Barbara, the Beholder
Attending without intention, that describes Barbara – her wide heart, ready smile, glistening eyes, poised blue to find you, always on the verge of discovery, impossible not to still see her urging us outward. The day after her burial, a bird’s nest had blown onto her grave, as if to say – new life always around us – look.
Growing up, Barbara lived just down the street in our small midwestern town, Sedalia, Missouri. Although fifteen years older, age was never a barrier with us. We were always equals in some way. Barbara had graduated from Maryville in St. Louis in 1958, the same year my best friend Carol’s mother, Ann, had died. One day I remember saying to Barbara that she should meet Carol’s father, Jimmy, just up Fourth Street. To Jimmy, she became more than a passing ray of light; they were married in 1960. Carol and I were eight years old.
Even when she married Jimmy and became Carol’s stepmother, Barbara kept us as friends. Barbara was only 23 then. Perhaps she became a protector friend, a Fhienne Cara, as described in Old Irish, encouraging us out of ourselves as the best way to know ourselves. With the lure of a country picnic, Barbara persuaded us (Carol, Kate, and me) to ride our bikes all the way to her parent’s farm out on Cherry Tree Lane, nearly ten miles there and back. On the way we picked watercress for sandwiches, a novelty for me. In Barbara’s house, meals had an order and we were not allowed to leave the table until our plates were empty. It wasn’t that way at our house. When Barbara placed half of a peach in front of me for dessert, I just stared. Did I dare eat that peach which believe it or not, I had never tried at the age of eight?
It must have been hard for Barbara to step into the Cooney family and into the hearts of two little girls, Carol and Colleen. Their mother, Ann, was so well loved and missed by all. She was my mother’s best friend and Mahjong buddy. But Barbara and the Cooneys did share the same strong bridge of faith, nurtured by the Mothers of the Sacred Heart. Barbara was honored with the award the Spirit of Maryville in 2019, but she died before she could accept it. It was just one of her many awards. But the motto of the Sacred Heart: Cor Meum Jungatur Vobis (Let Our Hearts be Conjoined), is what Barbara lived.
MY HEART IS A SEA
Green is my heart
As the sea is green,
Salt-wet and bitter clean,
Tangling deep, unseen,
Like roots in the earth
When up they swell
From their dark root-womb
Forests of waves
Bud sprouts of spume,
In burst of sun
Cascade into bloom.
My heart is a sea.
As giant trees crash
The great waves roll,
Then marble and freeze
Petal spray into coal,
And this? This is my soul.
Not simply knowledge, but the honor, respect and love of others – that was part of her education and what Barbara was committed to passing on. She taught English and French at Smith Cotton, our local high school, leading us to “bonjour” in and out of class. Even self-conscious high school students were emboldened by her panache. If she seemed scattered at times, it was her vivacious intelligence at work. Barbara always had a French scarf strewn across her shoulder, her look a palette of color.
After fifteen years of teaching, she retired to look after her aging parents, Eileen and Pierre. This also brought her time to pursue her artwork – paintings, photographs, sculptures, assemblages – a flourishing of God’s gifts. As her body of work grew, Barbara combined her artistic and educational calling into Camp Blue Sky, a summer art camp for kids which she and Jimmy sponsored. Barbara said it was her proudest achievement.
Even though we lived in different countries, different states in the latter years, we met at times and always corresponded, sharing thoughts, current literature. One of my favorite walks with her was down her “Champs Elysses” to Persimmon Hill, her farm, just outside Sedalia. One trip, I had found some of the strange “hedge apples,” along Cherry Tree Lane and brought one to Barbara who explained it came from the French bois d’arc (Bodark), the bow wood tree. The Bodark tree as it was known locally, or Osage-orange tree, was valued by Native Americans for its bark, which made the finest bows. I must have seen its fruit, those hedge apples growing up but never seen them. Barbara placed the bulbous green fruit the size of a large orange on her white fence, making one of her “little altars” to honor God’s creation. Only Barbara could find beauty in a wrinkly, bumpy hedge-apple.
In remembering her, I realize how much of a loving mentor through life Barbara has been for me. Her chosen epigraph to her collection of poetry and paintings – from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem – best captures her, I think: Barbara, the beholder.
These things, these things were here and but the beholder
Wanting; which two when they once meet,
The heart rears wings bold and bolder
And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.