NORWALK - A friend of mine has been on the local news recently for a very sad reason. She was the victim of a hit-and-run accident on Pioneer Boulevard the night before Thanksgiving.
Eleven of us had just been to Marilyn’s house one week earlier for a regular monthly get-together. It is hard to accept how quickly life can change.
We heard that Marilyn did not want to travel on Thanksgiving, so her daughter and grandson were coming to Norwalk from Palm Springs.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Marilyn decided to walk four blocks to a local market to get a few last-minute groceries. She could have driven, but she often enjoyed the gentle exercise of a neighborhood stroll. There are traffic lights at the intersection and she crossed the busy street safely the first time. But it was much darker when she headed home and the images in the video from the street camera show car lights and street lights.
The TV reporter said she made it across to the center island and “was possibly confused.” Perhaps this means she wasn’t supposed to proceed. Perhaps the driver was not at fault for hitting her, but driving on without stopping is an egregious crime.
Marilyn died shortly afterwards at the hospital. Her daughter did not find out what happened until she arrived at Marilyn’s house, found the car in the garage with no one at home, and contacted the police.
This is a tragic way to learn about the death of one’s mother, especially since Marilyn was still a spirited and self-reliant person at age 79. As a friend, I console myself with knowing that she was living the way she wanted to.
Marilyn was from South Dakota and she flew back every summer to spend a month with her sister. She was a person who remained involved with friends and neighbors and liked to go on trips arranged for seniors groups. She had a strong sense of community.
Marilyn’s small three-bedroom house where she raised her two daughters was immaculately maintained - regularly repainted and refreshed. The uncluttered, slightly eclectic décor had an elegant look. Hand-crocheted doilies protected the surface of living room end tables while an area rug with an abstract pattern covered the gleaming hardwood floor in front of her couch. Pictures of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren graced chrome shelving and her upright piano. She told me that she used to play hymns at one time.
Up until a few years ago, Marilyn had been an avid gardener and her backyard crops reflected her high standards. I was envious when I saw her romaine lettuce standing upright, at crisp attention, in perfect rows. The look and taste of all her produce could meet standards for Gelson’s.
Marilyn was a modest, salt-of-the-earth person who shied away from the spotlight and did not want any special recognition when she retired after 45 years as a school cafeteria worker. But all who spoke at her memorial service echoed a common theme – Marilyn was generous with her time and effort and she made a difference in the lives of those around her.
I know with certainty that her behind-the-scene actions made a difference in the lives of many students at the school where I taught, and reflected the wisdom behind the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Marilyn’s impact resulted from her daily approach to life – work hard, do your best, and help people when you can.
I met Marilyn in 1997 in La Mirada. Our third-grade team of teachers was committed to hands-on activities as a way of helping students understand and retain cognitive learning skills. Classroom activities included gardening, sewing, music, artwork, and baking.
The month of Thanksgiving was a perfect opportunity for culinary activities. Every year, as part of our historical study of the Pilgrims coming to America, we planned a Thanksgiving feast for the last day before the holiday break.
We made cranberry sauce and apple sauce from scratch using a hot plate in class. Students peeled and cored the apples with a little gizmo, and everyone had to taste a bite of a raw cranberry to become familiar with this plant. This class-prepared food was part of our menu.
Marilyn allowed our three classes to store this food in the cafeteria coolers for a few days before we were ready to eat. This was extra work for her because items had to be rearranged so there was always enough room for the daily supply of milk, juice, and certain lunch food.
We also made pumpkin pies in class as a way for students to apply their math and reading skills in a real-world situation. This ambitious activity required the assistance of parent volunteers – and Marilyn. The cafeteria still had a working stove and she agreed to bake our pies.
It would have been understandable if Marilyn had said no to our wild idea because her official duties required more than just passing out food and collecting money. Substantial paperwork was required for her to keep track of daily deliveries from the central kitchen and note which classes planned field trips so that less food was ordered for those days. Marilyn also kept count of students on special lunch programs and sent along sack lunches for those students when they were on field trips.
Marilyn could have nixed our idea of baking pies at school and her work day would have been much simpler. But she viewed our request as a way to help the teachers and the school.
The day before baking, we reviewed the recipe thoroughly in class. Working in groups of four, each student volunteered to bring an ingredient – a can of pumpkin filling, sugar, spices, eggs, etc. We teachers provided the premade pie shells. We never had any trouble getting parent volunteers to help with this activity.
We started first thing in the morning after taking roll and turning in homework. Tables were cleared and covered with clean butcher paper. Each table had its own set of measuring cups and spoons. Then the students worked cooperatively to prepare the filling.
It got pretty messy as students measured out the sugar, broke open the eggs, scooped the pumpkin out of the can, and sometimes argued over not getting a full turn at stirring.
When all the pies from a class were ready, parents placed them on cookies sheets, gathered up all the dirty mixing bowls and measuring items, put everything on a wheeled cart, and headed for Marilyn and the cafeteria. The walkways were bumpy and sometimes the soupier filling would slosh out. With 20 students per class, each class always had at least five pies.
Parents used the cafeteria dishwasher and tried to stay out of the way while Marilyn supervised the baking of the pies, even as kids stood in line for snacks at recess and meals for lunch. It was a lot work to make sure the pies were done just right and there was also oven and counter clean-up. Then Marilyn saw that our pies were cooled and stored appropriately.
The cafeteria coolers were bursting with our food the night before our Thanksgiving feast. More food was sometimes brought in the next morning, and our students made their own butter from cream. My class cooked sweet potatoes on the hot plate that morning and seasoned them with our butter and salt and pepper. We sent plates of food to the principal and office staff and aides.
For me, this yearly event was awe-inspiring because it had such a powerful effect on the students. It came about only through the cooperation of so many adults – and none of it would have happened without Marilyn.
At another time of the year Marilyn also helped our students bake small, individual loaves of bread – again made from scratch. An agricultural organization provided the supplies. This time each student kneaded his/her own dough, let it rise during recess, and kneaded it again before we sent the 20 loaves to the cafeteria.
These classroom activities may seem trivial and non-academic to some, but learning how food is prepared is a profound experience for many children in today’s world. My generation learned to do many of these things at home, and we brought this knowledge with us to class. We started our studies from a different place. This is not always possible for today’s working parents.
Our cooperative school activities also promoted class bonding. Some students came from troubled families and occasionally we even had children who were homeless. Preparing food in a cooperative setting contributed to an atmosphere of peace and camaraderie.
These moments in school were a needed gift for some children, and they were made possible by Marilyn’s generous spirit. I treasure these inspiring memories, and I know many parent volunteers feel the same.
Friends and neighbors at Marilyn’s memorial service shared anecdotes with a similar theme – Marilyn made a difference in the world. She paid it forward in the ways she knew how. It was my good fortune to have known her.