July 16, 2011
When special people touch our lives,
Then suddenly we see
How beautiful and wonderful
Our world can really be.
They bless us with their joy and love
Through everything they give —
When special people touch our lives,
They teach us how to live.
ome of you have probably seen this poem, written by Luthera some twenty-five years ago. Carol wisely put it in the latest issue of the Moorings, the church newsletter. Luthera touched the lives of all of us here, in so many wonderful ways. However, my first interaction with her could have been different were it not for how special she was.
The phone rang one day, many years ago, and a pleasant voice said, “Mrs. Lammert, you don’t know me. My name is Luthera Dawson.” She was right — I didn’t know her. And she was calling with a complaint about a surveying dispute — my father was a surveyor and she did not agree with the boundary lines he had come up with. One might think that with such a potentially ominous beginning, it would seem unlikey that I would be standing here 35 years later remembering my very dear friend. She never let property lines get in the way of what was to be a very long friendship.
We shared so many interests; church, Girl Scouts, books and the library, productions at Watts Hall. I can’t remember (she would though, wouldn’t she?) whether it was church or Girl Scouts that first connected us. Perhaps it was here at church that I learned that she was one of — if not THE- first Girl Scout in Thomaston; she was born before Girl Scouts were founded. Years later, she told me she heard about Scouting on the radio — on a program on Saturday mornings — and sent away to become one. We both enjoyed having her come to my troop each year to tell the girls in the 80’s what it was like to be a Scout in the 20s. Every year, when we started the cookie campaign, I would tell them about how in Luthera’s day, the girls baked their own cookies, and sold them for twenty-five cents a dozen.
Here at church, we did coffee hours together — and she always insisted that I make a blueberry cake from a family recipe. For several years, I did the Moorings, the church newsletter. Then she followed me — and the Moorings instantly became a more interesting read. She even bought a book on how to make church newsletters more appealing. She recently told me she remembered when I joined the church, to which I responded, “You probably remember it better than I do!” I have always been amazed by how detailed her memory was.
Luthera always wanted to know what books I read to my students when I was the elementary school librarian for SAD 50. If she didn’t know the book, she wanted to read it. When I stared a Junior Great Books program for good readers, she quickly said “Yes,” when I asked if she would lead a section. Naturally, I put my daughter in the group with the best leader — Luthera. We chuckled several times when we reminisced about what Jennifer said when I told her Luthera was to be her Junior Great Books leader. Jenn was 10; Luthera was 72. “But Mom,” Jenn said to me with great concern, “what if she dies before we’re done?” Obviously, Jenn had nothing to worry about.
When Watts Hall was up and running again, after many years of being idle, she loved telling stories of the programs she saw there as a young woman. I told her that I would see that she went to any program or performance she wanted to see. Until I went off to seminary, we shared many a pleasant evening at Watts Hall.
And speaking of seminary. During one visit, while I was still studying, she said, “Anne, do you know that scripture, ‘When I was a child I talked like a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things’?” I answered affirmatively, though somewhat hesitantly, because I was afraid she wanted me to do some theological discussion on that text. Not to worry. She simply looked at me with a twinkle in her eye and said, “I never did that. I never put away childish things.” To my mind, that is one of the things that made her so endearing.
I could go on and on, but others are speaking, so I will end with one more story. A few years ago, when she had been in the hospital, I went to visit. Somehow, we got on the topic of heaven, probably because she had had a near-death experience. She told me a poignant story about a childhood memory of a small Cushing girl who had drowned in the St. George River. Apparently, Luthera and her twin brother, Leroy, were told what many children are told at times like this. “She is in heaven now,” their mother explained. And then proceeded to describe heaven in terms that would take the sting of death away from two young children. Luthera told me, “I envisioned angels, and harps, and fluffy white clouds, and peace and joy. Then the day of the funeral came. When we got to the church, everyone was crying, and that puzzled me,” she admitted. The small Luthera wondered why everyone was crying if heaven was as wonderful a place as her mother had described. “You didn’t ask those kinds of questions in those days, but I wondered why the adults weren’t happy for the girl, because she was lucky enough to be in heaven while we were all down here eeking out a living.” Then her eyes sparkled, as they always do when she begins to recite a poem. “I know I’m misusing his quote,” she acknowledged, “but, as Robert Browning would say, if the thought of heaven makes everyone cry, ‘What’s a heaven for?’”
