Today is My Sister Marion's Birthday


Marion Louise Walker Stauffer. Today is my dear sister Marion's birthday. When she died five years ago, it was such a shock that it seemed to me the next thing I knew, I was having heart surgery myself. I felt sorry and guilty to be the one who lived longer. She so much deserved the years of joy that were just beginning, with her little grandchildren who she adored so much.

Marion had often said that she didn't expect to live very long, but I would tell her that she was not allowed to go first, because I was the oldest. She had suffered from illness all her life, with very severe asthma in her early childhood. One of her most beloved memories was when she had been in the hospital for her asthma, at about age five, but seemed to be declining there. Our mother, seeing that she was not thriving in the hospital, defiantly dared to take her home. Marion always remembered it as a bold and loving rescue.

Though she had suffered from illness much of her life, Marion always had a passionate love of life-- of beauty and art and music. Most of all she had boundless love for her family, for her dear children and grandchildren.

In her early married years, Marion completed two Master's degrees, and had completed all but the dissertation for a doctorate in developmental psychology. During the years that she was a practicing school psychologist in Houston, she took genuine pride in her work, and I believe she must have helped a great many students. There were times when her work took considerable courage, as she several times had to testify in court on behalf of children who were threatened by abusive fathers.

Marion was a brilliant and accomplished, warm and loving woman who could not do all that she dreamed of because of poor health and difficult life circumstances. But those disappointments seemed to disappear completely when her grandchildren came into her life. I have never seen such deep and joyful love as she felt for those little ones, and I'm sure that even though they didn't get time to know her well, her love was strong enough to be with them all their lives.

Marion and I were named for two half sisters of our father, Charlotte and Marion, who died in a major flood in North Carolina in 1916. They had taken refuge in a tree, but were eventually swept away. It was a strange thing for us, to have such tragic heroines for our namesakes-- but it also gave us a special bond, I think. I know that even though we sometimes grumbled at each other, and even though I was sometimes jealous of the attention she would get as the youngest in the family-- I always felt a deep affection and a need to take care of my little sister. But it was far more than that. We used to have such wonderful talks on the phone. We would talk about politics-- for Marion was a brave Democrat living in a Republican-dominated community in Jacksonville, Florida. One of her most joyous moments was when she met Barack Obama during his first presidential campaign, and he signed her copy of The Audacity of Hope. And we would talk about books and music and family history. Marion was especially interested in our Irish background and had learned quite a lot about our Irish ancestors. Ireland would have suited her well, with its tradition of music and beautiful language. Though she could not afford piano lessons, Marion had kept her daughter Courtney's piano, and had been teaching herself to play. Sometimes on the phone she would ask if I would like to hear a song she had been learning; then she would put the phone down, and I would listen as she played. Often it would be an Irish melody that she had fallen in love with. Marion had a beautiful speaking voice, and a lovely, warm way of laughing that reminded me of a song that our mother used to sing, "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling." The last lines are, "But when Irish eyes are laughing, sure they'll steal your heart away."

Marion was also a talented writer, and in her later years she completed a long essay/memoir about childhood asthma that I hope someday will be published as a small book. Her vivid memories of her experiences with chronic illness as a child might be helpful to others, and her account of the changing asthma treatments over the second half of the twentieth century might also be interesting for medical historians. She called her essay "Breathing and Smiling in an Oxygen Tent." Our brother Stan and I also included an essay of hers in the volume we edited of our father's autobiography. It's a touching memory of saying goodbye to our father early one morning, as he left for the Korean War.

There is one memory of Marion that sums up for me how brave and loving and creative and smart she was. The two of us were walking on the beach in Jacksonville, during a visit to our parents, who were in their nineties. As we walked along, we came upon a pelican that seemed to be in some distress, sitting on the sand just above the reach of the water. While I was wondering what we might do for it, Marion simply went over to the pelican, scooped it up in her arms, and walked out into the water deep enough to set the pelican afloat. Then she gently settled the bird upon the water and backed away. It seemed like the perfect thing to do, and the pelican placidly rode the gentle waves back into the sea.

I wish I could give you the picture that is so vivid in my mind. There is the white sand of the Jacksonville beach. There are some lazy pelicans flying low over the sand and out to the water. And there is my beautiful sister, always so gracious and ladylike, her face earnest and caring, her full skirt wet with salt water as she confidently and lovingly lifts that huge pelican in her arms, and carries it out into the surf. And behold, there is the modest dignity of that pelican, trusting my sister as she rescued it.

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