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Barbara, the Beholder

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,
With anemone
Salt-wet and bitter clean,
With weed-wilds
Tangling deep, unseen,
Like roots in the earth
Cutting,
Cutting quick-keen.
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,
Alabaster, marble-black.
And this? This is my soul.

                               B.L.C.

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.

Shortbread and Brawn

Shortbread and Brawn

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Young Donald.

My father-in-law liked to read, eat sweets and drink whisky. Most of all he liked to make money. He had an unconscious habit of shaking coins in his hand–a reminder? My mother-in-law used to call him moneybags but that was after they were divorced. Mr. Mac, as I used to call him, followed his mother’s maxim, “If money is the root of all evil, give me more of the root.”

He did focus on that golden root perhaps so tenaciously because his Scottish parents not only had little fortune but because his mother taught him the value of frugality. Whenever he had finished his whisky bottle, he poured a little water in, swirled it around and sloshed his glass with the last wee dram. Despite his collection of first-class free airplane socks, he continued to wear old socks with holes. He would drive his luxurious Jaguar like an army jeep across potholed farm roads and with his unbothered spaniel Sandy riding in the boot. Although careful by nature, Mr. Mac was incredibly generous, never tight-fisted. When I arrived in Cape Town newly married, he gave me his Mercedes sports car without a second thought.

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Mr Mac with his nine grandchildren.

On his South African farm he taught me to fly fish for trout. On our way back to the White House (the farm house) he invariably proclaimed, “You’ll sleep well tonight,” his platitude for the reliable result of country air mixed with a drink or two. By bedtime we were as “dim as a Toc H lamp,” one of his Christian Science mother’s expressions he kept for the slow-witted.

Some wonderful times were evenings with Mr. Mac and his veteran friends on the farm recounting war exploits. Mr. Mac loved telling of his parachuting into Yugoslavia with his volume of Shakespeare and silk pajamas. His first night on the ground, he took his boots off to sleep, a mistake he never made again.

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Donald, center, in the mountains of Macedonia during World War II.

After the war, Yugoslavia stayed with him. He kept up with his Slovenian bodyguard, Carlo, and his family. He introduced his own family to them and Yugoslavia with many trips there. He also taught me about The Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the Second World War. He read everything he could about the war besides donating to an historian his own diaries from his SOE activities in the Balkans. He loved fact and I loved fiction, but the war reading he introduced to me – the SOE activities such as “Ill Met by Moonlight” by Billy Moss – read like fiction they were so exciting and dramatic–all the more extraordinary, being real and true.

The war was an important part of his life. In London he was a member of the Special Forces Club in Knightsbridge where he would meet some of his cronies such as Peter Kemp and Reg Hibbert. He always stayed there when in London. He told me about a memorable lunch, noon to five, in Rome with Peter Kemp who had fought for Franco in the Spanish Civil War and had Franco decorations he would flaunt to the Albanian Partisans, many of whom had fought in the International Brigade and this would infuriate them. The politics of the Balkans during the Second World War is confusing, yet in a word it was anti-German. What is clear from my father-in-law was his love of the people there and the courtly hospitality shown the soldiers in those remote mountains where a visitor would be fed first before family and where strict codes of personal honor prevailed.

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Mac’s SOE: Chiddy, Thornton, McKenzie and himself at center.

Central to Mr. Mac’s heart was his love of Scotland, his birthright. When he was able, he bought a house in Scotland and lived at Kindrochet part of the year. Through his generosity and open-door invitations to Kindrochet, many people have discovered Scotland’s inner beauty, “annihilating all that’s made to a green thought in a green shade.” (Marvell)

When his son was capped for Scotland in rugby, Mr. Mac couldn’t have been more elated. He accompanied me to all the matches from London to Paris, Dublin, Cardiff and Edinburgh. We never forgot our flasks (for the nerves). Once in Edinburgh, we inadvertently ended up in the same hotel as the team, the Braid’s Hill, and had to watch our step as the players were meant to be secluded before games. If we passed them in the lobby, we just kept walking and then laughed about it later over a drink.

After his son’s first match for Scotland against England, Mr. Mac escorted me to the London ball (there was always one following each International). He left the taxi running as he walked me to meet his son and got so involved talking to all of the players that he forgot about the taxi altogether–over a hundred pounds later!