And now, Luthera, you know the answer to that question.
uthera and I made black bun one Christmas tide. Luthera, as most of you know, was a fine baker. You are probably familiar with her breads and pies, and cookies — especially the lemon mince cookies. To continue with the black bun: we had a recipe from Laphroig, maker of a fine, smoky single malt whiskey, for this Scot’s holiday treat. Black bun is a round bread, dark with raisons and whiskey and wrapped in plain bread. We worked together, weighing the ingredients according to the directions and slowly realizing that the result would be one very large loaf of bread. After two risings, the loaf was easily 20 inches in diameter and ten inches high. We took all but one rack out the oven so it would fit in case it chose to rise some more. The black bun baked for many hours. We cut ourselves slices and we laughed.
Between four and five in the afternoon, I start thinking about a good time to call Luthera. We spoke almost every day. Despite infirmities of age she was a bright, engaging conversationalist with a passion for puns. I expect I will spend the rest of my life anticipating the call to Luthera and coming up short at the realization that she will not be available.
Luthera was a lioness in matters of duty. If she believed something needed to be done, she did it — a bookmobile, a library, a child — or a prison inmate — who needed tutoring, a child who needed mittens, or a hungry person who needed a mug-up of pie and coffee. But, when it came to herself, she was reticent to a fault. I met her for the first time on a cold, drizzly autumn day in Portsmouth. We had lunch at the Library, a restaurant lined, floor to ceiling, with bookshelves. We talked about literature and about how cold her feet were — she was wearing dress shoes and was counting on thin, silvery innersoles to keep her warm and dry. It was not too long before I undertook the task of corrupting Luthera — persuading her that it was permitted to be warm and comfortable and pretty. She had a lively sense of color and style that she feared to indulge. That became my job. There was the evening glass of sherry, the green velvet wing chair where she read and knitted, the warm, comfortable, and accessible bathroom, and the dishwasher at 50 Wadsworth Street. We had a lot of fun — me a sybarite New Yorker, and Luthera, a firm daughter of Maine — talking books and clothes and cooking and baking — and, to be sure, cats.
To speak of Luthera is also to speak of Hattie, her mother, who sold the family farm to ensure that both her children — the daughter as well as the son — would go to college. And they did. Luthera in her turn provided for her grandchildren’s education and for that of her first great grandchild, Kaela, who will complete her undergraduate degree at Loyola this year. Luthera will look down from the bar of heaven with pride as that young lady takes her degree. And at every Thanksgiving I will set the table with Hattie’s crocheted cloth. The cloth is composed of filet work representations of sailing ships. Luthera told of finding Hattie, one evening, unraveling a ship in order to redo it. Hattie observed: That ship would never have sailed rigged like that.
Luthera’s fierce intellect was devoted to words and writing. I remember her describing her pleasure in the pure logic of Latin when first she encountered it in high school. I remember, on a visit some few years ago, going off to do errands while Luthera and Brian O’Brien discussed Greek grammar. I returned a few hours later and they were still deeply engaged. To know Luthera was to know a hungry and wide-open mind.
Yes, Luthera was a lioness. She suffered torments of homesickness as she followed jobs to Cincinnati and Washington DC. But follow them she did. And it was the making of her. It honed her devotion to Maine and her desire to return. And return, she did. She learned to drive in her fifties. She learned to use a computer in her eighties. She wrote the books she dreamed of. She always looked forward. If she looked back, it was with love for the times and people who made her but her goal was to go forward and make a difference. And she did make a difference.
And so I will remember, having gone on a ramble with Luthera, getting lost on the way home, and singing Girl Scout songs together as we recovered ourselves. So I will continue to sing as I drive for a lovely lady and be I glad to have played a role in her life.
memorial service is a time to share good memories about the person being remembered. I didn’t have to agonize over finding a lot of our mother’s good character traits. I could no doubt write a book filled with examples and stories of how our mother influenced us just by living her life as herself. Of course there were also a few times when the principles had to be punctuated with stern words and threats — er, I mean consequences!
