The Obituary of an Extraordinary Woman, My Mother…plus

IMG_0029SPIRO, Marian Wagner, 89, of Madison, CT and Amherst, MA died on June 18, 2017 at the Hospice of the Fisher Home after a lengthy illness. Marian was born in Fall River, MA on February 16, 1928 to Oliver and Carolyn Wagner. She was raised in Fall River during the Depression and graduated from BMC Durfee High School. She then earned a two-year degree from Vermont Junior College that enabled her to work as a lab technician. It was at a lab at Harvard Medical School that she met her husband Howard Spiro. They were married in 1951, made a home in New Haven, CT and quickly had four children: Pammy, Lynnie, Martha, and Philip. In the meantime, she returned to school, received her undergraduate degree and in 1970 began a twenty-year career as a renowned teacher of science and math at The Foote School in New Haven. She introduced computers to her students long before they ended up in their back pockets and once built a solar-heated oven to bake the Thanksgiving turkey. She helped to revive the school newspaper, which was later renamed the “SPI” in her honor. Her dogs were frequent guests in her classroom, and when she wasn’t helping to train her friends’ dogs or hosting canine pool parties in her backyard, Marian was taking her own retrievers to local hospitals or mental health facilities to hang out with patients. Throughout her life, she was known for expert woodworking skills, her intuitive ability at navigating a sailboat, her competitiveness on the tennis court or in a game of bridge or scrabble, her love of golden retrievers, her lasting friendships, and her deep devotion to her family. She never let the social conventions of her day block her dreams: she embarked on a lifetime avocation of woodworking despite being told it was not for girls, she became a teacher of science before most scientists would accept women as their peers, and she even made the phone call to Howard for a date that led to their eventual marriage. She will be sorely missed by her four children: Pamela Spiro Wagner, Carolyn Spiro Silvestri, Philip Spiro and Martha Spiro; her six grandchildren: Allison Spiro-Winn, Jeremy Spiro-Winn, Hannah Spiro, Claire Spiro, Oliver Spiro and Adriane Spiro; and her many friends and students. She follows the passing of her parents Oliver and Carolyn, her husband Howard of 61 years, her sister Barbara, and her brother Oliver. A memorial service will be scheduled at a later time. In lieu of flowers donations may be made to the Marian W. Spiro Fund for Science Enrichment at The Foote School in New Haven, CT or the Hospice of the Fisher Home in Amherst, MA.

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The obituary above was written by my wonderful “cousin in law,” Jere Nash, who is Holly Wagner’s husband, my uncle’s daughter (who was my mother’s late brother, Oliver who died many years ago of malignant melanoma).

All that follows is my interpretation of things, as all observation is of course but in my case you have to understand that I speak largely as an outsider, not knowing very much since I was not “in” the family for so many years…

Although I lost many years with my mother as an adult, due to my father’s “exxing” me out of the family in anger and a profound lack of understanding of “mental illness” and what was going on for me at the time, I still remember her in my childhood, how when there were still trolleys in New Haven Connecticut (oh, how young I must have been then!) she would either bravely or completely nonchalantly wear jeans  to go shopping downtown at Malleys or whatever the stores were there at the time. For anyone else this would have been extremely difficult, disregarding all the social mores of the 50s dictating that women had to wear skirts and heels and make-up to go out presentably in public. I do not know how my mom felt about it, only that she did it and did not seem to care what others thought. She cared only that she was more comfortable in pants, and low- heeled  “girl scout” shoes, the same kind I wear to this day, and she saw no sense in getting all dressed up just to bring 2 very young children out to go on a stressful shopping expedition.  As for that, my mother to my knowledge never wore more make-up in her life than a dash of lipstick, though I do remember her applying that with care every morning and blotting her red lips on a fold of toilet paper, thinking both how beautiful she looked (though she never  in her life agreed with me or anyone else on this, even though when she was younger  — when we lived in England — my friends thought she looked like a “movie star”) and how I never wanted to have to put “that stuff” on my own lips.

Unlike her children, who suffered from oily skin and troublesome largely untreated acne as adolescents, my mother’s bane of existence was her dry skin  and its tendency to wrinkle  so her one vanity, if you could call it that, was moisturizers and trying to deal with skin that aged earlier than she might have wished. She was also a outdoors lover, a sailor and a tennis player in the days well before the publicized benefits of sun screen, which may or may not have played a role in this (I am not completely convinced of the safety of sunscreens with their nano chemicals nonetheless)…Whatever is the case, it seemed true that her skin did show the effects of being out in the weather early on, but this to me only gave her face character and the true beauty of an older woman…though I know that as I was growing up it may have caused her more regret than I knew.

We are all of us subject to society’s images and social pressures, and my mother was not immune to these, no matter how iconoclastic and “her own person” she may have been in so many ways. For example, as a result of having been a self-described  “chunky athletic tomboy with a tiny petite older sister” — and feeling rejected for this all her life,  she fought a poor self-image, body hatred, and deep conflict on that account, such that I have always felt that in some sense while she loved food and eating, she also never took a single bite that she did not simultaneously regret and chide herself for. This was painfully obvious to us children, I think, at least it was to me, and it continued throughout her life. Even after nearly forty years of not seeing her, I would go out to lunch with her when she was in her 80s, and hear her criticize herself  about what she was eating. How I wished she could simply enjoy food for once, without the concomitant agonies of needing to punish herself for it.

Maybe she got some peace at some point, perhaps dementia granted it to her, but at what a terrible price.

I think that for my mother, one of the sad consequences of being married to a man like my father was that she never felt that he took her intellect or her creativity seriously or even  consequentially. True, he got her to go back to college and finish a four-year degree, and take up teaching, but he never truly treated her with the same esteem he granted an equal, and we all felt it and knew it, and what is more, she did too. No doubt this was largely behind all her words of abuse and rage in later years when she could scarcely speak to him civilly even when  he had himself ceased to be abusive.  It was hard to listen to her snark and scorn him, when he was trying his best…But by then it was much to late to undo the damage his lack of care and cold abusiveness had wrought for so many years beforehand. It seemed to me that she just could not forgive him, especially not for “changing” on her so unaccountably in his latter decades…

 

This is the rather in-expert poem I wrote for my mother’s birthday in 2007 about all that she gave us growing up…

 

YOUR OWN OCCASIONAL POEM 2/16/07

 

You push the wood under the saw,

the sawdust scent is sharp and familiar.

First time in months, you’re in the woodshop;

at the end of the day, you’re sorry to stop.

 

 

It’s mid-February, the pale wintry light

has long ago left. You look up. It’s night

and you haven’t appeased yet your hands’ appetite,

their urge to create. I know as I write

 

 

that hunger of hands to handle and make,

your children all feel it, the pleasure, the ache.

You taught us love, gave us skills that you knew

copper enameling, pen and ink, too,

 

 

the weaving of baskets and papier maché

antiquing desks and working with clay,

sand casting, knitting (you couldn’t crochet).

 

 

You fired up a hunger that’s better than food

a hunger that drives us, the right attitude

to make things of beauty, for need and for use.

With paper pulp, wood, fabric, clay, we produce

 

 

unique objets d’art not entirely planned.

We make them with care and the love they demand

and when they are finished, we give them away.

(The joy’s in creating; they’re not meant to stay.).

 

 

You gave us the spirit, this need and the drive

this hunger, this feeling of being alive.

I don’t know if knowing, you planted the seed

but the plant it grew gives us all that we need.

 

 

(A mother like you is so rare you’re worth pay,

which conveniently rhymes with this:

Happy Birthday!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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