My Immortal Mother-in-Law by Elizabeth Cunningham


Elizabeth Cunningham headshot jpegBefore Olga Eunice Quintero Smyth died on December 4, 2014 at age 101 and 10 months, I was tempted to believe she was immortal, literally. I knew Olga for forty-five years (from age 16 to 61). For thirty-five of those years she was my mother-in-law. Our history began when I was kicked out of high school and went to work at her free-wheeling school, her utter lack of any interest in reforming me a blast of fresh air. It ended with me sitting beside her as she was dying, softly singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”

Olga was named for a Russian princess her mother encountered when she was a babe in her arms en route to Trinidad from her native Venezuela. Olga took for granted her descent from Incan royalty as well. Her mother moved the family to New York when she was eleven. A few years later, she won a scholarship to Mount Holyoke College. She married a classmate’s brother, Julian Smyth, great grandson to Nathaniel Hawthorne. If that weren’t enough, Olga claimed for Julian’s line direct descent from the first century Celtic Queen Boadicea. As long as she could speak, she spun tales. “Where in Africa was she born?” one of her nurses asked me. “What kind of a dancer was she?”

img1079Five feet tall, dark and beautiful, it was Olga’s ambition to go into the coffee trade at the height of the Depression. Job interviewers laughed at her and told her it was a man’s world. Undaunted, Olga changed tack and attended Bank Street College of Education, becoming a pioneer in her field. With her husband, whom she rescued from a dull desk job, she founded High Valley School. Their students did not fit into a conventional classroom for a variety of reasons, all of which now have diagnostic labels. Olga didn’t bother with labels. She just observed each child, his or her quirks and interests. Even kids with severe dyslexia learned to read when encouraged to pursue their passion for baseball or comics. If a child was disruptive, she put him to work in her garden.

A minister’s daughter growing up in the 1950s, I’d seen two alternatives for women: marriage, which appeared to demand self-suppression, or spinsterhood, which seemed to offer some hard-won tranquility. I had never known a woman who did things her own way, who pleased herself and was pleased with herself. Here was Olga confident, sexy, professionally fulfilled. Though widowed in her mid-fifties, she’d enjoyed a happy, unconventional marriage. She was a mother, too. From what I could see, she had it all. If she could, I could, too.

This conviction and Olga’s example stood me in good stead years later when a chorus of women from my mother’s generation (including my mother) informed me I could not be a writer once I became a mother (subject for another post). Though marriage into Olga’s family compound was not without challenges, because of Olga I had a husband who had no traditional expectations of women at all. Suffice it to say, my children are now functioning adults, and I am still a writer.

A lapsed Catholic (once she left Trinidad, religion wasn’t fun anymore) Olga was the most theologically oblivious person I ever knew. Yet when I was ordained she gave me a clergy stole woven in Guatemala. The subject of my novels didn’t interest her much, but she funded some of my research trips. She preened when she recognized herself in Spencer Crowe in The Return of the Goddess. She clearly inspired Maeve’s eight mothers and their motto, “A story is true if it’s well told.” There is a definite resemblance between Olga and the sublimely imperious Virgin Mary in The Maeve Chronicles. The mother-in-law/daughter-in-law story in Bright Dark Madonna owes much to our relationship. In Red-Robed Priestess, I turned to Olga’s favorite queen Boadicea (Boudica). I dedicated Wild Mercy to her, a collection of poems based on the tarot. “To Olga Smyth, the first Empress I ever knew. “

DSC00566-1When we were no longer able to care for Olga at High Valley, where she had her school and where I ran a center after she retired, I grieved deeply. In my mind, Olga and High Valley were one. Olga had more to teach me. She remained Her Self, no matter where she was. Even when she could not move or speak, people responded to her extraordinary presence.

Through her last days (and beyond), Olga inspired/s me, becoming one with a character called Ancient Dreamer, part of a poem cycle in progress. I offer these in Olga’s memory with gratitude and love.

song of the ancient dreamer

you don’t need open eyes to see
you don’t need to be awake to wander.
the mountain thinks it’s old
but I am older. if you see me,
and maybe you won’t, don’t
tread on my mossy bed, don’t disturb
my fine-woven cloak, fresh flowers,
fallen leaves, don’t disturb my powers
bound and freed by dreams.

song to the ancient dreamer

ancient dreamer, you are the boat
and the oars and the sail,
you are the wide, slow river, too
let me ride awhile with you
let me remember your dreams.

ancient dreamer, catch the current
follow the tide to the wild wide sea,
the plains of your face a shore
where I wait and keep watch
awash on the shoals of your breath.

ancient dreamer, there is a rim
where the sky and the ocean meet
and the moon and the sun disappear.
if I don’t see you when you go
I will dream of you when I sleep.

ancient dreamer awakes

I dreamed I was a tall tree
mightier than most
I gave shelter to many
my shadow was very long
like my almost eternal life.

now I wake to an empty sky,
when the mighty fall
the world must shift.
what will grow, I wonder,
in all the light I’ve left ?

 

Elizabeth Cunningham is best known as the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award-winning novels featuring a feisty Celtic Magdalen. Her third collection of poems So Ecstasy Can Find You will be published in September, 2015 by Hiraeth Press. She is currently working on a mystery series. An Interfaith minister, she is also a counselor in private practice and a fellow emeritus of Black Earth Institute.

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Categories: Aging, Death and Dying, Family, Foremothers, Friendship, In Remembrance, Loss, Love, Poetry, Relationships

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57 replies

  1. What a beautiful tribute to a woman well-loved!

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    • Thank you, Karen. A woman well-loved and a life fully lived!

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    • Beautiful. The photos are a wonderful touch. I like the things you remember about her and you, and how you present them in a way that makes me wish I had really known her. :But then, I didn’t. She was just this mysterious presence that, as you point out, seemed to be one with High Valley.

