Lives they led
Some names are big, intoned by news anchors, familiar in print, retweeted and repeated. Famous names, attention-getting names. When they leave, a sparkling contrail of fame and loss follows them. For them there’s the obituary-as-news-story, the mention by Brian Williams, the glossy photo in the year-end retrospective.
But there are other leave-takings, just as important, just as deep. These are names familiar to those who knew them, lives less widely known but no less large. The people we know, everyday people, the heart of a community, the heart of a home, the center of hearts that remember.
When they die, we are reduced, we are less than we were. They were not famous, but there are fames beyond marquee lights and 48-point headlines. One person can be famous to another, to a family, to a self-selected tribe. These are our people.
The end of a year naturally is a time to stop, to look back at the time passed and see the faces of those who left, who walked beside us, who we remember.
Her teachers at Fruitvale Elementary School called them her scoot-abouts, when she followed the sun.
She’d spot a sunbeam dancing across the pale tiles and, drawn to its golden shine, she would scoot on her bum until she was in it — her eyes closed, her pale, smiling face turned up into the glow.
“She loved sunshine,” recalled her mother, Niki. “Even if it was just a sliver, she’d find it.”
Elizabeth Sue Duckworth found the sunshine because her heart was made of it. She was a beam of light that streaked like a comet through her short life. She died Dec. 9; she was 10.
“Silly noises made her laugh,” Niki said, smiling at the memories. “And she was very ticklish. She loved to swing fast. She’d just start cracking up sometimes, for no reason.”
A week before her April 24, 2002, birth, her parents, Niki and Austin, learned she had hydrocephalus and congenital heart anomalies. She was their first, and at 2 days old she had surgery — the first of many — to put a shunt in her heart.
But it beat strong for her, on her scoot-abouts, in the cocoon-like swing hanging from the living room ceiling in her Clifton home, as she sat in her room listening to Baby Beethoven, as she teased her 5-year-old brother, Liam, who also has hydrocephalus.
“We knew from the get-go she was meant to be,” Niki said. “She was writing her own book and she did great. She surpassed expectations.”
Sometimes, when she and Liam lay on the floor playing, he’d poke her with his feet and she’d bonk him on the head with her toys. He didn’t like that very much, in typical baby brother fashion. Gavin, their 8-year-old brother, would just shake his head and laugh.
She loved the water, starting with a ducky tub she had as a baby. She got to swim during school, and her grins were huge. And she loved to be touched and tickled.
“She made people feel like they were the most important person in the world,” Niki said.
Sometimes she got brave and scooted down the two steps from the kitchen into the family room. Sometimes she pursued the cats. Sometimes she stayed in the kitchen, smiling at her reflection in the stainless steel appliances. She was happiest when there was music playing — oldies, she loved those.
“I’d sing ‘Jesus Loves Me’ to her sometimes,” Gavin remembered. “She liked that.”
She always wore crazy, bright socks, and at her memorial service her family wore crazy, bright socks, too.
She was brightness and light, a wayward beam of sunshine glowing through their days.
This guy. Give him a lizard and he’d hand you a T. Rex.
Anything for the story, right? It was just, life is to be lived, and any tale worth telling is worth making interesting.
So, ask George Scholl how long he’d been married to his Mary Lu. He’d clear his throat, make a big show of pushing up his shirt sleeve, gazing at his watch, holding it up to his ear and tapping it, scrutinizing it again and then… 12 years, two months, three weeks, five days, 11 hours, 18 minutes and 36, 37, 38 seconds.
It brought down the house every time. Which was the point, because that was George. He died June 28, leaving his Mary Lu and his grown children Karen, John and Susan. He was 58.
“He didn’t do anything by half,” Mary Lu said.
He served six years in the U.S. Army, but part of that service was in the Vietnam War. He worked for the U.S. Postal Service, but for a rare-these-days 25 years.
And when he and his Mary Lu met — they worked together in the U.S. Postal Service sorting center — their first date was dinner, their second was a week at the Colorado Rockies spring training in Arizona, and their third was him moving into her house.
She’d proposed it as a practical measure because she needed a boarder, and he’d been clear that he didn’t want to get married again.
But ... he liked for things to get bigger and more interesting. So, on a trip to visit his family in Oregon he introduced her as his fiancee. Though Mary Lu vowed at the beginning of 1999 she’d be remarried by the end of the year, George vowed he wouldn’t get married that year.
So, somehow as midnight approached on New Year’s Eve 1999, they found themselves standing in front of a preacher as the clock ticked down, saying the words, gazing happily into each other’s eyes.
At 12:59 and 56, 57, 58 seconds, the preacher said, “I now pronounce you ... happy new year! … husband and wife.” Jan. 1, 2000.
They worked — her days, him nights, she took dinner down to the sorting center and they ate together — and they talked about their kids and they traveled. Spring training in Arizona was nice, but in true George form, it needed to get bigger and better. So, after applying for passports, they went to Spain to visit his sister.
Then, there were the cruises, first little jaunts off the Florida coast, bigger each time, finally all the way down to Cartagena, Colombia.
“He really liked the notoriety of that,” Mary Lu said. It made a good story, and he loved a good story.
And speaking of which! There was that time they went to Puerto Rico and ended up at a hotel that seemed nice on the Internet, but ended up being the black-lit party haven for every under-25 on the beach. They were the oldest there by decades, and George loved telling that one when they came home. He even stole a bathrobe.
He dreamed of tropical climates and raising iguanas, and filled his and Mary Lu’s Grand Junction home with plants. His life was as big as he made it, as big as the TV she surprised him with, as big as the trips and the memories and the stories.
That was George, and he’d tell you all about it.
It was the dancing. He could and she loved to.
It also helped (though she blushes to admit it) that Frank Wallace was very good-looking — upright and all-American and tall and…
He was quite a man.
But married when they met, when she met him at the telephone company in California! LaVera was lucky, though, and circumstance was kind, and minus two weeks, Frank was hers for 52 years. He died Oct. 6. He was 81.
“I hired him,” LaVera recalled. “He was married when I hired him, so I didn’t really think about him after that and anyway, I worked days and he worked nights.
“But my shift changed every six months, and a while later I heard that he was getting divorced. So, by then we had similar schedules, so on Friday nights we’d go to somebody’s house and dance. He was a wonderful dancer.”
And he had a certain worldliness that came, perhaps, from serving as a U.S. Navy SEAL during the Korean War. He was proud of being a SEAL and he exuded a SEAL’s calm confidence.
So, they danced, and over the drifting music they fell in love. On Nov. 10, 1960, they were married.
Frank dedicated his career to teaching high school life science and biology and coaching football. He was the kind of teacher whose students felt comfortable surprising him with a live turkey at Thanksgiving, whose teenage players were willing to follow his coaching.
“With new people, he could be very quiet,” LaVera recalled. “But he was very kind and very sweet and very loving. And sometimes a little ornery.”
He had a daughter, Pamela, from his first marriage, but he and LaVera weren’t able to have children. So, they were active in the Elks, at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church, and with their dogs — Frank doted on their poodles. They went camper camping with a close-knit circle of four or five other couples, exploring California and Frank’s native Colorado.
And they danced. Even through the dementia, he never forgot their love of dancing.
It was a steady life and a good life — football games on the TV, dinner with friends, walks with the dog, holding hands with his sweetheart.
“He was a good man,” LaVera said. “Such a good man.”