I hope in my few minutes here to give you some insight into Luthera Burton Dawson before she came back to Maine in 1974 to retire.
The union of our mother and our father was an unlikely one. She was a proper New England girl who never smoked or drank and had a master’s degree. He was a Jack London-esqe type who never finished college but had spent time camping alone in the Galapagos Islands and had climbed Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower 48 states.
They met in Washington, D.C. through a mutual friend. They hit it off and began dating — their goal to eat at every restaurant in Washington, D.C. Married in 1945, they both considered themselves too old for children. He was 45 and she was 34. During this time, our father experienced serious mental health problems due to a brain tumor which was removed by brain surgery. The after-effects of this were to create lifelong problems for him. Our mother never gave up on him. The rest of the family marveled at the persistence of this intelligent New England woman who had come into his life.
My brother and I were born a few years later. The family moved to Capitol Heights, MD, just a stone’s throw from the border of Washington, D.C. Things became more challenging when our dad had to stop working due to his health. This left the support of the entire family on our mom’s shoulders. She carried on making the meager salary of a woman in 1953. Even though she had a master’s degree, she was still doing clerical type work and career progression came at the proverbial snail’s pace. The work environment she described in Life Begins at $1440 hadn’t changed all that much from 1940 to 1950. Several hours per day riding the public bus added to her drudgery.
Our Mom always told us that her boss was “Uncle Sam.” I still vividly recall a kid’s mental image of the lanky, top-hatted Uncle Sam sitting in the “head office” of the Internal Revenue Service with his feet up on a huge wooden desk! Luthera Burton Dawson was a near-ideal government employee: she complained very little, she was loyal to whatever party was in power, and she always gave to United Way. She sometimes brought work home… but not because she was required to.
Prince George’s County, Maryland where we lived was overwhelmingly Democratic. My mom used to say, “I’m going to get together with the six other Republicans in this county, and we’ll have ourselves a convention!” She was a staunch Republican.
It was during the 1950’s that our mother took on a second job: that of Town Clerk of Capitol Heights. She was required to attend all town meetings, take shorthand notes, and provide minutes. Another part of the job was to tally hours of town employees and calculate their pay. It was a lot of work for very little remuneration.
During her time as Town Clerk, we were aware that she was exposed to the seedy underbelly of the local town politics. Her professionalism was of the highest order. Even though she disapproved of the “cigar-smoking Democrats” and their methods, she always maintained her honesty and dignity.
Our father died in 1959 at age 59. Our mother continued to do all she had been doing, but now wearing the title “widow.”
With two pre-teen boys and a job transfer that doubled her commute time, our mom began to ask if she should buy a car and learn to drive it. With the help of a driving school and with much trepidation on the part of her two sons, she finally was on the road for the first time at age 55. Another major accomplishment for a lady who didn’t need more challenges!
During this period of our lives, our mother had a suitor. He was a nice, chubby, fifty-something year old man who owned a Cadillac. He pursued her for months, but she had no interest in remarrying. This in spite of her sons’ encouraging comments: “But MOM, he owns a Cadillac!”
During the 60s, money continued to be in short supply. By now both my brother and I had become ham radio operators, and we had an old WW-II transmitter in the basement. I recall on more than one occasion our mother complaining how that “darn transmitter” made her electric bill shoot up by $5 a month! That was big money in those days. But now that I look back on it, we were off the streets, out of jail, and we had a hobby that provided the basis for our later careers! Not a bad investment of $5 a month!
With her two sons off to college and later married, the Internal Revenue Service began to take note of Mrs. Dawson’s real interests and abilities. At last our mother was in the field where she belonged: editing, writing, and teaching. She retired from the Federal Government in 1972, doing what she loved to do.
In the early 60s Keith and I had a friend named Bob Shaffer. Bob was a great guy, but… shall we say, he was not “the sharpest knife in the drawer.” When Bob learned that our mother was willing to tutor him in English, he was at our house a lot. Later, to everyone’s amazement, Bob went on to earn a B.S. in Geology (he had always loved rocks), and eventually had a career with the U.S. Dept. of Energy as a geologist!
