Saturday, November 24, 2018

Sailing Good Bye: In Memory of Marilyn Drew Bennett

I lost my aunt Marilyn this month. Her full name was Marilyn Drew Bennett and she died of cancer on November 15, 2018. I don't know how, if at all, the world will remember her. But I know how I will remember her.

Marilyn Drew Bennett with her son, Larry Bennett, 
aboard the Nightengale, a 34 ft. ketch, in 1968
Even as a child, I appreciated her conscientiousness. I must have been five when we celebrated my birthday at her house. I don’t remember the meal…only the decorated cake. She lit it up with five little candles. I remember her outstanding qualities as perfectionism, kindness, warmth and encouragement. I never heard an unkind word from her. My earliest memories of her are surrounded by my awareness that she saw me as a child of wonder. I knew I was precious and loved by her.

As I grew older, she displayed the wisdom we get from aunts and uncles, the advice that is too risky for our parents to release. With less responsibility - and perhaps greater objectivity - I have found that my aunts and uncles have been the people in my life who have been most supportive of my big plans, my willingness to take large risks, and my eagerness to pursue my dreams.

Her encouragement, of course, had a special authority. In 1968, she and her second husband, Tom Bennett moved with their son, Larry, onto the Nightengale, a 34 ft. ketch and cast off for a major Pacific cruise. Without the aid of modern satellite and navigation technology, they sailed down the coast of California into Mexican waters where they harbor-hopped for about three months before
venturing west into the broad Pacific. For the next several months they visited many of the most famous South Pacific Island groups including the Galapagos Islands, the Marquesas Islands, the Tuamotus Islands, Tahiti, Bora Bora, Fiji, the Cook Islands, and Touga.

As I understand it, some of her last words included a suggestion to her husband that they buy a boat and just sail away. 

During the moments when I was frustrated with my own parents, I saw Marilyn as a useful example of a bold, confident and adventurous life that I hoped to lead myself. I saw her as more sophisticated, intelligent, and worldly than any of my other relatives on either side of my family. I have said before that I considered her son Larry, who she adopted in 1962, to be a fifth brother. What I have left out previously is that when I was most eager to run away from home my fervent wish was that she and Tom would adopt me too. 

Like me, Marilyn valued an active, meaningful social life. While she lived in Paso Robles, CA participated in the Paso Robles Women's Club, the American Association of University Women, the Paso Robles Art Association, and the Republican Women's Club. She held senior office positions in these organizations from time to time. As an adult, she and I shared a commitment to conservative politics. We both hoped for Romney to win and were ecstatic at the election of Donald J. Trump.

I knew more of her back story than most. I think her willingness to take on risky adventures was born, in part, from a chaotic childhood and a series of close calls with death. I knew from my father, Richard Drew, the stories of how their mother was deeply depressed and impulsive. The worst of it, as I remember, is that their mother made suicide attempts in front of my dad. According to him, he once held the car door closed as his mother tried to jump out of the car. To compound the discomfort, my dad never understood why his father did not just stop the car.

Married right out of high school to her first husband, Marilyn survived a car accident in which the vehicle rolled over. She emerged unscathed despite the fact that there were no seat belts in the car. She almost died herself from a miscarriage in which she lost twin children. I cannot imagine the pain she suffered. 

Marilyn also touched my heart because she was something of a spiritualist. She reportedly once saw the ghost of Tom Mix outside her parent's house in Glendale. (It was next to a cemetery.) According to my Grandpa Drew, the neighbors were quite. Later on, she told me she saw the ghost of her mother too, shortly after her death. 

This other-worldly sensitivity was perhaps somewhat genetic in origin. I remember I broke away from a post-graduate program in statistics at the University of Michigan to visit with her relatives. Half were down to earth skeptics. The other half, however, were as odd as the characters in a Harry Potter book. Many of Marilyn's mid-west relatives were extraordinary mystics, open to the world of coincidence, unconventional spiritual beliefs, witnesses to extraordinary psychic experiences. They brought to my attention an element of my own father's faith. As I recall, he once prayed for God to give him $20,000. Sure enough, he received a check in the mail for that exact amount about two weeks later.

As a child, of course, I was shielded from the complete story of her life. As an adult, however, I had to take into account that her second marriage was associated with some considerable damage as her new husband, Tom, left behind three children aged 4, 8 and 11. At the funeral, one of her stepchildren, Tom, called her heroic for her willingness to take on these step-children, care for them on an extended vacations, and contentiously remember to send presents for their birthdays and at Christmas. 

Even with this qualification, I don't think you can conclude she was some reckless libertine. She was devoted to her husband. They were, as Larry said, joined at the hip. I see a large measure of atonement in the fact that the second marriage took and she spent 56 years with her new husband. Likewise, her son Larry said: "She always had my back." 

Earlier this week, I stood at her grave side as a man of 61. I'm far older now than she was when she made me my favorite and most memorable birthday cake. It was a white frosted steamboat, complete with two decks, a paddle wheel and little windows made of silver sugary beads. For me, the past is not dead. It is not even past. I wish I could hold her and tell her how much I loved her and how much I will miss her.

John C. Drew, Ph.D. is an award-winning political scientist.

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