Saturday, February 16, 2013

When I grow up, I want to be like them...

Alas, our 2013 has started off full of a great deal of sadness...so far we have lost four people, in addition to the dad of a dear friend of ours. In addition to my Uncle Lloyd and my wonderful friend and coworker Loretta, two older women in our church have died...one at the end of January, and one just today...two women whose compassion, faith, and courage I admired.

Marion Johnson

One of my earliest memories of Marion was attending meetings of a committee at our church to become welcoming and affirming to GLBT people. Marion's daughter had a lesbian close friend, whom she loved like a daughter. She and another woman, Gene, were close friends and staunchly challenging the Catholic church to do the right thing! Gene was impassioned, but Marion was downright feisty, wanting to march on the Archdiocese or do something else radical. She expressed great consternation at the church she felt was extremely misguided. Marion's passion and attempts to push us forward were key factors in our church becoming a Reconciling in Christ congregation and a member of the Community of Welcoming Congregations. Marion lived her faith by advocating for the less fortunate and the underrepresented. GLBT equality and justice was only one of the many things she fought for.

Pastor Laurie speaking about Marion at the prayer breakfast
Today at her wonderful memorial service, our priest Father Neil told a story about his first encounter with Marion. Back in 1982, they were going to be starting up a new parish. She got hold of his phone number and quizzed him about his standing on social issues...she wanted to know if his beliefs were acceptable before she would come to the new church. After 20 minutes, Neil said he wasn't sure if he had passed or not, but the next morning she showed up at church. Marion's passion for justice and love of humanity were key themes throughout the celebration of her life today.l

Jewish, protestant, and Buddhist clergy who spoke
On Valentine's Day Mike and I eschewed hearts and candy and instead attended an interfaith prayer breakfast to kick off the Oregon United for Marriage initiative to get gay marriage on the ballot. Our gifted pastor was one of the many clergy who spoke on that inspiring morning. She talked about Marion and how she bravely challenged her church. Today she said that Marion was one of the fiercest women she knew, who taught her how to own her own height and stand proud.

She'd battled cancer a couple of times, had at least one stroke, and in recent years succumbed to Alzheimer's. She leaves behind a loving and devoted husband, five children, six grandchildren, and scores of friends who will miss her dearly, but whose lives have been forever touched and inspired. What I learned from Marion, and was reminded of today, was to not be afraid of speaking my mind and doing the right thing.
Marion planned her own memorial service many years ago, and it showed. The songs and readings were upbeat and inspiring, especially the final one, "City of God." As we were walking out, they played "Oh Happy Day" by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. And most inspiring of all was this photo (to the right) on the back of the program and in front of the church, accompanied by these words:

"On one final note...Ciao, arrivederci, so long, been good to know ya, I did it my way, and seriously folks, I love you!!!' Think of me as laughing and enjoying what I had in this life but off on another adventure and looking forward to new sights and renewing old acquaintances."
--Marion

Mary Olson

On our way home today from Marion's memorial service, I learned that my lifelong friend Mary Olson died yesterday.

Dancing at Mission of the Atonement's
 25th anniversary party
I've known Mary since I was 3 or 4 years old...as we attended Atonement Lutheran Church as I was growing up before it became Mission of the Atonement. Mary and her husband Oscar were charter members in 1961, and my family joined several years later, around 1967 or 1968. Throughout my childhood, she was there...I remember her coming to visit me in the hospital when I had my final cleft palate surgery at the age of 15.
At Holden Village in 2011, with her daughter Annette

She and Oscar danced their way through most of their elder years...as members of a local folk-dancing troupe. Oscar carried around little slips of paper in his pocket that advertised their dance group and invited everyone to join them. At church special events, they would put on their international folk costumes and dance for us. It kept them young, I believe! At their 50th wedding anniversary party, Oscar wore his military uniform--how many men would be able to fit into their uniform that many years later? Must have been the dance!

Beautiful Italian Mary!
In recent years, Mary began losing her eyesight and both she and Oscar had health problems...but they both made it past 90 and celebrated over 60 years of marriage together. Several years ago they moved into a retirement home, and a year and a half ago I visited them with Mike's mum, Olga. Mary was delighted to have us visit and toured us all around the facility.

Every time I saw her, she called me her "baby," and she delighted in telling everyone that she'd known me since I was a little girl. She did the same for my sister Nadine when they visited our church. They were passionately dedicated to our church, even though it meant getting rides from others or even taking the bus to church each week, after they stopped driving.

Beautiful photo taken by their granddaughter
Mary volunteered for years and years in hospitals, until she couldn't any more. Both she and Oscar have always LOVED children, taking their time to learn every child's name and get to know them personally. Mary was a prayer warrior...and another thing that strikes me about Mary and Oscar is that through all the changes we have faced in the church...whether that is voting to be Reconciling in Christ or trying out a two-service format (which was highly controversial!!) or starting a capital campaign, they have been accepting and loving. They have been more progressive than some of the younger people. They have always been filled with faith, acceptance, patience, and loving kindness.

Talking to Annette at another 25th anniversary party
Mary was diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer just a few short weeks ago...it seems that once she found out that it couldn't be treated, she decided she was ready to go. As she told our pastor, she hadn't seen her mom and dad in a long time...she was peaceful and as always, accepting. She leaves behind her beloved husband Oscar, three children, and two grandchildren. I think many of us thought Oscar would die first, as I imagine he might have as well. I can more easily imagine Mary without Oscar than Oscar without Mary, somehow....so this was a surprise to all of us.

The oldest members with the
 youngest member at the time, Sydney
Today we went to see Oscar and their children and got to visit Mary's room and leave our respects. A few Valentine's cards were propped up against the wall. Two of them were Oscar and Mary's cards to each other. They had each used the same Valentine's card each year, marking the year and a sentiment. I thought that was the sweetest thing, reflecting a love for and commitment to each other that spanned the decades. Oscar told me that although Mary was ready to go, he wasn't quite ready to let her go.

Even though Mary's sight was failing, she could always sense my presence and greeted me with a smile and a warm hug. How I wish that the last time I saw her, I hadn't been so busy at church...and I had taken more time to chat with her. How little I knew that it would be my last time to connect with her and how I wish I would have told her how much I loved her and what a positive influence she has been in my life.

Mary dancing with April
"To keep the heart unwrinkled.. to be hopeful.. kindly.. cheerful.. reverent... that is to triumph over old age." 
~ Amos Bronson Alcott

As my friend April just wrote on Facebook, "this is Mary, who taught me what life should be like at 90. I will miss you." Exactly...I want to be just like Marion and Mary when I get older...wise, wonderful, inspirational, and compassionate women who modeled love and justice for all. My life will not be the same without you.

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