A Beautiful Life Ends Beautifully



My godmother, Marian, died last Saturday. It was both sudden and not sudden. She had been fine on Memorial Day when I called, but then a fall on Tuesday led eventually to her being moved to the ICU in the early hours of Saturday morning. They started a morphine drip to make her more comfortable, and we knew she was slipping away.

Two of her children were with her at the end, the other two spoke to her via cell phones that we held to her ear. One drove for more than 4 hours, never expecting to reach her in time, but she kept on breathing quietly, as if she were asleep, for hours after the ICU doctors expected, so he arrived in plenty of time.

Starkey and Marian

Marian with Starkey

During the day, her friends including my children and many of her neighbors came to say goodbye. They sat with her, held her hands, touched her head, spoke to her about what she had meant to them, talked about her fantastic taste, even told her how her beloved little dog was missing her. We had 6 chairs around the bed, and at various times all 6 were full.

Finally at 4:38 in the afternoon with her two sons, me, and another extremely close family friend sitting around her, she took one long breath. Her son said, “Come on Mom, you can make it just a little longer.” He was thinking about his daughter who was on her way by train, due to arrive in about an hour. Then she took one more breath and was gone. Her face instantly looked different, I speculate because all the little muscles relaxed.

Marian knew how to laugh

Marian knew how to laugh, here with my mother

This week there have been many celebrations of her life with all her children and their families around, including 5 grandchildren — a Memorial Service, an open house at her house, countless small conversations, many of them laced with laughter. She was loving, wise, adventurous, and beautiful in many ways. Her hairdresser came to the Memorial Service and talked about how she had helped him learn to love the town that he’d grown up in. He also pointed out the beauty of her twinkling blue eyes, amazed that nobody else had mentioned that particular beauty. She also never stopped learning — she’d completed a PhD in Art History in her 50’s and was reading a book in the hospital about an English lord traveling around Yellowstone in Wyoming in the late 1800s.

In the program for the Memorial Service, the family included a letter that Marian had written my daughter Laura five years earlier, after Laura asked her for stories about her long life. That letter, especially the last long paragraph, has an important message for those of us still marching on, especially young people.

Marian with her daughter on her 40th birthday

Marian with her daughter on her 40th birthday

The letter brings to mind her daughter’s comment that Marian always moved to the next stage of life without looking back and regretting the stage that had just passed and without trying to hurry through to the next stage. When she was a mother of small children, she was a mother of small children without wanting to speed up her children’s growing up. When she was a very old woman, she figured out how to enjoy the benefits of old age without (much) mourning of the abilities that had passed or the traveling she could no longer do.

Here’s the letter:

Dear Laura,

Marian with Laura

Marian with Laura at my MAPP graduation - when Laura made the request

You can’t imagine how flattering it is as an old woman to be invited by someone of your generation to reminisce about times past.

It was wartime when I emerged from college — as it had been throughout my college career. Pearl Harbor was attacked my freshman year at the University of Idaho, Hiroshima was bombed during my honeymoon in 1945, just after I had graduated from the University of Chicago. Besides the fact that women’s liberation was just beginning to take form, the chaos of wartime cultivated a lemming-like move to the altar: we all wanted to get married, have children, have homes. I had had the dream of becoming a journalist, but I quickly traded that ambition for the security of marrying Bill when he returned from the European front. He had a 45 day furlough before he would be sent on to Japan. What I want to convey to you is the chaos of world events and the unpredictability of my own world when I was at the point of my life that you are now.

So it was make-shift time for me. Instead of looking for a newspaper job, I became a receptionist at the University of Chicago Press, commuting on weekends to Camp Campbell, Kentucky, where Bill was waiting for release from the army. By March, when he was again a civilian, we headed for New Haven where he resumed the first quarter of his junior year at Yale. I learned to cook, our apartment was a way-station for returning former students, we spent weekends exploring New York City and going to Dodger games, we often saw your grandparents who were living in New London, Conn. where Lou was stationed at the submarine base there. It was a carefree time and we made the most of it.

Marian hosted Kathryn's wedding reception

Marian hosted Kathryn's wedding reception

I did well in graduate school and was given a scholarship to continue beyond the Master’s degree, but didn’t seriously consider becoming a professional. I wasn’t eager to begin having babies, but I felt my role was as a supporting, not competing wife. When Bill had finished his graduate work and received a Fullbright Scholarship for a year in Paris to research his dissertation, I was blissfully happy with the choices I had made. We had a wonderful year, traveling the Continent, visiting your grandparents several times in Oxford. I came home pregnant — Peter was born the day after your mother, July 6, 1951. Your grandfather sent us a cable reading, “Kathryn Leigh arrived,” to which Bill sent the reply, “Kathryn meet Peter.” And so they did, a few years later.

