Last night (Friday pm 29 September), Pacific Standard Time), Anson returned to Anthea having downloaded the heartfelt comments that our friends and loved ones had posted regarding Carroll’s passing. I read them aloud. Thank you for your love and support, which we feel strongly, as well as for honoring who she was. Some comments, including those of Kim’s mother (who holds quite a bit of sway around here) asked us to share memories of our mother and grandmother. Thank you for the request and invitation, which seems especially appropriate, as the memorial service for Carroll won’t be held until after we return. I’ll write a bit about her here, in a humble effort to attempt to convey what a remarkable woman she was and perhaps a bit about her life (it turned out longer than anticipated, so please skim, scroll or skip as time/interest dictate). Also, perhaps this space can provide a forum for any of us to share memories of her. I invite you to do so. Here’s my effort:
Marguerite Carroll Baker was born on July 25, 1925 in South Church, Essex, England. Soon after her birth, and before her other two siblings came into this world, my grandfather moved the family to Thorte Bay, Essex, on the Thames estuary. This is where she spent her childhood, and went to school, until she and her siblings were sent to boarding school in Malvern Hills when she was about 11 years old. My mother was a masterful storyteller and regaled us over the years with humorous stories from the various periods of her remarkable life. So for example, we heard of my grandmother’s firm belief in the efficacy of boiled fish to cure a wide variety of childhood ailments; unbeknownst to her though (so the story goes), was the fact that the boiled fish and its medicinal properties generally ended up on the roof of the back garden shed, after being tossed out the window by the intended beneficiary. And we heard of my mother’s escape from the nearby boarding school. It was a long walk home, and she was somewhat dismayed to discover, upon arriving at home, that her parents had left town for several days. Fortunately, the person charged with looking after the house was just leaving as Carroll arrived, and so was able to take her to her grandmother’s home until they returned.
This incident may have been behind the decision to send the children to another boarding school, farther away in the Malvern Hills. There she finished her formal schooling, by which time World War II had broken out. Her lifelong friendship with Kathleen Shaw dates from this period, and perhaps this friendship helped her face the challenges of this form of schooling. Together they sneak read their favorite novels in the back of the classroom, concealing them behind a stack of books at the edge of the desk. They staged raids on the kitchen pantry, only to find the good items generally under lock and key. And they developed special names for some of their teachers, such as “Wood Wood,” for Miss Woodward, who had a peg leg and a wooden walking stick. Once the war broke out, the school was shifted to an old rambling manor house on an estate deemed to be in a safer location. She had many stories of life in this large, many-halled manor home, with its numerous fireplaces, no electricity, and portraits of family ancestors on the walls.
My mother experienced the second world war in a variety of ways. Her family was relocated during the war from Essex to outside Bristol, as the authorities thought that the Thames Estuary was vulnerable to attack from German war planes on their way to London. Indeed, my mother recounts seeing German planes flying low up the Thames. Unfortunately, Bristol was not much safer as it too was a bombing target. My mother recalled seeking shelter with her brother and sister under the bed during bombing raids, while my grandmother stood at the kitchen window watching the dogfights and the anti-aircraft fire coming from a nearby field. In response to admonishments from her children to join them, she replied that she was fine as she had a scarf around her neck to protect her from shrapnel. Carroll remembered distinguishing between RAF and German planes simply by their distinctive engine sounds. There are many stories from this period, of life under rationing and what it was like for the family to be separated (my grandfather remained in Essex).
Once she was old enough, my mother joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS). During her years in the WRNS (pronounced “wrens”) she worked deep underground somewhere in southeast England. She was part of a team of women whose jobs were to decode messages from ships in the North Sea, and to code outgoing messages. She described how the codebooks were lead bound to minimize the likelihood of falling into Axis possession; they would either sink rapidly with the ship, or, in the event of a capture, be thrown overboard. She also described the underground command center where she would sometimes deliver messages; the center included a large physical map of the North Sea on which were placed models of the ships, which officers would position with long sticks during their planning and strategy sessions. I think my mother found her time in the WRNS challenging and rewarding, a useful way to contribute to the war effort. There were good times as well, like going up to London for an evening out with sailors whose ship was in.
After the war came the question, common to many who had been part of the effort, of what to do next. She tried a stint working for a prestigious rug and interior decorating establishment in London, but this did not provide enough meaning. While holidaying on a farm in the south of England (which I think meant helping to bring the harvest in while staying on the farm) she was astonished to hear the passion with which a fellow companion described being a nurse. Surprised that someone could express that much enthusiasm for their job, she decided to join St. George’s Hospital nursing school on the outskirts of London. There she trained and practiced nursing for four years, and did an additional fifth year of training to become a midwife. Nursing was, for my mother, a career that provided meaning and livelihood for many years. Some of the stories I remember concern the horrible air quality in London at that time. It was so bad, my mother said, that you couldn’t see to the other end of the ward inside the hospital. Apparently nurses were held in high regard for they received perquisites such as free tickets to go to the theatre; my mother describes the pleasure of going to the theatre and sitting “up in the gods.” St. George’s nurses and staff were the recipients of the leftovers from royal banquets that took place at nearby Buckingham Palace. Nurses also road the busses for free. These generous gifts partially compensated for the quite low pay nurses received.
