Mary Levering Chambers Wiese's Autobiography
What else about Lucy? She was a
five-foot dynamo. Dean Starbird, who lives in the Gatesworth as mother
did, once wrote of her, “She’s tiny, but she’s powerful.”
She was a worrier, but she was afraid of nobody, a trait which often
embarrassed her shy daughter. I think most teen-age girls tend to have
a horrified ‘oh, mo-ther’ reaction through-out those awkward
years, but I had it most of my life. Not only was she undisturbed by
what people thought of her, but she was rather adamant about doing things
Mother’s family background was part Scottish and she had the typical Scottish regard for the value of a penny. For most of her married life she had very few of these, but on schooling or travel she willingly spent money. She was widowed when I was 13, and we moved back to St. Louis where she managed scholarships for her children at John Burroughs. Later she encouraged Bill to go on to Harvard and me to Smith, still on scholarship, and much to the horror of her more practical relatives who felt she couldn’t even afford our travel expenses. But there was more travel to come. One summer she spent most of a small inheritance to take the three of us to Europe, an outrageous expenditure, but a wonderful investment in futures!
And what of the man Lucy married? He was a tall, charming Englishman who had more friends than money. I know him as much through mother's eyes as through my incomplete childhood memories. Recently I've had a glimpse of the tragedies of his own childhood through reading letters his father in India and mother in England wrote to their 13 year old son in America. He had been shipped off to the States to become a gentleman farmer because Colonel Chambers had decided that his elder son was uneducable, and that the money for his schooling was being wasted.
When Lucy met Lionel she was about 27 and he 37. She had been to art school, to Europe several times, and had had a series of beaux. He had had a varied series of jobs, had served on the Spanish-American war, and managed to read enough law to pass the bar examination. Her father couldn’t see this English’s adventurer as a husband for his supposedly frail daughter and did everything he could to keep them apart. In the enlightened 60’s this seems an impossible situation, but it was ten years before they finally married and moved to outstate Missouri.
This talk may have seemed to be primarily about my mother, but you should also have been seeing me as a child - shy, probably bright enough, but awkward and terribly self-conscious. Mother didn't help by calling me by both of my names, Mary Levering, when all of the other Rolla girls had reasonable names like Mary Louis or Betty Jean. At Burroughs I was no less self-conscious, although for somewhat different reasons. It wasn’t easy to attend such a school, wearing hand-me-downs and living, as we did for part of the time, in a bording-house.
At Smith I started to grow out of it. These were the thirties when the depression had suddenly made us all equal. But, despite the general unpleasantness, there was a feeling that, yes, the world was a mess, but we could do something about it. I remember marching in a Republican torchlight parade one night in my freshman year, and, inspired by the Fosdick sisters, turning out a few nights later, for the Socialists. It wasn't exactly clear thinking, but it was exciting, and I went on from there to care terribly about the Spanish Loyalists, and to shudder when Hitler marched into Poland. And yet, because of that summer in Europe when we had seen the goose-stepping black-shirts at Nuremburg, I wasn't wholly surprised.
Mother was delighted when I became an English teacher. It vindicated all she had struggled and scrimped to achieve. And yet those years were the most difficult in our relationship with each other. I was earning my own living, but I was still living in mother's home and, to her and the relatives, I was still Lucy's daughter, little Mary Levering. And the mother of Lucy's daughter still felt quite free to tell her what she should do. I remember a story of mother's about a rainy day visit to her 90 year old father. She had lived away for many years, but the first question he asked her was "Lucy, have you wearing your gums?" I didn't like being nagged about wearing my rubbers anymore than she did. But—— she did it to me, and I'm afraid that I, in turn, do it to the two young men who sleep at our house these days when they're not at college!
Nothing better can happen to a mother-daughter relationship than a long separation. This came when I married and moved to Texas. My husband was a great admirer of my mother, and very like her in many ways. Outgoing, easy in his relationships with other people, venturesome, creative, he had many of the qualities which I lacked, but wanted desperately to have.
Despite the fact that we were married during the war (the Big war), and went through hurricanes and the Texas City explosion (relatively unscathed), our years there were very happy. The Texas Gulf coast is no garden spot, scenically or culturally, so we were truly dependent on each other, and on our friends. It was a young town, most of the men exempted from military service because of the defense industries. We all had our babies together and shared clothing, baby-sitting and helpful advice. We had to; we couldn’t depend on mothers. And I loved being Mary Wiese, no background, no relatives, no middle name.
We were transferred to Massachusetts when our sons were six and nine. If I needed anything to convince me that it was time to move it came one day when our eldest announced, “Mom, I’m so hungry, I’m gonna eat me three sangwiches!" In Texas I had happily sloughed off my previous identity. Now I was ready to start taking it back. Smith was only twenty miles up the road and I took part in alumnae activities for the first time. Here also I developed my interest in birds and became an avid gardener, following my heritage from my grandfather who had grown giant water-lilies, luscious asparagus and gingko trees on Cabanne Avenue.
Five years ago we were sent back to St. Louis, and I was as reluctant as any life-long easterner to make the move; not only because I loved New England, but also because I was concerned about my identity as Lucy's daughter again. I needn't have worried. I've discovered that those relatives toward whom I felt so prickly are really very nice people. Mother very wisely refused to live with us, but enjoyed her independence at the Gatesworth. We were both granted a wonderful gift, five years of the warmest and most understanding relationship we had ever had. When she died I felt deep sorrow but no regrets.
So here I am - Mary Levering Chambers Wiese, Bill Wiese's wife – Bill and Jack's mother— Bill Chambers' sister— Lucy's daughter————— myself.