October 14, 2013
On my last Great River Road trail walk before surgery, I greeted some bicyclists who were heading east, toward Alton. They had saddlebags filled to the bursting, hanging over their crossbars. This area is trail dense, with hundreds of miles of connecting trails and paths. Meeting those folks reminded me of the queen of journeys, my dear friend Marmie.
Margery Frye Walther died at the age of ninety-eight. I was her guardian at the end. She had cancer and dementia, and it was hard to watch her fade. But fade she did, and I and some friends sat with her body for a couple of hours. She looked radiant in death; all the pain was out of her face. And then a funeral home director took her body, which was to be donated to science. Imagine my surprise when the funeral guy called me two weeks ago and said there were remains—ashes. Would I like to have them?
And so Marmie began her last journey, from Greyslake, Illinois to Genehouse—so I thought. She arrived last week, and I realized there will be “miles to go” before she finally rests. There will be more journeys, as I will spread her ashes in places she loved.
We met in 1972. I was working at a church in Chicago, a magic place which housed a center for runaway kids (the ’68 Democratic convention left thousands of homeless hippies in its wake), a free feed on Wednesday nights, an art gallery in the church balcony, a Sunday folk music service composed by my dear friend Art Gorman, free clothing, and a theater in the sanctuary (David Mamet staged his first play there, starring William “Billy” H. Macy).
We were understaffed, and we placed ads asking for volunteers. For me, the most important volunteer was a fifty-eight–year-old woman, Marmie Walther, from north suburban Lake Forest, a former Republican chairwoman in her town, who had been radicalized by the Vietnam War. She worked tirelessly, housing runaways, cooking and cleaning. We thought she was old. No irony there, as I am seven years older than she was when we met.
People often underestimated my friend, so hippy-looking, always wearing loose, colorful skirts and lacy tops, and she seemed happy-go-lucky (she was haunted by her husband’s death and by all the older friends and her family who deserted her when she converted to liberalism). She graduated from Northwestern. She was turned away from the engineering school because women weren’t allowed. She got a degree in English. Her command of language and diction would make modern radio announcers blush.
1972 was the highest and lowest year in my life. I left the church and went on the road, playing the role of Judas in “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” We played the upper United States and all across Canada. On April fifteenth, as the cast was waiting to go onstage in Iron Mountain, Michigan, a call came in to the box office. My mother had been murdered by a serial killer, at Bull Shoals Lake, in the Ozarks. The next day, I caught a flight from snowy Michigan, stopping at O’Hare to change planes, then on to the heat and beauty of spring in southwest Illinois. Art Gorman came with me for moral support.
At O’Hare, friends were waiting for me and offering condolences. Marmie came forward and held me and whispered endearments in my ear. Just before I boarded the next plane, another friend came up to me and told me that Marmie’s husband had committed suicide in late March. It was typical of her, that she ministered to me and left her own misery unspoken.
Over the next few months, we became fast friends. We were the only two people who could console each other. We traveled to protest marches across the country, talking and talking. Our most memorable journey together was driving to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for a trial of priests who broke into a military installation and spilled their blood on a missile silo.
Joan Baez was supposed to sing for the crowd of over a million people, but her helicopter was held up. Harvey Cox, the theologian from Harvard, was master of ceremonies. Banks of speakers went up a hill and beyond the horizon. He asked if someone could sing until Joan arrived. Marmie and I were down front. She waved frantically at Dr. Cox and pointed to me, Betsy, my Martin guitar, slung over my shoulder. Which is how I came to sing for a million people—until Joan arrived and took the stage.
Around 1974, Marmie gave away her house, bought a Volkswagen camper and took off to see the country. Over a span of thirty years, she would travel to every state multiple times, writing me a letter from each stop. She picked up all hitchhikers and fed them. I used to meet her at places, our favorites being Las Cruces, New Mexico and Atascadero, California, where our old Chicago friends, Dave and Linda Mulvey, welcomed us. Marmie’s favorite California places were Yosemite and a beach below the Hearst Castle, at Big Sur. Her ashes will journey to those places.
She climbed mountains with me until she was eighty-five. Her favorite was Dragon’s Tooth Mountain, on the Appalachian Trail above the Murder Hole, outside of Roanoke, Virginia. And every year, she traveled overseas, managing to visit every continent on earth. She hated Australia and loved Central America. Machu Picchu was her sacred place.
Oh, the stories. She loved Key West and would winter there, camping out on a beach and partying. “I was born on my sixtieth birthday,” Marmie told everyone she met, “so I am only a teenager.”
So the teenager and a teenage boy were driving to get beer and they parked the van, pulled the curtains and made love. A state policeman drove up and arrested the “old lady” for her deed. She spent the night in jail, surrounded by young runaway girls—Key West rounded up all street people at night. The next morning, a fat old judge opened Marmie’s file and peered over his bifocals, horrified to see her, a woman older than he. He released her on bail, after delivering a sermon on morality. Marmie cheerfully bailed out all the girls.
I wrote a song for my friend, “In Search of Myself.” I was driving on a highway, and the muse hit. I pulled over and finished the song in less than fifteen minutes. “I sleep in the room where I was born, sixty years ago/I still wonder, I still yearn/I still have to grow. My life is like a book on a dusty shelf/I am in search of myself.” We threw a party after her death—her wish. The song was set to a montage of photos of her life with her friends. And we cried and laughed.
And on her journey goes, hardly the stuff of “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad,” but the kinds of journeys you and I embark upon every once in a while—every day, even. A drive to a store is an odyssey; there is no guarantee we will return home. There might be Gorgons (Tea Partiers) to fight. Marmie taught me to look and marvel at every living thing along the way, rejoice in life and never mourn or regret.
For now, she resides in Genehouse, just below all the black and white photos of her, hanging on a wall. In a few months, her new journeys will begin. Her atoms will disperse, and she will be ocean and mountain and redwood and rock and stream and return to stars. God knows what she is doing in parallel universes.
“. . . so of my stupid sincere youth/the exquisite failure uncouth/discovers a trembling and a smooth/Unstrength, against the strong silences of your song . . .” e.e. cummings
“Live without expectations.” Margery Frye Walther