When she finished nursing school Carroll worked for a short period in private practice, and then worked for a longer period of time as a midwife in the east end of London. This was the era of the bicycle midwives, when every child after the first born (if a fine birth) was born at home in a delivery the neighborhood midwife facilitated. My mother recounted many stories of her work as a neighborhood midwife. The home birth system was well planned out. Each midwife was responsible for the births in their ward. They made all the necessary pre-birth visits to the pregnant mothers’ homes, instructed the family to save their newspapers for the day of the birth to use to protect the matress, made sure that hot water could be prepared at the necessary time (hot water, and in some cases running water, was not available in many homes). Each midwife also always had the coins to make a phone call and knew where the nearest phone booth was in case something went awry and reinforcements or transport to the hospital became necessary. They travelled by bicycle and one sign of how they were appreciated was the right of way they were given by buses and other traffic as they made their rounds.
One of my mother’s amazing qualities was the matter of fact attitude with which she approached situations that others might find disconcerting or upsetting, including her own approaching death. I wonder if her work in the WRNS, and especially later as a nurse midwife were the crucibles in which this character trait was forged.
After some time working as a nurse midwife my mother found herself at a crossroads. She had been asked to return to St George’s to be a matron overseeing the nursing staff. She knew accepting this offer meant a lifelong commitment to St. George’s and to remaining single. The offer forced her to consider other alternatives, and as the story goes, one cold, rainy, foggy day in London she and a dear friend were at a coffee or tea shop and there, on the cover of a magazine, they saw a captivating photo of sunny southern California with orange orchards in the foreground and the snow-capped San Bernadino Mountains in the background, blue sky and all. That decided it. After securing the necessary sponsorship, she travelled by steamship to New York and from there to Santa Monica. There she joined a group of British expats, and forged or deepened friendships that would become lifelong with June Ash, Maureen Cory and Jill Fitzgerald, among others. This would have been around 1955. Thus began my mother’s sojourn in the United States, originally planned as a two year trip, but which lasted the rest of her life.
My mother loved those early years in southern California. I think at times it felt dreamlike to her. She secured a job as a nurse at UCLA medical center in the radiology department; she thoroughly enjoyed the work and her colleagues. She also really appreciated the 40 hour work week and having weekends off and what seemed to her a generous salary – a far cry from the residential approach to life as a nurse at St. George’s with long hours, little time off, and minimal salary. She got around in a convertible and lived in Malibu in a cottage under whose porch the waves crashed at high tide. The warm, salubrious weather was also wonderful. My mother was amazed at the wide open space, the national parks and the outdoor hiking and camping opportunities in the United States – something that did not exist in the England of her day. This appreciation of the great outdoors stayed with my mother all her life. She was the inspiration and force behind the many camping and hiking trips we did as a family growing up, and Yosemite became a sacred touchstone for her and the whole family.
As I mentioned, her plan was to return to England after two years. However, even though she had purchased a return plane ticket, this plan was thwarted when her friend, Ten-Broeck Baker, asked if she would meet him at his newly purchased house in Chatsworth to give some interior decorating advice. This was only a pretext to meet, for when she arrived he proposed to her and presented her with an engagement ring. They were married at All Saints by the Sea Episcopal Church in Montecito, California in 1959 or 1960. Thus began many years of adventures and life together, which continued until my father’s death in 1998.
My father was a reliability engineer working in the booming southern California post WW II aerospace industry. My mother thought that after marrying my father she would never have to work again. In this she was quite mistaken, and thereby hangs a good part of the excitement and adventure, perhaps more than initially anticipated, that characterized our family life. Although an engineer, what my father really loved was buying and selling houses. Because of this, though we found ourselves mostly living in middle class homes in California, Michigan and Connecticut; occasionally things got more interesting as when we lived in Beverly Hills in a large house with tennis courts and swimming pool and in what has been described as the nicest Monterey-style home in swanky Montecito. Once the aerospace industry began to contract in the seventies, our family moved frequently to follow my father’s employment: two years in Ann Arbor, Michigan, followed by one year in Santa Barbara, then two years in Glastonbury, Connecticut. In each of these locations we happily settled, made community (often through the local Episcopal Church), plugged into the local school system, and took full advantage of the region’s hiking and camping opportunities. After the Connecticut job came to an end, my father decided it was time to realize his long term dream to own and develop a ranch or farm. He purchased 187 acres of steep, chaparral-covered land in southern California (Ventura), and we returned home to California. Thus began the “ranch years,” which included living on the property in a single wide mobile home with no electricity and minimal plumbing, while clearing land for avocado trees, installing irrigation and establishing a successful orchard. Throughout these diverse experiences my mother sought to always see the good, helped us avail ourselves of positive opportunities and supported my sister and myself in as many ways as possible. She herself survived breast cancer and invasive surgery when we were in Connecticut and was given less than a 50% chance of living five years. Every five years after the surgery, up until the surgeon passed away, my mother wrote him a card thanking him for yet another five years of cancer-free life. Expressing gratitude in this manner exemplifies my mother’s generous spirit, her thoughtfulness and her appreciation for others.