That’s the way it was with a lot of things our Mom did. They had some good long-term effects well beyond what she could have ever imagined.
want to tell you about a few things that made my mother who she was, and that went a long way toward making me who I turned out to be.
The first was her humor. You may not know that my mother wrote her master’s thesis on 20th-century American humorists. She loved a good joke. I was about six years old when I told the first joke that caught her by surprise and made her laugh out loud. It ruined me: I had no choice then but to spend my childhood memorizing jokes, cultivating puns, working on timing — studying to be a “card.” I believe my mother enjoyed this process. She kept on laughing at my jokes anyway.
Second, my mother always knew where she had come from. She told an interviewer for the Maine Public Broadcast Network in 2004 that she always knew the high and low tides on the St. Georges river — from Washington or wherever. When she lived at the Homestead in Cushing, towards the end of her life, she told me on a number of occasions what the tide was, a mile away; and she was never wrong.
Third, my mother always knew who she was and what she stood for. She spent almost 40 years away from Maine, 35 of it in the near-South, and her Maine accent never weakened. Her principles were unshakeable. I remember when she was serving as Treasurer of the town of Capitol Heights, Maryland, where we lived, the mayor one time ordered her to cut a check so that he could go on a jaunt to the seashore. It was not town business. My mother refused. Her political career did not thrive after that but no matter. She didn’t preach; she taught by the clarity of her own life.
Fourth, my mother was determined, and strong, and competent. She would do anything for her family. My father was unable to work from the time I was about three years old; before he died eight years later there were a lot of experimental drugs and other medical bills to pay for. My mother would come home from work on the bus and spend the rest of the evening baking bread — white, wheat, anadama, cheese, and raisin — which she took in to the office the next day to sell for a quarter a loaf. Thirty-five cents for the raisin.
Last October, my mother had a bad spell and was not generally expected to recover. I headed up to Cushing immediately and found Anne Roundy already on the scene; Katharyn couldn’t come till that evening and Roger was on his way from San Diego. From time to time Anne would sing to my mother and I joined in when I knew the words. It’s just something you do at the bedside of someone who is dying. Anne and my mother always used to tell jokes, and Anne recounted one for her then.
It seems that Forest Gump died and went to heaven. Saint Peter met him and said, “It’s getting really crowded here and we have had to institute an admission test.” Forest Gump says Oh OK. Saint Peter says “There are three questions. I’ll tell you the questions, then you go off and come back when you feel ready.” Forest Gump says Un huh. Saint Peter says “Here are the three questions. First, how many days of the week start with ‘T?’ Second, how many seconds are in a year? And third, what is God’s first name?” Forest Gump says Uh huh and goes off to think about it. He’s back the next day and Saint Peter is surprised to see him so soon. Forest Gump says, “Oh, a couple of the questions were tricky, but one I knew right away.” Saint Peter says, “OK, how many days of the week start with ‘T?’” Forest Gump says “Two.” Saint Peter is nodding as Forest Gump continues, “Today and tomorrow.” Saint Peter does a classic double-take and says, “Wel-l-l that wasn’t the answer I was looking for but I’ll take it. Now, how many seconds are in a year?” Forest Gump says “Twelve.” Saint Peter goes “Twelve?!?” Forest Gump says “January second, February second, March second…” Saint Peter has to give him that one too. “Now, what is God’s first name?” Forest Gump says “Oh, that was the easy one.” Saint Peter says “Oh really? So what is God’s first name?” “Andy.” “Andy??!?? ” “Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me, Andy tells me I am his own…”
We all laugh, then Anne and I, without any premeditation, break out singing “In the Garden.” My mother — on her deathbed, mind you — raises a hand and says, “Oh no, not that. It’s so overdone.”
That was Friday. On Sunday morning we arrived at the Homestead to find her sitting up, eating oatmeal, and sipping coffee. She had decided that she wanted to see her 100th birthday. By sheer force of will there she was, eight months later, enjoying her party. And what a party it was.