Friday, April 18, 2008


My friend Margaret died earlier this week at the age of 80. She had not been in good health in recent years, but her mother lived to 103; and I did not expect to lose Margaret so soon.

She was a passionate reader, and a lifelong science fiction fan. Her one published novel, The Wrong World, reminded me of the SF I read as a kid in the 50s. I enjoyed it a lot.

She was an early member of the Aardvarks, the writing group Ruth Berman and I founded back when the Twin Cities were not full of SF writing groups. I left the group for reasons I no longer clearly remember, but Margaret remained. After I left, the group created a collaborative novel, Autumn World, which was published by FTL Publications. Margaret was one of the authors. She also published three charming folk tales in The Tolkien Scrapbook.

She was a founding member of Rivendell, the local chapter of the Mythopoeic Society.

At one point, she was attending Society for Creative Anachronism meetings and won a contest for the best plague rat. Her rat was a handmade stuffed animal dotted with large stuffed buboes. Very cute in a horrible sort of way.

Margaret, Ruth and I had season tickets to the Minnesota Opera. Every performance was followed by dinner at Sakura, a local Japanese restaurant. I also saw her at local science fiction conventions, though usually in passing.

In addition to the opera, she also went to the annual Gilbert and Sullivan production by the Very Light Opera Company, an amateur group that does a darn fine job.

Those are the interests I knew about: science fiction, fantasy, SCA, writing, fandom, opera and Gilbert and Sullivan.

She raised two children on her own. They were grown by the time I met Margaret; and I never met them, though I heard a lot about them and her grandchildren over the years.

She worked at Dayton's, a local department store that no longer exists, and took early retirement, in part because Dayton's stopped being an enjoyable place to work and in part (I think) to care for her mother, with whom she lived.

She decided she needed a part-time job after retirement, so went to a local technical college and learned shoe repair, which I considered remarkable. I would not have thought of shoe repair -- which is skilled work with leather -- as a late in life career. She repaired a leather bag for me and did an excellent job.

As it turned out, there was not much work for cobblers, since most people throw shoes away, instead of getting them repaired. I consider this criminal. Margaret worked a while doing shoe repair, then retired completely.

Her mother had half promised the house to Margaret, but actually left it to all three of her children. As soon as the mother died, Margaret's brother and brother-in-law began work to make the house marketable; and Margaret was forced to find a new home. She ended in a senior citizen high rise in downtown Minneapolis, on many bus lines and across the street from the main branch of the Minneapolis Public Library.

The location was excellent, but the apartment was small; and Margaret had trouble finding room for all her books. I don't think this was a serious problem at first, but the building management changed; and the new management kept telling her to get rid of books; they were a safety hazard. Margaret managed to keep most. Because she lacked space, she kept many of them packed in plastic bins.

She always had health problems. For years they did not seem especially serious. As she aged, however, she had at least two strokes. These weakened one side of her body and made her prone to falling, which led to injuries. It also seemed clear to me that she suffered from depression, which is fairly common in older people with ill health. I don't know if it was caused by her health problems or by discouragement. She was getting some help for the depression, maybe not enough.

A few months ago, her son and daughter-in-law moved her an assisted living building. I don't know the full story here. The move may have been necessary, since she was falling a fair amount. However, the new building was in an isolated corner of north Minneapolis. There may have been a bus line, but not the multitude of lines she'd had available in downtown Minneapolis. She was no longer across the street from the library; and she knew no one in the new building. She was a stoic person, who did not complain; and she was close to indomitable, taking public transit to cons if she couldn't find a ride, in spite of her frailty. (As an aside, I should mention that she didn't always ask for rides, when she could have.) I think she may have reached the end of her ability to soldier on. In any case, she died.

Moving frail older people, even with the best intentions, can be dangerous.

I mention Margaret's last years, because it's important for us to remember that even remarkable and indomitable people can be beaten down by old age and poor health, especially in a society that does a bad job of caring for those who are in any way vulnerable. I've encountered rich old people from time to time. It's amazing how comfortable old age can be, if you have money.

Margaret was a department store clerk, who inherited one third of a modest house. She did not have the resources you need to make old age comfortable.

My impression is, it was the last few years of her life which were really difficult, which is something else to remember. Before that, for decades, she was engaged, interested, clearly enjoying herself and making life more enjoyable for her friends. This is a considerable acheivement.

But we should always remember that we can do better for our elders.

Diversacon is going to dedicate their group reading to Margaret; and I think I'm going to suggest memorial donations to the Minneapolis Public Library. She loved libraries and believed in them as passionately as she believed in science fiction.

Ruth described her once as a space cadet disguised as a grandmother, which is a fine description. I am in awe of someone who could sew a plague rat and learn shoe repair in her 60s, who lived for books and music, and who was really, sincerely worried that we were not going to make it into space -- deep space, the planets and the stars.

Well, yes, Margaret, of course we are going into space, if our civilization survives and if we finally get rid of greed heads who run it. After the planets come the stars.


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6:55 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

What a beautiful tribute to your friend. Several years ago there was a lady who was a mentor to my mother and my aunt when they were young -taught them to sew and myriad other things. (she had no children of her own) The lady had gotten old and the town condemned her house because of too many papers and books, moved her out to a facility and got rid of her stuff. When She passed away not long after I wrote a letter to the town newspaper highlighting many of the stories my mother had shared with me about her (they never published it) Anyway, our elders are a special treasure, and we should take better care of them as a society.

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