Written on the occasion of the passing of my mentor, my "other-mother," my friend, my role model and positively the coolest woman I have ever known.
In some respects Liz was a quite ordinary person. She was born and raised on a farm in the Midwest. Her harrowing tales of rural life being tormented by two older brothers were always entertaining, and maybe some of the stories bore a kernel of truth. They had been told, retold, and polished over the years by a master storyteller until the facts had been overtaken by the images and the meaning. The historical truth of the events of her early life may have been lost, but the significance of her memory of a childhood in a simpler time among hard but loving people was always absolutely clear in every story she told about the family she loved so much.
She was a young woman in love during WWII, and, like most people in her generation, she was forever marked by that experience. She was a flag-waving patriotic, jingoistic America-firster, and damned proud of it. She was a life long member of the Ladies Auxiliary of the VFW. She believed in the ideals of America with a fierceness that reflected her belief in the fragility of freedom, and the need to renew, in each generation, our commitment to the sacred trust of being the standard-bearers of freedom for the world. That America is the greatest nation ever in history was not a matter of opinion for her; it was an indesputable fact. If anyone was stupid enough to express a different point of view in her presence I never heard about it.
It would be a serious understatement to say she was “disillusioned” by organized religion. The fact is she loathed and despised organized religion. She believed absolutely in a God of Goodness and Love -- not because she'd read about it in Scripture or was told about it in preaching, but because she experienced in her daily life the Holiness that pervades all of God’s Creation. She did not need a church to experience God and she resented the Church's guilt-inducing influence on otherwise innocent children (including me).
She told stories of being a disappointment to her mother because she could never quite master the art of being “lady-like”. Even in her old age, having for years accepted that she was not then and never was likely to be a genteel lady, she could still express a deep sadness that she'd been such a disappointment to her mother. Those stories were laced heavily with sorrow for the impact her choices had on her mother. She never once expressed even the tiniest hint of regret over her choices, however.
Perhaps that clarity about herself was one of her most striking traits. She was very sensitive to others’ feelings and opinions, but she never let them deter her from being her own person, no matter how much her way of living flew in the face of the norm, and it did. In the 1950's and early 1960's, when most of the women I knew were homemakers with children who never left the house without their hair done and their “face on”, she was different. She was the first woman I knew who didn't wear makeup. She only wore a bra when she absolutely, positively had to (and she took it off the minute she had an opportunity). She never wore a girdle. She had no children and she worked at a full-time job -- both of which were unusual for a married woman in those years. She was not a feminist, however, at least not in any way she would have acknowledged. She rejected the very notion of "feminism" and God help you if you expressed an opinion that she had anything in common with “Women's Libbers” like Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, etc.
She saw herself as a Republican, and a conservative. When she moved to Arizona, I teased her about moving there to be closer to Barry Goldwater. Conscience of a Conservative was one of her all-time favorite books; she made me read it when I was just a kid and really didn't understand it. She did Republican party work her whole life, but I always saw her as more of an anarchist than anything. It always seemed to me that she only espoused the conservative “small government is better than big government” ideology because she understood that “no government at all” was not very practical. Nevertheless, deep in her soul, I always suspected she felt that “no government” would have been just fine.
I believe that is why she sought out-of-the-way places to live, where she could be left alone and where no one would try to tell her what to do. She had an affinity in literature, art and movies for the mountain men who so desperately tried to stay one step ahead of civilization if for no other reason than to stay away from the crowds. She felt herself to be their modern-day equivalent.
Liz was a person who knew what she wanted in life and she went after it, even when that may have caused her to go against the grain of social niceties. She told me many times that the first time she ever saw her husband in a store in her village, she told the friend she was with that she was going to marry him and she immediately embarked on a campaign to make that happen. She never told me how she managed to get from that encounter in the pharmacy to matrimony, but Liz was nothing if not determined. Her husband's painful shyness was no match, I suppose, for her determination. They were an odd couple in many ways, but that they cherished one another was obvious to anyone who saw them together (if you could manage to look past their constant arguing and bickering).
They built their first home with their own hands, and then filled it with the books and music that they loved. There was peace and love and contentment there, even during the otherwise tumultuous 1960's. Marty Robbins was always queued up on the record player and there were floor to ceiling shelves filled with books in the den. There were rocks to polish and photos to develop in the basement. Liz and I spent many an afternoon making jewelry from the rocks she'd collected and cut and polished. I longed to visit that house for many, many years after they moved away. I guess I still do.
