There are some people who have the most incredible impact on you, and you want to be around them so maybe just a little bit of their wonderfulness might rub off. Marianne Jackson Cashatt, who passed away on November 14, 2011 was such a person, and the world seems a little less bright for those of us who loved her. If you knew Marianne, you would not be surprised if she had said that she had a stroke right after the Auburn game on Saturday. I don’t know if she said it, but…I wouldn’t be surprised. (Marianne did have an actual stroke…not sure if it was connected to the Auburn game but…)
The milestones of our lives had intersected at least twice, as she was married in 1955, the year I was born, and years later when her dear husband Bill, who struggled with MS, had passed away in January of 1980, the year that I married into the May family and met Marianne. Only later did I realize that when we met, she had so recently been widowed; there was not a trace of sadness or bitterness in her demeanor (although I would not blame her if there was). She had lost her husband and best friend, but we had gathered in Auburn on a sunny weekend for one of Marianne’s passions: Auburn football, and she was focused on the game and her friends.
I had been told three things about Marianne by Joe’s mom and sisters, (not necessarily in this order):
1. She was a paraplegic.
2. She was a most amazing person.
3. That I would love her, (and of course I did).
I looked forward to meeting her but I was not prepared however for this warm, pretty, vivacious, funny, and self-effacing woman. It broke my heart to hear of her condition, and I suppose I was a bit afraid that pity or my talent for saying the wrong thing (see my Joe Paterno post if you don’t believe me) would make our meeting a bit awkward. How wrong I was! Marianne was a superb individual. And after I met her I wondered…how do people get to be like this? Was it her parents and sister Kay? Or perhaps her accident? Or was it her wonderful husband Bill? Her amazing son Drew? Or were they all just beneficiaries of, or coincidental happenings in the life of this amazing woman? I have met a lot of wonderful people, and I admire the talent and character of many of them, but Marianne was so unique…a limited edition if you will.
Her disability was caused by an auto accident one winter night in Auburn, Alabama. Her mom, Nonie, did not feel good about Marianne joining the gang for ice cream that cold school night, especially with ice on the roads. But Marianne convinced her mom to let her go and after that everything was different for the Jackson family. When I first heard about the accident, I felt that it was the ultimate if only story. Mothers everywhere try to forestall all bad things happening to their children, and I wondered if Nonie ever was released from the mother guilt of if only I had been firm about Marianne going out in bad weather on a school night. Moms, you know what I am talking about. But of course it wasn’t her mom’s fault.
Although her parents, Nonie and Pierce were devastated by her paralysis, they went into full survival mode, and made sure that Marianne finished her high school course, by radio, from her bed at home. I recall Joe’s mom telling me about their trip to the Woodrow Wilson Rehab Center in Fishersville, Va. They carried Marianne up there (carry is another word for took or drove in the South) with a chaise lounge (the kind with the plastic webbing) set up in the station wagon. It was 1951 y’all…people didn’t have SUVs with tvs, and fridges back then. Marianne herself told me that when she got there, her parents were surprised at how quickly they were told to go on home, because Marianne could not get better with them there. She had to work really hard, and she had to do it without their help. It must have been so difficult for them to leave her so far away from home, but Marianne told me that she was told she would get her life back, and that is exactly what happened. Not only did she learn how to live independently, but she found her true vocation and returned to work there, as well as met her future husband Bill there. Together they had a healthy baby boy, Drew, and as I write this I realize that working, marrying, and having a child all seemed out of reach for Marianne when the accident first happened. She never seemed to accept the words could not, best not, or probably shouldn’t, which is one of the things I loved the most about her.
When attending Auburn, her dad Pierce, who owned Jackson Photo downtown, would come to campus on his lunch break to carry Marianne (literally this time) down the steps from her classroom building. He had carried her up early that morning. The Jacksons had appealed to the university to build ramps or an elevator, but nothing ever came of their requests. Then one day, the petite, modest Nonie played bridge with the university president’s wife and mentioned her daughter’s need. The next week, the ramps magically appeared and Pierce no longer had to run to Auburn at lunchtime (which knowing him, I bet he missed). When you see a ramp on the Auburn campus, maybe you will think of our precious Marianne.
In addition to tailgating, we would visit Marianne in her home in Virginia, and made sure our kids met her. One night we all fixed supper together, and Marianne was whirling around her kitchen in her chair, and giving us jobs to do. Natalie recalls Marianne saying abruptly, “Oh, I need to go to the store; why don’t you come with me Natalie?” Marianne must have sensed Natalie’s concern for how Marianne would drive, so she quickly added “I’ll show you how I drive my car.” Natalie forgot her concerns and was duly impressed.
My favorite Marianne story comes from my sister-in-law Marianne (who was named after Marianne Cashatt). My sister-in-law was going through a difficult time in her life, and Marianne Cashatt wrote to her with some motherly advice. Although well-meaning, the advice struck a nerve with Marianne, and so she shot a letter back (this was way before email) that asked the question, Marianne, what do you know about suffering?! After my sister-in-law sent it, she realized that Marianne was a paraplegic, a widow, her late husband had MS, and they both worked tirelessly with other disabled people, both on the job and off. Hmmm….thought my sister-in-law…actually I guess Marianne does know a little something about suffering. Marianne Cashatt was so sunny, that you forgot that she had any troubles; however she was happy to listen to yours , and to pray for you.
Joe and I saw her five or six times in the last decade, always as a side trip while heading up north to visit the baby boys as I refer to my twin sons, or my mom who lived in Pittsburgh. We were usually pressed for time, so Joe would always ask, “Honey, do you want us to schedule some time with Marianne?” Usually I would say “YES!” but once in a while if I was particularly travel weary I would think aloud…”Well, it is out of the way, and our time is short…but YES, YES, of course let’s do it. I want to see her, don’t you? To which Joe would say “Yes!” as he finished dialing her number.
The last time we went, about a year ago, Marianne had told us she would meet us out by the gate. It would still be a ways from the road, but we should look for her. Joe looked and didn’t see her, and we drove around a few times.
Joe: I saw a woman in a wheel chair, but no Marianne.
Me: Wait I thought. Um, honey…isn’t Marianne IN a wheel chair… since like, 1950?
We both smiled.
Joe: Oh yeah, that’s right…Marianne IS in a wheel chair. I guess I forgot.
I guess we both did.
When I was cleaning out Joe’s parents lake house, there was so much stuff to get rid of that it filled the carport. I had spent about three days hauling it all out and sorting through all the debris. I only took a small Holiday Inn ice bucket (you had to know Papa Jack would have one of those) of small items for myself from the entire house. Included was an old box of napkins that Marianne and her sister Kay had given Joe’s parents, Jack and Mattie for Christmas in 1958. They were never used because they were probably too nice, and were being saved for a special occasion. I framed them all (about 10) and gave them to family and special friends. They had Tea Time at the Mays written on them, and one of them hangs in my kitchen, and in a kitchen in China, and in one in Singapore, and in Ft. Hood, Texas. They are a limited edition if you will, and it makes me happy to know that Marianne’s joy for life, optimism, faith, and determination can still be shared with others all over the world. (And no, you cannot buy them on e-bay.)
Marianne, you and your beloved Bill gave so much succor to so many in your well-spent time on earth. We will all miss your sparkle, but it is so nice to think of you in heaven…with orange and blue running shoes, talking with God, Bill, Nonie & Pierce.