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Donald, to the left.

Rugby ran through Mr. Mac’s life as his sons excelled at the sport. Besides two Internationals, all three of his sons are blues, having played for Oxford against Cambridge. My first encounter with rugby and Mr. Mac was at Oxford and the Varsity match, Oxford vs. Cambridge. On a baltic first Tuesday in December, we met in the mud of Twickenham’s carpark. From the back of the boot of his silver blue Rolls, we drank pre-game champagne and picnic’d on Fortnum & Mason delicacies, not to mention Melton Mowbray pork pies and other delicacies from Harrod’s food hall. We had a first-class time, first-class being one of his favorite epithets.

Further down the road in his Rolls, Mr. Mac gave his youngest son, Coll, and me a tour of central Scotland’s fog. Literally, that’s all we saw besides chimney smoke beckoning us to a pub’s lunchtime pink gin, his preferred lunchtime tipple.

Mr. Mac’s parents were from Iona and Mull. We ferried the clear waters to Iona to see what was left of the original croft and to read the gravestone in the Cathedral cemetery acknowledging the nine Macdonald sons born there. Mr. Mac’s mother, Catherine MacKinnon, was from Mull and on her deathbed said, “I am looking up Loch Scridain to Ben More.” It’s interesting that her final view was toward the Munro, Ben More, rather than the opposite view, equally wonderful across the loch and the Atlantic to the Isle of Staffa. She often said, “When I was young I was so strong and so happy I could skip from Bunessan to Pennyghael and back.”

It was she who took her two children, Donald and Catriona, from Liverpool to live in Durban, the South African port where the children might see more of their seafaring father, Dugald. Donald, or Mr. Mac, was fifteen and began work in Durban to help support the family, finishing his education at night school. He worked hard and enjoyed well. Education ranked highly with him. He paid for his children and some of his grandchildren to go to the best private schools and universities.

Kippers for breakfast, oysters and champagne for brunch, I imagine he’s bringing in the gloaming to the sound of the silvery Tay and salmon running, a dram of the Famous Grouse on his left and a bucket of Quality Street within reach to his right, not having to get up in the night to find it in the dark.

Further Reading

 

 


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The Orchard of My Mother

The Orchard of My Mother

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Mary with new wheels for her birthday, March 5, 1946

My mother loved to read and to drive fast. When she crashed her car into the handicapped elevator at the back of the library, she didn’t stop reading but she did decide to stop driving. Wisdom does come with age–she was 84. Two years before on Christmas Eve, we had watched with some wonder as she sideswiped my husband’s new Prius parked right outside our house while continuing on until she found a parking spot. She either didn’t notice or feel the sideswipe in her rush. She never said a thing nor did we. (I found in Mary’s scrapbook an ARREST NOTICE for running a stop sign in St.Louis 1943, fined $3.00).

My mother’s Catholicism and culture kept her virginal, not just physically. The first night of her honeymoon alone with my father, he was stricken with a prostrating migraine. She was terrified and thought he was dying. She had to call the house doctor of the hotel. My father wouldn’t have told her of his condition because those things were not spoken of then. He was a man of his time, reticent–keeping his thoughts and feelings as well as his ailments to himself. If his migraines had their origin in his underwater demolition diving during the war, he wouldn’t have mentioned it. They were part of the commitment he made to his country. My mother wedded his unspoken history, not just the handsome Jack. That was her vow.

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Mary’s birthday

She, too, was brave. Mary had difficult births, caesarean sections and a permanent scar like a gap in nature running down her stomach. Her unquestioning Catholicism made birth control not an option. She had been warned about the dangers of falling pregnant and when she was pregnant again with her fourth child, we were told that her life was at risk. All ended well despite our fears. Was it from this fearsome time that the pillbox in her purse stayed always at her side?

Family history does seem to reveal correspondences through the years. Mary’s mother, my grandmother, had married her first cousin, Jack, in a great love match. Because they were cousins they had to elope to Nebraska to be married as it was illegal in Missouri. My grandmother, Katie, was an only child, a fact which makes her 1904 daring more dramatic – being the sole focus of her parents. And then her father had made his fortune, which would be hers alone while her husband, Jack, had no money, even if he read Byron while he was night-clerking at a hotel. According to my mother, her father Jack was always conscious of their money coming from Katie’s father and because of that refused to speculate with it or use it to attempt to increase it as a businessman would. The one thing he did do was start a small bank during the Depression on June 6, 1932. They had the money that could be used to help others: such a different concept from banking today.

