|Mari Lou and Steve Elders|
Yes, I know life sometimes takes unexpected turns. But still...just when your spunky protagonist achieves success, it's not fair to your readers to then toss her off a cliff. What kind of an unsatisfying conclusion is that? How do you reconcile your anger at fickle fate? How do you find gratitude when every moment suddenly seems empty of joy? How do you remember that all you need is love?
This Saturday I'll be sitting next to my son and my daughter-in-law's mom, Maria, at Waverly Chapel at Fairhaven Memorial Park and Mortuary. We'll be paying last respects to our beloved Mari Lou, who died Monday morning, after an arduous illness.
Despite the fatigue that prevented her from picking up so much as a pencil, a few weeks ago Mari Lou was able to finish most of the final edits to her young adult novel, The Morning Come, which is scheduled for publication by Scholastic Press in spring 2017. She had labored over this delightful book for nearly a decade. During the height of the depression during the election campaign that finally saw FDR win the White House, Possom, a young girl in the rural south, struggles to cope with the death of her mother. She looks to Eleanor Roosevelt as a role model. Mari Lou hoped that the novel captured the spirit of youthful idealism. One of her favorite literary characters was Scout of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.
During the past several years Mari Lou mentored a circle of writers, The Tuesday Morning Class, who met in Orange to critique whatever poetry, fiction or memoir each participant might be working on. Mari Lou provided writing prompts, exercises, resources, individual edits and inspiration.
I had the privilege to be a guest presenter for the group a few years ago on a visit to Southern California, discussing how to mine your life's story for creative nonfiction pieces for magazines and anthologies. In recent months, when Mari Lou began to ail, I was able to step in a few times, to help the members refine their efforts and actually submit them to such paying markets as Chicken Soup for the Soul. What a joy to hear the writers laud my daughter-in-law, and tell me how much they had depended on her encouragement to continue with their writing.
For twenty-six years I've thought of Mari Lou as the daughter I never had. I've rejoiced that she and Steve found each other on the features copy desk of the Orange County Register way back in 1988. I met Mari Lou when I was home on a Medavac from Belize, where I'd gone in the fall of 1987 as a Peace Corps Volunteer. After I returned overseas, I looked forward to my son's letters describing how the relationship was progressing. A few years ago I wrote the story below about how desperate I was to get me to the church on time for Steve and Mari Lou's wedding.
Mari Lou listed her favorite things on the My Story form for the ICU at St. Joseph's Hospital: pumpkins, the color orange, pelicans, and her teddy bear April. She loved her family and her fellow writers. Many will be at the Saturday service.Yesterday Maria and I chose a proper party dress for April. She'll be pretty in pink.
In my daughter-in-law's honor I'll wear the only piece of orange jewelry I own, a beaded peace sign given to me by Steve on Mother's Day back in the late sixties. Peace and love, Mari Lou Laso Elders. Rest in peace. And love.
Mother of the Groom
“Because of their size, parents may be difficult to discipline properly.” ~P.J. O'Rourke
Perching on the steps of my rickety house on stilts in Belize City, I opened the long-awaited letter from my son. When I’d snatched the envelope from my slot at Peace Corps Headquarters, I’d decided to read it in the relative quiet of my Southside neighborhood, far from the blaring boom boxes of downtown. I expected good news…and got it.
Steve, my only child, and his girlfriend of the past year, Mari Lou, had set their wedding date for September 9.
I gazed across the road at the apricot-hued buds of the tree in the courtyard of St. John’s Cathedral, and made some calculations. It was July, so I had enough time to make the necessary arrangements to attend, but there would be so much to do.
I often sought comfort in soaking up the beauty of this compelling tree of many names. I’d learned that it’s called a Flame in Africa, a Royal Poinciana in Florida, and a Flamboyant in Belize, where it bloomed from May through July. Inhaling its subtle grape scent always brightened my mood.
So, I reflected, I’ll finally get to be the mother of the groom. I’d read somewhere that this supporting character’s role is to show up, shut up and wear beige. Unlike the father of the bride, she never takes center stage. She’s supposed to blend into the background. But as a parent, I didn’t want to a shadowy outsider, a drab bystander, on Steve’s big day. Every mother surely wants to preen just a bit as her child takes a major life step forward.
Show up? I sure would, even though the logistics were worrisome. I lived on the Caribbean coast of Central America. Over two thousand miles lay between my house and the UCI University Club, in Irvine, California, venue for the nuptials.
What would it take to get me to that club on time? I’d have to request vacation time, line up a plane reservation, secure lodgings with a California friend, and locate an escort.
Finding the latter might be difficult, but I decided I’d ask Rob, an old friend from the days we taught school together. He’d retired to Thailand, so I’d have to send a telegram. To my delight he responded within days.