Although the avocado orchard we planted way back when is still thriving and producing a handsome profit, for us and for too many reasons to recount here, the ranch years came to a crash in the mid 1980s. My father and mother were forced to declare bankruptcy. For the next several years, until her retirement, my mother worked as a nurse and was the sole breadwinner. During this time my parents lived in a rented cottage amidst an orange orchard in Ojai Valley. After her retirement, they moved to the rural town of Covelo, in Round Valley, Mendocino County. Thus began another, diverse life chapter, enriched by deep friendships (especially with her friend Shirley Kyle), the Episcopal Church in Willits (where lie some of my father’s ashes), and meaningful engagement with the unique social and environmental qualities of Round Valley. My parents, and later my mother, always welcomed me and my family and friends, and my sister Zara and her friends, to their home on East Lane. We will always cherish the memories of good times shared in Covelo – the summer barbecues in the back yard under the pear trees with the warm breeze blowing across the valley, summer swimming in the Eel River water holes, hiking in Mendocino National Forest, winter snow play and cross country skiing up Mendocino Pass, to name a few. The Covelo chapter of my parents also included the long decline of my father due to Alzheimer’s disease. My mother supported him in all respects, right up to the last three weeks of his life. Her selfless, unwavering support enabled him to remain at home, in dignity, as long as humanly possible. Her care for him demonstrates her remarkable selflessness and resilience, even though, as she used to say, with a twinkle in her eye, that every white hair on her head had my father’s name on it.
Finally, around 2010, we were able to convince my mother to move to Arcata. This last chapter of her life lasted seven years. We were overjoyed to have her so close to us, just five minutes away. This period was punctuated, but not dominated by, health challenges, because my mother was so stalwart, able to absorb adversity with dignity, grace and resilience. One of the primary themes of this period is quality time with family, especially with her two grandsons, who were the apples of her eye and in whom she took unending delight and happiness. As with her prior homes, she created a rich community, in part through St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, in part with her neighbors at Bayview Apartments, and through other diverse community connections. In Arcata, she continued her lifelong appreciation for classical music and theatre by attending events at Humboldt State and in the area, and her love of learning by attending presentations and guest speaker events at Humboldt State and by enrolling in continuing education courses. Her intellectual curiosity made it easy for us to choose what to give her at Christmas – all we had to do was renew her subscription to the New York Review of Books! Her broadmindedness, unshakable ethical foundation, and politically progressive views had deep roots and grew like a tall tree over the years, from helping to found a chapter of Beyond War in Ojai back in the late 70s/early 80s to her more recent support for the LGBTQ movement. By the time her final decline commenced, a little over a year ago, she had nurtured a full, meaningful and nurturing life in Arcata, rich in friendship and love.
This piece has grown longer than initially anticipated. This view remains partial, as are all truths, and lacks whole chapters and perspectives – I hope others will fill in some of the gaps. I have tried to strike a balance between recounting events and life experiences and trying to convey a sense of what an extraordinary person my mother was. I think I have not done justice to her sense of humor and quick wit, nor have I described her amazing ability to take sincere interest in others’ lives and to vicariously experience, through active listening, the experiences of others. I have also not discussed her lifelong love of the ocean and my parent’s passion for sailing, which they enjoyed for a few years on a classic, wooden 8 meter class sloop in southern California. Also, I have only hinted at her many adages and sayings, which our family will always use as one of many ways to honor her memory.
I think I’ll close by quoting a message Kim wrote to be read to Carroll several weeks ago, and a beautiful passage our dear friend Judee wrote us following Carroll’s death. Kim’s passage is a loving testament to my mother, and Judee’s references her last days as she transitioned out of this world.
Kim’s message: “You are an amazing and beautiful person who has touched my life deeply, and the lives of many others. When I summon your spirit in my mind, I see your joy-filled engagement with life, your love of nature and music, your inquiring mind and commitment to justice, your ethical core that is as strong as the rock of Gibraltar, and your love of family and friends. I see a woman who has lived a beautiful life, an intentional life, a meaningful life. I see a woman who is dear to me and who I will miss dearly when you are no longer with us. Your spirit will always be a part of me, for knowing and loving you has shaped who I am today.”
And Judee’s message:
“I send you sympathy in the wake of Carroll’s leaving this world. Carroll
was such an amazing person, she was so brave, and vibrant. And she loved
you all so much.
It is hard to believe that it has already been three days since I
saw her last. I will miss her, and the inspiration she has been for me.
She endured so much, and sustained her focus on the good and on the
potential of joy for such a long time.
She was so proud of you all. And while I know she missed you intensely,
she loved that you are following your dreams, the ones whose seed may
have sprouted in part from some influence of her own determined sense of
I know that Carroll wished YOU joy in all that you do, and everywhere
you go, and that your voyage itself can honor her memory.
May Carroll’s memory be a blessing.”
I send all my love to my mother and hold her dear in my heart.