(You can listen to this here.)
Like virtually every other 15, 25, and 50 year-old (okay, maybe even 60ish) I was confidant that I was smarter, more fashionable and clever, more energetic, more politically astute than my parents, and to be quite honest, especially my mother. I thought I even managed to teach both my parents a thing or two. Perhaps I did have a bit of an influence on occasion, but I now know that I had nothing on my mother.
Decades before I rallied for human rights from the safety of a liberal arts college, young Stellajoe suggested that her white southern Baptist church invite members of the neighboring black church to join their Sunday service. It was a suggestion that did not go over well. For years I have taken credit for convincing my always-vote-republican father to vote for jimmy carter for president. My mom, however, had been quietly canceling out his vote for years.
I traveled to Panama in high school and Central America in college, gathering folk art along the way. Only recently did I make the connection to my mom, who in the 60s and 70s befriended members of the Chehalis tribe and immigrant women from Laos, filling our home with their handiwork as a means of support and appreciation. That shared passion (not to mention experimenting with just about every craft on the planet) led us both to seek out craft shows and art markets when I was in my 40s and she in her 80s. Forever special to me are the times we did so together. Quite possibly it was her love of an annual purple arts retreat that inspired me to join the nascent Artrails group not long after I returned to Centralia to live with her. And, just a few days ago, in reading through one of the many annotated calendars in a box in the basement, I saw that we had gone to visit the Roth’s Winlock pottery studio in 1988. Yep, she was a step or two ahead of me!
The greatest lesson my mother taught me though was the importance and the joy of living a life of service and generosity. She felt we were put on this planet to care for it and for the people who walked upon it, and that’s the way she lived her life, right up to the very last moments.
Often her passions and actions came out of her own experiences. A child of the depression, she was a champion of reuse and recycle long before it became a catch phrase. Coolwhip and margarine containers overflowed the repurposed shoebox in the kitchen cupboard. Later on those pesky serrated edges on the aluminum foil box were carefully torn off, not just so the metal and cardboard could be separated but also to fashion the shiny strips into flashy deer deterrents. (jury’s out on whether they were effective.) I do take credit for convincing her to replace the ever-under foot repurposed plastic bags containing various road trip supplies with a way more fashionable tote made from recycled materials.
When she contracted tinnitus in the 1970s she became an advocate and resource for others who were suffering, spending hours on the phone listening to someone’s woes (a very uncomfortable thing to do because of the noises in her own head and deafness in one ear). In 1980, when she got wind of the city’s plan to sell timber on Seminary Hill, she didn’t write a letter or rant on Facebook. Nope, she mounted a signature campaign and founded a nonprofit group to preserve the area in perpetuity.
She and my father saw first hand the destruction of war and in the mid-80s joined the Beyond War organization, whose members believed that nuclear war would lead to global catastrophe. But she wasn’t satisfied to just write a donation check or wear a button, instead she stepped up to become the state chair of the Ribbon Project, which culminated in a massive art project, a demonstration against nuclear war in Washington DC and presentations to groups across the state. In the 90s and early 2000s, when she was in her 80s, she made dozens of cookies for every Seminary Hill activity and drove down to the senior center once a week to hold the door open for those who couldn’t walk and otherwise help the “old people.”
I am pretty sure that if she had been just 10 years younger my mom would be taking on the NRA right now and Cooks Hill Manor would have better food.
Sometimes Stellajoe’s love and care was expressed in much quieter and more intimate ways. It was the small bouquet of wildflowers that was always on the bedside table when I came home for a visit. It was remembering to send a birthday or anniversary card and writing (later dictating) thoughtful notes of concern and thanks (including expressions of thanks for thank you notes). It was going grocery shopping for neighbors who were housebound and taking bouquets of flowers to the nursing home after my grandmother died. It was asking about my friends, and the children and parents of my friends. It was being concerned that I had had a good day and that I’d have a good dinner. It was picking out a wedding or baby gift, from HUBBUB of course, for one of her caregivers.
On one of the very last evening walks mama and I took around the hall, I stopped to help one of her neighbors, who was desperately trying to phone her long-dead husband. Mama reached out to her, held her hand, and told her that she too missed her husband and thought of him often. She encouraged Neva to keep strong and think of happy times she and her husband had shared. My mama, doing what she could to keep one heart from breaking, right up to the end.
I’m not going to say that everything I know I learned from my mother, but I sure did learn a lot. I promise to do my best, dear SJ, to share your spirit and passion, to keep learning and doing, and to care for this planet and all the people who walk upon it. I can’t guarantee I’ll do you proud in the thank you note department, but I will for sure continue your search for the perfect pair of black pants and the right hat for every outfit.