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With my older brother Ward and myself.

And so history concurred when my mother married my father, also Jack, who also had no fortune. My father, Jack, eventually stepped into the bank and ran it like it was originally intended, to help others. My father also respected the origin of his wealth and when a family issue incited my uncle and mother to sell shares in the bank to a speculator, my father complied. He went along with the speculator’s designs, having turned over his business faith and trust to him.

My father would bring home papers for my mother to sign, something she did without questioning. Some might see this as irresponsible. Mary accepted his judgement as part of their vow. She respected my father’s honor. When the speculator shot himself to smithereens as well as the family fortune, my mother never blamed my father nor herself for that matter. It was an event outside their values, the core of their beliefs. Even though the loss of their fortune greatly affected their lives, it never appeared to affect the core of their love, the sanctity of their vows to each other. A good man is hard to find. I believe that my grandmother knew this, my mother knew this, I know this.

Mary with her mother, Katie, and father, Jack: Maryville College graduation, May 1945.

Mary was a smart woman. I have her graduating thesis on the “American Indian” but haven’t yet read it. Although she graduated cum laude, not summa cum laude like her older brother, John Joe, her father used to tell her that she had more sense in her little finger than her brothers had all together. She never lost it. The closest she got to inebriation was devouring the olives from other people’s martinis. Mary drank ‘virgin marys’ and ordered her salads ‘dry,’ but a sweet tooth she had in abundance. She was shy and she could be mean. Her brother, E.G’s dying would not interrupt her hair appointment. I suppose she was only taking her mother-in-law’s advice which she used to like to quote: ”No matter how hard times are, keep getting your hair done.” E.G. died while she was checking her wave in the mirror. Yet, he would have approved.

Even when I was very young, my mother, an extremely intelligent woman, dealt in stereotypes, greatly annoying to me. My older brother was her favorite. It was natural she said because she had been her father’s favorite and her brother had been her mother’s favorite. Mothers favor sons, fathers favor daughters, Mary stated.

To her it was a simple fact. So I was my father’s favorite, but I could never be hers. This was difficult for me to accept. It was only when speaking about this to my brother when we were in our teens that my mind was eased. I can’t remember exactly how he explained it, but he seemed to understand better the way her mind worked. Perhaps it was my brother’s love that filled that gap in hers, in my mother’s love for me. Ironically, I accepted my father’s favoritism without question. I only questioned what I did not have, that top place in my mother’s heart.

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Mary, the only daughter.

Every mother is an orchard. Why did it take me so long to see it? The trees in my mother’s orchard were bargello-barked, crimson and cobalt in precise patterns interwoven with light. Mary’s capable arms branched and buttoned, fingers knotted with sapphire and emerald. Her competent hands, heavy with age like leaves of burnished gold drew the light while drawing it in: an orchard not green but made of light, my mother. Her light I just caught, drenching me, her sorrow, not just the sorrow of losing her first son but unspoken sorrows. A mother’s veil of sorrow comes down like a rain of light. Not the nightingales, but the mockingbirds are weeping in the orchards of our mothers.

All my rebellion against my mother’s materialism, her obsession with jewelry falls away as I discover not the hope diamond, nor my grandmother’s diamonds that I had once hoped to pass on to my children. Mary’s selling them made me so angry but now I see. I recognize her diamond of faith, one of immeasurable carats, one of a purer legacy, a family spiritual tradition: a home in that orchard.

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Mary, center, with Anne, her maid of honor, to her right.

From my early years of complete acceptance of my mother’s pleasing, necessary presence to the later years in which I troubled not enough to sift through the Missoni, furs and jewels, did I dwell too much on the imperfections? Let it be. It seems astonishing to me that now I realize that was my mother’s mantra: “Let it be,” our relationship having been accented so ácute and gravè, particularly later in life when I could not understand why she kept holding my younger brother so tightly while pushing him away. She couldn’t let him go and he refused to leave her side: a convoluted, sick love, destructive, unhappy for both. Let it be, she told me when I was first pregnant, worried and in a foreign land. “Just be yourself and you’ll be fine.”

