There is a great phrase, “keeping a person’s memory green.” It’s basically an expression for the hopefully ongoing process of telling stories about a person who has died, talking about the things they believed in, using the funny expressions they liked, more or less just passing on a little of what made them them. Whatever may happen after we die, if people are keeping our memory green, some version of our spirit lives on.
I asked Lee Albright to compose a small piece about her mother, Martina Louise Brandegee Lawrence, because, in her everyday conversation and comments, Lee has devoted an enormous part of her life energy to keeping her mother’s memory green… She didn’t send me a finished piece of writing, but rather a series of notes on slips of paper, stacked together.
The following is a compilation that I cobbled together from those notes. When I showed it to her, she said it didn’t sound like her voice, but to “leave it in.”
Take that as a caveat of sorts.
Martina Louise Brandegee Lawrence; oil on canvas; c. 1950s; by Gardner Cox
Langdon, you asked me to put together some thoughts and memories of my mother and so I shall… reminding you that these thoughts are simply my experiences and remembrances and are perhaps different from those of my brothers or others who knew my mother well.
Father told me in 1994, half a year before he died, when we were at the Dark Harbor church, that it was there, at age five, that he spotted her. She was also age five. He said “She had a big white straw hat, and I thought she was beautiful.” Father was envious of Mother’s French governess. He thought it must be wonderful to have an in-house tutor and would come by to talk French. “Le petit Garcon Lawrence, il est merveilleux.”
Mother’s early life was spent at home with governesses and tutors. School began for her at Winsor at age 11 or 12, in 5th or 6th grade.
Of all her friends, Betty Bartlett McAndrew and Mabel Thayer Storey were the two whom I would come to know the best. Mother asked Betty to be my godmother, but it was Mabel, or “Aunt Mabel,” who later became a wonderful, lifelong friend of mine, and in 1968 I asked her to be [my daughter] Martina’s godmother. Jean Sears Alexander was another very close friend, and became my brother Jimmy’s godmother.
Mother was, according to Aunt Mabel, a very bright, fun-loving child who laughed and enjoyed friendships, parties and life. She was the “apple of her father’s eye.”
Stories of her childhood… At age twelve, my mother spent a winter in Egypt on a cultural trip with her parents. And she told me that her father always insisted on tipping the hotel staff individually because otherwise the major domo would keep the whole amount. For some reason, this made a huge impression on me. I remember her telling us about the time Uncle Langdon, her brother with whom she was very close growing up, rowed the French governess to Gull Rock, leaving her there as the tide rose! She also used to tell us about the butler in Dark Harbor who each morning, when Granny and Grandfather Brandegee were in Europe, would swim over to Seven Hundred Acre Island and back, and serve the children luncheon in a wet bathing suit.
As a teenager she loved skating, and there is a wonderful photo of Mother at The Country Club in Brookline with friends. I think when it came to school she was “over lessoned,” as she would always relent whenever we refused our own lessons (alas!). She had always had a rigorous program, and was therefore more forgiving to us when we wanted to hang out. She used to tell me “the mistakes I make you won’t make and the ones you make your children won’t make.”
She spent her junior year with her parents in New York city, and attended the Chapin School. She loved it! She said it was her best year of school. She wanted to go to college, and was accepted to Radcliffe for the fall of 1923 or 1924, but it was not to be.
During the summer before she was to start at college, when the family was abroad in France, my mother developed an awful and persistent cough. When my grandmother took her to the physician in Paris, he urged my grandmother to take her immediately back to the states. She had tuberculosis. It was a terrible time for my grandparents as well as my mother. Mother was sent to Saranac, a sanatorium in upstate New York for T.B. patients. She was not given a good prognosis. Aunt Mabel told me she felt that it was my father’s letters to my mother that gave her a reason to live.
After roughly four years there, she returned home to Brookline to die. She had been told, according to my Uncle Langdon, that they could do nothing more for her. But then… she became well. It was a miracle, or close to it. My mother felt, with a deep conviction, that it was ‘mind over body’ that had given her life.
I should mention that it was during this time at Saranac that she used her allowance to collect and read all the books which would later form the library in Brookline, including among others the works of Emerson, Poe, and Kipling. Mother never talked to me about her long bout with tuberculosis— I didn’t know she had even had tuberculosis until I was ten— but she did speak about reading those books as a crucial, defining experience for her.
Following her recovery, she was advised by her physicians to avoid excesses in all things, which meant everything from sunburns to having children. So, some of these dictums she followed, some she clearly did not.
As an adult, raising three children while my father was away at war, she always made sure to be “off her feet” for an hour mid-day. She never ate or drank too much, or stayed up too late. Never might not be right. Rarely.
While she was not physically robust, my mother was nevertheless one of the strongest people that I have ever known. Her mental stamina was fantastic. I think one of her finest qualities was facing difficulties and issues up-front. Although she was subtle, and tactful, she was also confrontational in the best sense. She never avoided the hard issues and where we, her children, were concerned, we “knew her mind”. Perhaps I, as her only daughter, was more aware of this side of my mother.
I really “knew” my mother as an adult from the time I was sixteen until her death from breast cancer shortly before my twentieth birthday. It was during those years that we clashed a bit, but we also became very close. It was also during these years that my mother began to talk about her mother, her brother, her father and life as she saw it “lived.” Her priority, not a word used often in the late fifties, was family, but with her very keen mind I believe she also wanted to focus on an intellectual pursuit, which perhaps would have been possible had she lived a longer life. Her fight with the cancer that ended her life was the second time in her relatively few years that she had had to face one of the “killer diseases.” I think she felt she could beat the cancer the way she had beaten the T.B. She died on Sunday, March 8, 1959.
Our mother was in many ways, to use Prof. John Finley’s phrase, “everybody’s June.” She was warm, compassionate, an empathetic listener, a keen observer of life and lives. She loved listening to her children’s laughter and their escapades, their friends and adventures. She had the watchful eye of an eagle, but the wisdom to let us make our own important decisions. She adored our father, but also really knew and understood him. She loved flowers and gardens, warmth and sunshine… She did not like cold, grey mountains, or wind. She liked Maine, but she did not “LOVE” Maine. She did LOVE Scotland, which ironically is often cold and grey! …She had many parts, meant very much to many people, but the whole was close to perfection, most especially for us, her children.
Martina Louise Brandegee Lawrence; oil on canvas; c.1930s; by Polly Thayer Starr