I cannot think of Liz without thinking of books! My very first paying job was cleaning their house when I was in junior high. The room that always took the longest for me to clean was the smallest room in the house, the den. It took extra time because I had to investigate the new books on the shelves -- and there were new titles every week. I had blanket permission to borrow whatever I wanted, and usually came home from my cleaning job with a sack full of novels. Liz may not have had much of a formal education (I think she made it most of the way through the eighth grade), but she and her husband were both incredibly well read. Liz read widely in history and science, poetry and literature. She read books on accounting and economics, politics and geology. I can't think of a topic you could mention that she didn't know something about. But her tastes weren't only high-brow: she and her husband both loved paperback westerns, especially Louis L'Amour. I think she read every one of his many, many books.
Her other favorite western novelist was Zane Grey; I think it was from his work that she first fell in love with the American West. By the time I was a teenager she had read all of his books, most of them more than once, a few of them many times. I remember once she was trying to explain something to me about the colors of a sunset, and she pulled out a tattered old copy of Riders of the Purple Sage, turning to one of Grey's particularly rich descriptions of a sunset in the high desert. I could tell from the expression on her face and the reverence in her voice as she read the words she could actually see the sunset that Grey was describing. She taught me to read in that visual way as well. That was perhaps the most precious of all the gifts I received from her. She didn't just read books, she “watched” them like a movie – or, maybe, more accurately still, she “inhabited” them. I often felt that some of her paintings were her effort to capture on paper what she “saw” reading Zane Grey's novels.
As long as I can remember, she loved to draw and doodle. I remember many Friday evenings, sitting at our kitchen table listening to Mom and Liz talk, and watching Liz draw pictures and shapes and designs on the backs of napkins or scrap paper. It was no surprise to me when, after retiring and moving to Arizona, that she began to study painting.
For a number of years after her retirement, painting was her animating passion. She painted the landscapes she had carried around in her head her whole life. She painted sunrises and sunsets, barns and fallen-down prospector’s cabins, and any number of other scenes she had held in her memory or imagination for years until they finally had an outlet. Her pictures had a simplicity and sparseness that reflected the simplicity of her tastes, but they had a richness and depth that left no doubt there was lots going on beneath the surface as well.
I believe that her early years in the Southwest were among the happiest of her life. After a lifetime of loving to travel the Western states, she reveled in the opportunity to live there full-time, surrounded by the mountains and the forests and the spirits of the land which nurtured her and filled her with artistic inspiration, and personal contentment. All the creativity that she had stored up during a lifetime of wanting to create art, came flooding out on paper and canvas in a few short years. In those years she wrote many long letters letters to me. They were letters from a happy and fulfilled person.
The last time I saw her, both her eyesight and her memory were beginning to fail and she could neither paint nor read very much any more. She filled her time with clubs and Republican party political work, but she missed her books, and, most especially, her painting. When we visited that summer, she took down each painting in her studio, and asked me what I thought of it. Then she proceeded to tell me what she had been trying to accomplish when she painted it and where she felt she could have improved. The longing in her voice and the sadness she exhibited at the awareness that she would not paint again made those hours hard for me to bear. They must have been excruciating for her.
I believe Liz thoroughly enjoyed her life. She loved to travel. She loved music. She liked rum daiquiris and apricot brandy. She was no Julia Child, but she made the greatest fried chicken livers in the world. She was cantankerous and crotchety at times, particularly with people she felt were narrow-minded or unwilling to stand on their own feet, but she was kind and generous to everybody else. She loved her husband. She was a loyal and dear friend to more people than I can even imagine. She loved her country, its land and its people. She may not have had any children of her own, but she served as a “second mom” and “mentor” to a whole lot of us.
It might be said that, in her passing, a light has gone out in the world. But, I can't help but think of the lives she touched: the babies who were born because she advised friends to follow their hearts and marry the man nobody else liked; the educations or vocations pursued because she advised young people not to be afraid to take risks; the late-life careers or dreams pursued by those of us who followed her example of believing it is never too late to follow your dreams. Maybe Liz’s light has not gone out after all. Maybe it now continues to burn in the hearts and lives of those of us who were privileged to have her call us friends. Considering how many people are included in that number, that is quite an amazing legacy.