With her medal of the Sacré Coeur flat against my heart, time is erased and I am four or five, once again kneeling silently beside her, hands held in prayer, imbibing her example of faith. Yes, I unknowingly and unquestionably drank from her spiritual well. Mother Mary comes to me. Her faith has come back to me, late in my life, now when I most need it. I imagine some of her friends might laugh at this spiritual image of my mother because it was not Joseph’s but Mary’s coat, the one of many colors that everyone saw.

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With my mother at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

 


Coral Tree In-home Care provides caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 350 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.
Looking for Miss Davis: “Lord Help Us and Save Us”

Looking for Miss Davis: “Lord Help Us and Save Us”

Aunt Roseanne lived in the back bedroom in my grandmother Katie’s house. Roseanne was Katie’s first cousin. Katie always had a room for anyone in need. Roseanne, by profession, a social worker and by nature, always helping others, had a need. Her husband, Pat Darnell, went out to the dry cleaners one day and never came back.

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Roseanne (center, in black slip) at “Come as You Are” party at Katie’s house, 1955.

Pat was a Captain in the Air Force, stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base, just out of town. He was Hollywood handsome and he soon moved into Katie’s house with Roseanne. He bought a great ornery Palomino, King, and kept him at the Lamy farm. When Pat walked out that day, he left King behind, too. Roseanne, in her sorrow, often promised her young friends rides on King but she couldn’t bring herself to face Pat’s horse or her lost love.

“Lord help us and save us, Miss Davis,” was Roseanne’s constant refrain. Aren’t we all still looking for Miss Davis? On Sundays, the Sedalia Drugstore used to deliver Roseanne’s medicine in a brown paper bag which I took up to her in her room. She accepted that (maybe because it was on Katie’s account) but otherwise was always giving everything away, every penny she had, “to those poor people.” She found wonderful homes for many adopted children. Aunt Roseanne looked after everyone but herself.

In the work week, after depressing interviews with abused women and children, Roseanne and her friend Elizabeth who lived one block over, enjoyed a few drinks of an evening to relax. The evening over and outside of Elizabeth’s door, they invariably broke into “Goodnight Eileen” to sweet Eileen on the corner of Third and Harrison.

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On Mexican soil in the summer of 1959 with Roseanne in back, Larry driving, Ward in Tyrolean hat, E.G. taking picture while Mary has taken car-sick Cassidy to bathroom.

I got to know Roseanne better in 1959 just after my grandmother died. My uncle E.G. said, “Let’s go to Acapulco,” and Roseanne was already in the car. We all piled into a white chevy convertible (my mother, Uncle E.G., his friend, Larry Murloch whom everyone fell for, Aunt Roseanne and my brother, Ward, and me). I had just turned seven and Ward was nine. The Chevy had red leather bucket seats. I rode much of the long, three-day drive from Missouri to Acapulco, on the passenger seat floor at my mother’s feet. My mother, Mary, prided herself on her small feet. I easily fit in between them.

Back in the 50s, there were no seat belts in cars, no confinements at all other than our sweat glueing the backs of our legs to the sun-scorched, red leather seats. Ward and I would unstick our thighs with a pop and climb up the back seat of the Chevy to sit where the convertible top folded in. We tilted our heads back, flying, with the dry summer air pummeling our faces. Roseanne, below us, kept trying to keep her dyed jetblack hair patterned, her scarlet nails at work unweaving black webs around her face the entire three day ride. She couldn’t wait to get to a beauty parlor.

Waking up at the Riviera Motel on her first Acapulcan morning, Roseanne shrieked at a ceiling of lizards above the sleeping ceiling fan. She did find a hairdresser before we all went off to the beach, Revolcadero, known for its riptides. Just as Roseanne stretched her piano legs into the sultry sand, a huge wave engulfed her, flattening her newly coiffed curls. But she was game as always, and just laughed.

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Rosie with baby Matt, Cassidy and Ward in 1958.

