital and worldly. Ben knew I was a bookworm and always asked what I was reading, then would share his thoughts about the book, which, of course, he would have read years before. Our first literary encounter was over Jean Christophe by Romain Rolland. When he saw what I was reading he nearly jumped up and down with glee. "Oh, how I loved that book!" In the summer of '56 we had a long talk about my adoration for Thomas Wolfe. "Yeah," said Ben, "he sure did write some magnificent purple prose." (I had to look up that term!)  When he died in a house fire in November 16, 1956, I was torn with grief. He was the first person whose death I deeply grieved. At sixteen I was old enough to recognize the depth of loss when a vibrant person passes in the prime of his life. I was overcome with personal sorrow.

Gladys Phillips O'Day: Friend (along with her husband) of my parents. \
Gladys gave me a glimmer of what women could do in the world--besides being a secretary, nurse, or teacher, which were the three choices that "nice girls" had for their careers in the '50s. Gladys was an attorney! Not only that, she used her maiden name on her business cards! She wasn't stuck in the mold of just being the wife of a successful man. She made her own career and everyone knew who she was--for herself! That was a radical notion in the '50s. In addition, she was proud of her native American ancestry and shared stories and history of her family that made me think of native Americans differently from how I'd learned about them at school. Gladys had such reverence for her ancestral people, you couldn't be around her without catching a little of it from her. She was also a musician, and always asked me about my life as a violinist. Our families drifted apart, and we completely lost touch before I entered my thirties. And--truth be told--I was intimidated in her presence. As much as I admired her, I could barely imagine myself as a bold, strong, bright woman who stood up to--and even flaunted--the expected norms of womanhood. She was a true inspiration on a very personal level. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Part 2: Who Loved Me into Being: Margaret Whiteman

I continue thinking about the people who loved me into being: Adults who influenced my life in my formative years, those to whom I attribute (in part) my values, my character, my overall personality.

Aunt Maggie created
this cross-stitched
silhouette for me 1958
From an early age, Margaret Whiteman opened her heart and arms to the little girls who lived across the street from her father, Mr. Strauss. My parents who purchased their first Seattle house in 1943 (I was three, my sister seven) happily engaged with this tiny, vivacious woman and her lively son, Chuck, who came to look in on their father/grandfather. Over the next four years, the Whiteman family became good friends with our family, and at some point my sister and I were invited to call her "Aunt Maggie," rather than Mrs. Whiteman. When we moved to a bigger  house, the Whiteman family was part of our inner circle of family friends and remained there forever.

Chuck, Aunt Maggie, sister Judy, me
1949
It truly was a lovely family friendship, with my father and Margaret's husband, Glenn, deepening their bond every year, and Mother and Maggie always finding hundreds of topics to discuss and giggle about. Maybe it was because she had no daughters of her own, but Aunt Maggie was always genuinely interested in what my sister and I were doing. She was a talented piano player and artist, too, capable of improvising a little jig on the family piano or making a quick sketch in our autograph books (see the two photos below). Because Chuck and my sister were closely matched in age, their interests and abilities much more advanced than mine in the first decade of our families' friendship, so I was the 'odd-man-out' when the two families got together in the early years. Aunt Maggie always made conversation with me, not just the adults. Maybe that's the reason I believed Aunt Maggie and I had special bond. Her genuine interest in me resonated increasingly as I grew older.

In 1952 our family moved to Aberdeen. I was twelve; pubescent, tall for my age and overweight. Not the easiest profile for buying clothing in a small town. Quickly Mother learned that the shops in Aberdeen did not carry much of a selection of clothing for girls shaped like me,at least clothes that she approved of for a young woman. The department stores of Seattle carried lots of youthful looking clothing in chubby sizes. (Would you believe there was actually a clothing-size category for girls called "Chubettes" ?) More than once Aunt Maggie came to my rescue by shopping at a Seattle department store and driving to Aberdeen to bring special occasion garments she'd purchased 'on approval.' If the item didn't fit, or meet aesthetic approval, Maggie could return them to the store. I still have such fond memories of seventh and eighth grade dresses that Aunt Maggie selected for me, and I absolutely loved them. I always got the feeling the she took great pleasure in doing this for me. 

In fourth grade marionettes had
become my hobby. Aunt Maggie signed
my autograph book Easter that year
But Aunt Maggie was more than just a personal shopper, artist, and musician. She was interested in me and what I was doing. I felt like I could talk to her about anything--a real auntie figure, especially welcome because my only actual aunt lived thousands of miles away and I didn't know her at all. When we moved back to Seattle in 1956, my parents bought the home next door to the Whitemans! Certainly the fact they would know their neighbors was instrumental in their decision to purchase, and I was ecstatic. By then I was a sophomore in high school, transferring into the same school from which Chuck had recently graduated, so Aunt Maggie's first-hand knowledge of the school--its faculty, strengths, pitfalls, etc--was extremely helpful to me, a newbie. She also was available to listen to me whenever I just wanted to complain about school. We often talked about music and she would show me whatever creative sewing project she was doing. Sometimes she'd sit at the piano and play a little Liszt or Chopin, too--on the baby grand piano that prominently sat in her living room.

In fifth grade I had a new
autograph book signed on the
occasion of a Memorial Day Picnic
In addition to being an artist, she was a creator of all kinds of needlework, crewel, cross-stitch, even quilting. Whenever I got new dresses, elegant shoes, or especially glamorous sweaters, the first thing I'd do would be to take it nextdoor to show Aunt Maggie, who, predictably, would ooh and aah. She'd admire the fabric, rave about the cut, the color  . . . the kinds of things a mother might do, but it seemed so much more meaningful coming from an unbiased 'outsider.' I even remember taking my wedding dress to her house to show her the minute we brought it home, and I still remember how excited she was to see it. She lent such strength and emotional support after both of my parents' deaths, and periodically would call to chat on the phone until Jay and I moved to Wisconsin in 1972. Then we reverted to letters.

When Jay and I moved back to Seattle in 1986, one of the first people I visited was Aunt Maggie. By then was living in a retirement community in the downtown area near my work. Occasionally I would visit her during an extended lunch hour. I can remember her asking my advice about travel insurance at one of our last get-togethers, and how flattered I felt when she asked my advice about something, after so many times I'd asked for her opinion.

Yes, Aunt Maggie was definitely one of the people who loved me into being.