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    • Coming from a.cramped one bedroom apartment in NYC just after my father died and having survived a serious accident where i almost died at 11 years old, I was sent to High Valley at twelve Iin 1961. In just one hour I had fallen into paradise. Olga and Julian’s love was a true gift . I will always remember riding to school with Julian in his Daimler sports car, him wearing his raccoon coat as we sat stuffed in the back singing LULU HAS A BOY FRIEND. Some of us went to the Poughkeepsie Day school and lived at HV. I will always treasure my long rides with my pony Rainbow often getting lost in the vast fields and woods that surrounded us. Rainbow always knew the way back. Everything about High Valley was like the sweet scent of Lilacs in the spring. After leaving the nosiy, crowded city, I landed in one of the most bucolic places that I had ever been. Lushness embraced me as did my close friends and I knew I had found bliss. Olga, Julain and HV will live in my heart forever. Var Staff Burns

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  2. Especially love the last two lines of the poem.

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    • Thank you, Carol. Those two lines just popped out. I continue to ponder them.

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      • as a fellow poet ( i’d like to think, thank you dominate paradigm for introducing doubt to all who aren’t 100% privileged!) i love that you’re pondering. i have no answers. i like to feel that those inspired moments are both created by me (individual) and cosmic. i really don’t know. but perhaps i’m too much of a male to let go of my own participation. i’ll be honest: i’m okay with having some of my privileged delusions whilst my body lasts! just so long as i become more and more aware of the delusions i have been granted merely by being a penis-bearer (and white, and able bodied) destroyed or at least challenged when they help support the empire (as i call it)

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      • Thank you, fellow poet! May your pondering be rich!

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  3. The two photos amazingly beautiful together, what is consistent between them and what has matured and deepened and changed. Thank you for sharing. Blessed be.

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  4. This is such beautiful tribute – Bravo!!

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  5. Thank you for sharing your mother-in-law with us. What an amazing woman. We have so many wise women/Ancient Dreamers among us and it is wonderful and so important when they are recognized, loved, and celebrated as such. Your poem cycle is powerful – I hope you’ll post the full cycle when it is finished.

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  6. Thank you, Carolyn. I hope someday the poem cycle will become a book. I will keep you all posted.

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  7. Immortal she is, in your words and your tribute. Well done! And her Crone picture shows us her beauty and radiance. Blessed Be!

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  8. This deserves far more than a press of the ‘Like’ button, but I am at a loss for words other than to say it was a wonderful way to start a Sunday.

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  9. I love this post, thank you so much. Whenever I hear someone lived to be a very old age, I want to see a picture of them when they were young- you did that! Olga was beautiful- in youth and old age.

    Your poems are lovely, and I think Olga would have been delighted that she was your inspiration. There are few things more complimentary than being someone’s muse. There is also something about how you wrote the verses, maybe the rhythm or something, anyhow there is this sense of careful pacing, like how I imagine an old woman would walk. Just awesome. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

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    • Thank you so much! I think Olga was delighted to be a muse, as she was for many people in different ways. I trust she is enjoying her immortality!

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  10. Thank you, Xochitl, for beautiful formatting!

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  11. Beautiful, my friend. I had cool mothers-in-law, but yours sounds like the best in the world. I’ve met Doug; she must have been an excellent mother, too. Bright blessings and Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. (For others who read this, that’s the Blessed Bees, whom Elizabeth Found and I wrote about, blessing her, too.)

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  12. Elizabeth, you never cease to amaze and inspire me. We are privileged to “know” Olga through you. Being 25 years or so from Olga’s age I can also imagine her laugh and say what a great daughter in law she had. You are blessed in each other.

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  13. I love your writing, Elizabeth. This reminds me of the work of local Ithaca physician dr. Bill thomas who applauds our elders

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  14. What a beautiful tribute! Spencer Crowe is one of my all time favorite characters and it was nice to meet the inspiration for her through your words of love. Thank you.

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  15. Thank you, Suzanne. Good to see you here. Glad to know of Dr Thomas’w sork.

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  16. I’ve always admired women who seem to have come into this world fiercely independent and apparently not giving a “flying fig” about what established society thought about them as they went about living their rich and full lives. Olga seems to have been that kind of woman. Thank you so much for sharing Olga with us.

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  17. As Son of one and Husband of the other, I”m honored to find myself in such company. You did her proud and yourself as well..

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  18. Thank you, Elizabeth. So good to be reminded of those who have gone before and to honour the ways they have touched us. Vale, Olga, and thank you for inspiring Elizabeth to be who she is!

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  19. Thank you for your kind words!

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  20. Wonderful post Elizabeth – thanks you for sharing – blessed be Olga… long may your wonderful journey continue and your poetry Elizabeth is divine .. BBees……indeed.

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  21. Thank you for sharing this. What amazing lives we lead! I hope she had a blessed passing. I know she lives on in you and, through your books, so many of us too.

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  22. Thank you for posting. When I look at the latter picture, I’m looking at my mother.

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  23. Beautifully written piece and a wonderful tribute.

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  24. Thanks for the insight, for an outsider. Thanks for your gifts, as you allow them. Grateful for continuance, in the new light. From my home to yours, greetings.

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  25. This is an inspirational tribute to an amazing individual as well as a remarkable mother-and-daughter-in-law relationship. I’m also grateful for the beautiful poem.

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  26. What a fond and loving tribute. I remember meeting her briefly, a strong presence, and then the presence of High Valley…the mystic and the rustic roughhousing with each other, the pond I rowed and rowed and rowed in…

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  1. Elizabeth Cunningham’s latest Feminism and Religion blog post: My Immortal Mother-in-Law | Black Earth Institute

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