Back in Sedalia some years later, she was wooed by her childhood flame whose wife had recently died. His family, being strictly Protestant, had disapproved of the Catholic Roseanne. Now Bob had his freedom with his parents and wife gone. Bob built Roseanne a brand new house on Fourth Street and they were married. They seemed to live in a phantasmagoria of love as every time I knocked on the door, Roseanne was always in her nightie and had a dreamy look. After a few years together, she died suddenly and unexpectedly.

Of course, I wonder if they found happiness. Did the curse of their youthful loves doom their mature union? Were they torn by impossible dreams of each other? Or did they create a new heart altogether, learning to understand all and forgive all? For someone so kind as Roseanne, someone whose short arms reached so far, into so many families, I hope so.


Coral Tree In-home Care provide caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 350 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.
Not Saint Agnes but Mother: Superior

Not Saint Agnes but Mother: Superior

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Agnes with her eldest son Dugald in Cape Town in the late 1950s.

It’s so easy to remember awkward, embarrassing situations with people—laugh and forget about them, much harder to search through all those ordinary moments shared. We still laugh about when my mother and mother-in-law, Ag, missed their plane and arrived back at our house in a taxi, just when we thought we could be alone with our new baby; or when taking my parents on a tour of the Cape Winelands, Ag stopped to ask the petrol attendant why her air-conditioning wasn’t working for her overseas guests—because her BMW didn’t have it!

When I first was married and living in a foreign land, in Cape Town, I had the great fortune to have this friend, my mother-in-law. Ag not only introduced me to many of her own friends, but let me be her doubles partner for tennis. She taught me delicious recipes, her banana bread amongst many, that we then offered for our après-tennis teas. She was a great cook and mentor for a newlywed never taught to cook. Her Sunday lunches still make me drool: homemade pate on her nutty brown bread, leg of lamb, roast potatoes, gem squash, grenadilla pudding. Ag’s tasty, uncomplicated meals I still use today.

Ag, also, was an avid reader and introduced me to South African literature, besides other English authors such as Edna O’Brien, J.I.M. Stewart and Laurie Lee. She took me on my first trip to Ireland (special to me with my Irish ancestors) where I met some of her relatives in Kilkenny and thereabouts. Not many years ago, her Irish relatives welcomed me again, and Ag’s granddaughter, Kate, with a wonderful gathering. Sadly, the spinster sisters, who back in 1976 gave us a first-class luncheon served on bone china and polished silver while their brother oddly ate in the kitchen, had died.

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Nurse Agnes Lyster during World War II.

My mother-in-law grew up in colonial South Africa in a male world, a world for the most part dismissive of women as wives and mothers to the home. She had the fortune of good family values and support in her education at private schools where she starred as head girl: a caring leader and great athlete. (I still shiver to think of her daily morning swims right through the winter in an unheated pool.)

She carried forward her interpersonal skills, sensitivity and capability into her nursing career. Although she wheeled one of her first patients into a glass door, she checked that he was fine and kept going, now only through open doors. When her older sister, May, was beyond help from cancer and no longer herself, it was Ag who had the courage to stop the life support, despite religious dissent from the priest and the dismay of her twin sister.

After the war, Agnes followed her heart into marriage and its attendant cultural expectation of wife and mother as her job, her life. She had three children under three (and much later, her lovely fourth) and a husband intent upon a fortune. Ag nourished her children with her kind heart, a heart that often took the bruising for them—those harsh demands and angry words from their father—softening them for their sensitive palates.

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Donald Shaw MacKinnon Macdonald & Agnes Julia Lyster Macdonald on their wedding day.

She was a trekker, showing them some of the many wonders of their natural African world, the flora and fauna of the Western Cape such as at Du Toitskloof where they would go camping. Did she object when her boys emptied their pillowcases of captured snakes into their drained swimming pool? Did Ag keep her cool when those tiny legs barely able to reach the gas pedal, stepped on it, squinting through the steering wheel, driving brother and sister down Main Road, Kenilworth while she was in the butcher’s? Who could count the times she drove them surfing or wherever they wanted to go?

Why is a mother’s job the hardest in the world? Unschooled in it, she begins with the utter giving of self for the child: the blood of her body, the energy, agony and spirit of pushing this new life into the world and then the lifetime discipline of keeping her child’s welfare foremost: child first at all costs. This is her life sentence, one that is hard to parse when asked, What do you do?—that is if she was invited in the 50s to the Cape Town cocktail party anyway. Hard to parse when asked, What have you done?—when her children have left home, and she has to start life anew when so ripe and so aware that ripeness is all.