“I’d planned a trip home this fall, so I’ll make it for September,” Rob telegraphed. “I’ll order a silk suit here in Bangkok.”
A week before my scheduled flight, I stayed overnight with a friend who lived near the Guatemala border. When I got home, I discovered I’d been burglarized. Somebody had shinnied up the banana tree next to a living room window, jimmied it open and tracked muddy footprints across the cushions of my rattan sofa.
Just days earlier I’d retrieved my passport and a couple of hundred American dollars from the Peace Corps vault. I’d tucked them into a zippered compartment in my carry-on bag, along with my airline ticket. I raced to my closet. The bag was gone. So was a box with a few inexpensive but treasured pieces of costume jewelry, including a Belizean black coral necklace and earrings I’d planned to wear to the wedding.
I wanted to howl to the heavens, but instead I hustled over to the Cathedral and collapsed in the shade of the Flamboyant. I wiped away tears and once again noticed the symmetry of the graceful lacy bell-shaped flowers.
“There’s proportion and purpose to life,” I deduced. “Destiny won’t let me miss my boy’s wedding.” I headed toward the Peace Corps office.
The director called the U.S. Embassy to order me a new passport, and tapped his emergency fund to replace my stolen money. Taca Airlines booked me seats on my original scheduled flights. They’d see if anybody tried to use my stolen tickets, and would send me a refund later. In the meantime they’d put the cost of substitute tickets on my credit card.
Before I left I started to call my son to explain what had happened. I picked up the lobby phone and suddenly realized that I’d most likely cry and complain. Then I remembered the second duty of the mother of the groom…shut up. Maybe I’d better begin right then. In the Caribbean the pods of the Flamboyant are called “woman’s tongue,” because of the clattering noise they make when rattled by the wind. Steve, engrossed in wedding plans himself, didn’t need to hear my laments. I replaced the receiver.
Once I arrived in California, I had exactly one day to shop for clothes.
“Wear something snazzy,” Rob had said. “Remember, my new suit’s elegant, but I don’t want to outshine the mother of the groom.”
Wear beige? No. I wouldn’t settle for biscuit, mushroom, taupe or oatmeal either. I didn’t want to resemble an early harbinger of Halloween. I craved something with color, something bright so I’d feel special, not nondescript or invisible.
When I got to the mall I feared I’d spend hours roaming through the racks. But it was if Destiny decided to take my side once again. At the very first shop I found exactly the dress I’d envisioned.
Friday’s rehearsal dinner went well. Though the groom’s dad and stepmom headed up the table, Rob and I comfortably chatted in our corner with friends of the bridal couple who seemed fascinated with our lives in our adopted countries. We regaled them with tales of our overseas derring-do, some of them even true, we laughingly confessed later to one another.
The evening of the wedding I donned my chiffon dress, a blend of jewel-tone blues, greens and lavender. Though I missed the black coral jewelry I’d planned to sport, I substituted a strand of glass beads that echoed the hues of my gown.
“Not at all dowdy, we two,” Rob commented when he arrived to pick me up, dapper indeed in his exquisitely tailored navy blue suit, with matching vest and tie. I relaxed. I wouldn’t be invisible at my son’s wedding.
At the reception following the ceremony, my son took his bride by the hand and spoke into a microphone.
“We’d like to invite everybody to join us as we dance to the first song I ever learned.” He looked over at me and grinned. “My mom taught me to sing this when I was four years old. I’d always loved the tune, but never had known the meaning of a ‘huckleberry friend’ until I met Mari Lou.”
The disc jockey put on a dreamy orchestration of “Moon River.”
Rob and I joined the other couples moving towards the dance floor.
“I’m so happy for Steve,” I whispered, flushed with joy, “and glad I found this dress.”
He winked and gathered me close. As we twirled and my chiffon skirt flared our, I didn’t feel like a mousy nonentity at all.
The mother of the groom might not have a major role at her child’s wedding... but she certainly doesn’t have to fade into the background in beige. As long as she doesn’t try to upstage the bride or the bride’s mother, she’s free to dress with just a hint, just a touch of…flamboyance.
|Waverly Chapel, Fairhaven Memorial Park|
My son is writing Mari Lou's obituary and it will soon appear here, where those who were fortunate enough to have known my remarkable daughter-in-law may leave lines of remembrance:
In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to either a Los Angeles organization that encourages young girls to write, WriteGirl, writegirl.org or the International Bird Rescue (bird-rescue.org), two causes that were special to Mari Lou.
|May 2015 family gathering: Steve, Mari Lou, stepson Rick, me, stepdaughter--in-law Angela. Stepgranddaughter Kendra holds April, Mari Lou's teddy bear that my son gave to her on their wedding day September 9, 1989.|