This past weekend, my husband and I traveled to Lompoc, California to attend a memorial service for one of the best women I have ever known, Esther Isaacson.
Esther was the wife of a cattle rancher, Baine Isaacson, and she worked hard all her life. She had a grip like a stevedore from all the physical work she did—forking hay off trucks for cows, digging her garden, putting in fence posts, etc. She and her husband raised three boys on their ranch, called El Chorro, “The Stream.” She had simple tastes. Her clothes were usually blue and white, she wore blue tennies most of the time, and sometimes she sported a little silk scarf at her throat. She didn’t care much about possessions, and for the last 15 years or so of her life, she tried to give them all away. The only things she collected were bells. She had jingle bells, cowbells, reindeer bells, every sort of bells. They hung on the little patio outside the front door and in her tiny breakfast nook, strung on leather straps and woven belts. Getting in and out of the nook always occasioned a good jingle or two.
Esther was my refuge. My first memory of her was when I was six years old, visiting the ranch with my family for the first time. She and Baine radiated kindness, caring and love. She sent me out to play on the ranch with her youngest son, Bob, who was perhaps eight or nine at the time. Bob was as sunny, sweet and kind as his parents. He showed me the boys’ clubhouse—a signal honor—and we caught frogs in the creek, climbed the hills, and chased the cows. One of the best days of my little life.
When I was older and my heart was broken, I came to Esther and she took me in. She never asked questions, just let me stay with her in her ranch house on the hill. I roamed all day on the ranch and in the evening helped her cook. We shopped, sat by the fire, washed dishes, and played cards while I struggled with my aching heart and damaged self-esteem. Her acceptance, quiet presence and love sustained me, and I returned to my life with a renewed sense of strength and self-respect. In truth, I have never been the same since. (My epiphany also had a lot to do with a certain coyote that lived on the ranch, but that is a different story.)
Esther Marie Ibbetson was born in 1912 in Solvang, California. Solvang was founded as a “colony” for Danish ex-patriots, a town where they could speak their own language and teach Danish to their children, eat Danish foods, sing Danish songs, folkdance, and perpetuate their culture. In the earlier days, there were no cars and few roads. Her father was a carpenter, but they lived in a one-room house with a canvas slung down the middle to separate the living quarters from his office. Esther said it was a case of the cobbler’s children—her father was so busy with other people’s houses he had no time to work on his own. However, she noted that houses were often built by the community for newcomers, and the expenses were worked out later.
My mother and Esther traveled a lot together after Baine died. They went to Mexico, Greece, Spain, New Zealand, Guatemala, Fiji, Australia, and many other places, and came home giggling together like schoolgirls. Losing my mother was a great blow to Esther, who often mentioned her with longing for their free-roaming travels.
I won’t say that Esther was amazingly progressive for a woman of her generation, because she was just amazingly progressive, period. She was not religious at all. She loved the land, and practiced her own brand of recycling and conservation long before it became mainstream. She was one of the few girls in her community who went to college, and she married late (for the era) because she didn’t want to stop working. She deplored prejudice, ideology and narrow thinking, and read and thought deeply her entire life.
Esther loved wildflowers—including weeds—and she loved her garden of native plants. She called it her “moon garden,” because it didn’t resemble a typical garden. (A casual visitor might think it was “just” weeds.) She thought planting invasive exotics like English ivy was deplorable when we had so many lovely, drought-resistant plants native to California. Walking on the ranch with her was always a lesson in the local flora and fauna—there was nothing about the land she loved so much that she did not know.
She was 102 years old when she died, and she was more than ready. She lost her husband, her youngest son, two daughters-in-law and many friends before she died herself. She told my sister that “Getting old is so boring!” and my husband (sometime during her 90’s) that “No one should have to live this long.” She didn’t die of any illness. Her heart was fine, and so was her blood pressure and pulse. She just wound down like an old clock and stopped ticking.
So I am not sad for Esther, who was prepared and ready for death. I am sad for myself, because this kind, loving, multifaceted woman is gone from me. The world has lost a treasure, but I know that every human being she touched is the better for that contact. I only hope to carry forward that gift in my own life to give to others.
Goodbye, Esther. I will always love you dearly. Thank you for your kindness and love. Thank you for offering my heart a safe place in this dangerous world.
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My thanks to the many people who spoke at Esther’s memorial for reminding me of many things I might otherwise have forgotten. Special thanks to Sally Isaacson for putting together and editing Esther’s notes about her childhood and making them available to us.