Young Macdonalds with parents at Du Toitskloof outside Cape Town.

Although Ag’s primary job was as a good mother, she had a social conscience in a country and time when white women were to be seen, not heard. She was part of the Black Sash, the women’s organization that bravely demonstrated for equality in South Africa. She worked hard for Cape Town Child Welfare to protect and place endangered children. My husband remembers when he was hardly six, following his mother’s unflagging steps through the bush and wattle trees at Hout Bay to a dilapidated shack where a palsied child was hidden and later brought to care. Ag also, was an advocate for Cape Mental Health Society, the first mental health society in South Africa (originally named, Society for the Care of the Feebleminded) which was started in 1913. Ag helped raise funds for those with intellectual and psychological disabilities despite their race, by making a vocal appeal to the public. Even at her children’s sport’s days, she walked the bleachers with a cup to collect for Cape School Feeding. Agnes Lyster Macdonald was unrelenting for humanity. She was somebody.

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Agnes in Ireland 1976

It’s strange how one can love and be so loved by someone but know so little about her. There is so much about Ag I don’t know. I believe she kept a terrible sadness tight inside her. Whether it was from love lost from her husband, or perhaps a love lost before her marriage or maybe something, someone else. I’ll never know. Ag did build a wall of glass around herself, bottle by bottle, where she retreated, tired, disappointed. But she didn’t disappear. She continued to knit sweaters for her grandbabies and fishing socks for her sons. Even though she was finally dismissed by her ex-husband, even though she much dismissed herself, Agnes Lyster Macdonald was someone singular, someone very loved.

 

 


Coral Tree In-home Care provide caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 350 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.
The Frogman, a Prince

The Frogman, a Prince

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Jack Kniest, who served as a US Frogman during World War II,  in Burma, in the early 1940s.

My dad lost a lot. When he was two years old he lost his father who died from complications from being gassed in the trenches during the Great War. He lost his mother next, who had to go to work to support her two sons. Jack was angry at her, not understanding her lack of alternative. He lost his only brother during the next war, World War II. His brother was shot down over the Pacific. He lost his first son, Ward, when Ward was only twenty-four from a car accident. He lost my mother’s money when his then-partner killed himself, having ventured his own and my parents’ fortune and lost them. My father trusted him and my mother trusted my father. She never blamed my father. My father never blamed his partner. He never complained.

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Jack (right) and fellow Frogman Norman Abbott (left).

My father learned early on to appreciate the moment, to enjoy when he could, to live each moment to the hilt. When all seemed lost again and he was in his fifties, he returned to California, the place he had learned to love when he was in training at Camp Pendleton with the Marines.

Jack was a great swimmer, something he developed having had polio as a child. He became a diving instructor in the Marines before he joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during the war. He swam to and attached limpet mines to enemy ships in the Pacific before escaping, hoping to be picked up by his own ship.

They were called Frogmen, with feet in rubber fins and only their skinny swimming trunks belted with underwater bombs. They had no diving equipment but an airtight mask with a breathing device. With bulging eyes and big rubber feet, these brave Frogmen jumped off the side of their ship into shark-infested and enemy-fired waves to clear the sea roads for beach landings. He also told me about hiding from the enemy by climbing palm trees in Burma. Jack always kept his rosary in his pocket.

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Every evening when he came home from the bank, he made a highball, slipped off his shoes and settled into his chair to read. I used to try his New Yorker but could never get past the Talk of the Town. I couldn’t understand it at all. What did that have to do with our town, Sedalia, Missouri? My trusting dad knew I would figure it out eventually.

Jack was so handsome he didn’t have to talk much, but he expected correct grammar during every conversation. His prepossessing smile demanded one in return, making him a natural charmer and cheerer–a true gentleman, a winsome prince: my dad, the Frogman.

How so many who loved Jack remember him: settled in his chair, with  a book, a highball and a pack of Pall Mall unfiltereds.

 

Further Reading

 

 


Coral Tree In-home Care provide caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 350 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.