The landscape where you stand, at the brink of your adult life, is so very different from mine. Women have been liberated, not just the exceptional ones but across the board. The choices and opportunities may be overwhelming, but at least you can’t feel limited. A few years of free fall are probably not a bad idea — just savoring life (as I would describe my early years of marriage in New Haven and Paris). Jumping from college into career or into marriage-with-children might prove too confining, even a mistake as you look backwards — as I am doing here — from your eighth decade. These are your luxury years, if you have enough money to give yourself freedom, when you can keep sensitive and searching for what your inner self really is trying to tell you. Pause and smell the roses. But don’t become passive and let the years roll on and over you. A few false starts aren’t necessarily a disaster.

It has been great fun to write all this down.


Marian had a beautiful end, but that doesn’t mean we were ready to let her go. Ah, grief, sadness, the feeling of a hole in one’s life. But also humor, love, and sweet memory. When I lost another friend recently, I found comfort in George Bonanno’s research on bereavement, summarized in Grief is Part of Life. He found that resilient people get comfort from remembering. Perhaps that’s why we all get together after someone dies, to enrich each other’s collections of memories with our own particular stories. I’m richer for knowing that Marian sent her children out to play in the rain because she thought it was sensuous, even as all the other mothers were calling their children in. I’m richer for her granddaughter’s story of taking a raft trip together down the Grand Canyon when Marian was 82, with the guide calling out, “Better wake up your grandmother, we’re coming to another rapids.”



Filed under Contentment, Extraordinary people, Friendship, Gratitude, Meaning, Relationships, Savoring

17 responses to “A Beautiful Life Ends Beautifully

  1. You do your Godmother wonderful justice. The photos were grand and charming. What a wonderfully positive legacy. My Mom is 92. I understand. I send you love. Know you both added to my life appreciation today. I smile and salute the heavens to honor you both. Lovely.

  2. Marian is incredibly inspiring – she seems to have welcomed each different stage of her life with calm and joie de vivre, and to have truly been her best self throughout the various episodes. She’s the kind of person whose memory deserves to be told in stories, and to live on. Great post, Kathryn.

  3. Thanks for sharing these beautiful memories of your godmother. She lives the way we should all live, moving to the next stage without looking back. I”m happy that she died surrounded by love and loved ones.

    • Kathryn

      Thanks, Flora. That’s exactly how I look at it.
      I love the last paragraph of the letter, “A few years of free fall are probably not a bad thing.”

      One of the expressions her children remembered afterwards has come to mind many times over the last few weeks. Whenever any of them would make a mistake – however costly – she’d say “That’s the price of an education.” Somehow, when I think of how much we’ve spent on formal education, that puts the cost of mistakes in perspective.

  4. Kathryn Britton

    Thanks, Judy, Marie-Josee, and Flora. I’ve enjoyed your responses to Marian’s story.

  5. Your so honored her beautiful legacy, Kathryn.

  6. Ellen

    I am laughing & tearing up at the same time. Thanks so much for sharing stories of one of my favorite people. Part of falling in love with Callen was loving your family and Marian was a big part of that.

  7. Kathryn

    Yes, Ellen, and I was so happy to get one of your stories to tell at the memorial service. A richness of memories.

  8. I keep coming back to read this post. I gather gems of joy from you, Kathryn. Your writing is uplifting, powerful synchronicity. Thank you!

  9. Kathryn

    Thank you, Judy. I’ve reread it a few times myself, but I thought it was just because of the memories it brings back.

  10. It is poignant and to me the perfect example of positive reminiscence. The photos paint prisms of positivity realism. I am so happy and grateful you so profoundly shared from your heart.

  11. Linda Exelbierd

    Kathryn, I also appreciate your post glorifying Marion’s long life. Her letter to Laura and your memories were so descriptive I felt as if I had known her. I know she played a major part in your life through the years and you in hers. Continue to enjoy your wonderful memories of the good times you spent with Marion and thank you for offering the rest of us a glimpse into her life.

  12. Beautiful post. It’s great to read about people who have a state of mind like Marian.

  13. Joanna Thompson

    Kathryn, what an inspirational life and a thought-provoking and uplifting read. Thank you so much for sharing.

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  16. Thanks for sharing these points with us.There is lot to learn and yes surely we can all achieve it with positive attitude.We should have grateful attitude towards everything.Your article made me feel how we can add spice to our monotonous life.

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