In Memory of Betty Rhea Stewart
October 4th, 1924 – June 20th, 2015
Betty, I remember:
• the first time I heard your name. I was washing my hands in the Women’s Room at the Salem Public Library in 1997. I had taken a first brave step and started attending a public writing group that met on Thursday afternoons. It was during a break. Carolyn Tracy, the writing group facilitator was washing her hands at the sink next to me. “I know another writer,” she said. “I think you two would appreciate each other. Her name’s Betty Stewart. She used to teach developmental psychology at Vassar, now she’s writing a book about a potter.”
• the day we actually met, at an invitation only writing group. There were seven of us at Cosmos’ house, and you read a draft chapter from what was to become your Still Life with Apples novel. I loved the easy cadence of your writing and admired the knowing way you glanced at your audience as you read. By the end of the meeting, I could already tell you were a perceptive writer, capable of both wit and sympathy. After the meeting, while others were getting in their cars, we stayed behind on the lawn to talk some more and set a time to have lunch together.
• the anticipation of meeting you for our long lunches at the Arbor Cafe. I’d always find you sitting in your favorite booth in the far corner – you’d have come early, an hour or more, to snag that booth—but also to plot your story and luxuriate, ensconced in a busy café with your tea and scone. We would read and critique our latest writings, then talk about what it is to write, and about the books we were reading. I was in love with writing and you were part of it, your enthusiasm, your observations and references, your ideas – being with you was like being in graduate school again.
• all those Willamette Writers’ Conferences we attended together. Weeks before, we would parse the list of agents and editors, and agonize over which ones might be most receptive to our novels. At the conference hotel we’d get rooms next to each other. We’d meet for breakfast and take in the early sessions together, then by mid-afternoon, we’d abandon the conference and go back to our respective rooms, inspired to write. At dinner we’d read and critique what we’d written, look at the roster of classes and events, and plan the next day.
• Stonecoast Writer’s Conference in Maine, our boldest move. We applied and were accepted—both of us! We traveled together, the most compatible of friends. We were assigned dorm rooms across the hall from each other. Each morning, we boarded the van from Bowdoin College to Stonecoast, a seaside mansion with broad lawns and a spectacular ocean view, where we parsed the first chapters of our manuscripts with 6 other writers just as excited to be there as we were.
• every spring, the two of us walking the aisles of local plant nurseries, looking for the perfect combination of seedlings for the brick enclosed flower bed beside your front door. We’d come back to your house with an armload, usually green beans, petunias and marigolds. Once you even planted corn—not to eat; you said you were thinking of Kansas, and you just wanted to watch corn grow.
• you the painter, answering the door in your spattered paint shirt with Lori, or Lise, or Picci at your heels – your face shining, eager to show me the light or shadow you’d caught in that last brushstroke.
• our New Years resolutions sessions, every year—in fact, every new beginning, anticipated and made official with high hopes, a new pen, and a blank notebook.
• the books you knew I’d love. Because of you I discovered Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor and Adrian Rich. We read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway together and Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone. We re-read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and went to see Peter Jackson’s fantastical Lord of the Rings movies. We read the poems of Rumi and Jane Kenyon and T. S. Elliot aloud to each other. And one year, for your birthday, I bought us tickets to see Billy Collins when he was in Portland for a Literary Arts Lecture.
• more shining moments with you than I can count. You were my once in a lifetime friend, and I think about you every day.