Beyond the First Seven Decades
Bonnie Schupp and Shirley Brewer
Our purpose is to highlight life’s richness after the age of seventy-five by telling the stories of women who continue to evolve as they grow older. As women ourselves who are searching for our own role models, we want to learn from our older sisters. In contrast to our culture’s obsession with youth, we hope to reveal how maturity can be a dynamic stage of life. The following article is from a 1995 interview with Liz.
|Elizabeth Clark McWethy June 17, 1920 - October 11, 2014|
“…we all have…halted on the edge of growing up. When I am old, lend me your arm. For now, your shoulder will do.”
Elizabeth Clark McWethy’s poetry embraces love, death, loss, quiet beauty and the vagaries of nature with equal candor and empathy. She may need the support of a chair as she reads her poetry on an Annapolis stage, but she offers the audience ample evidence of mental and emotional strength—the insightful gifts of her rich vitality.
Liz's adventures began on the day she was born, in the family home in Annapolis, on June 17, 1920. Her imminent arrival frightened a house painter unaccustomed to witnessing a birth. Brush in hand, he slid down a ladder and disappeared. Since then, her ability to startle others has taken a variety of forms, all fueled by her passion "I can go off the deep end of things in no time" and independent spirit. "I'm curious about everything," Liz says. "Everything is interesting to me."
To her, the purpose of life is to recognize and practice the creative role. “Creativity keeps us alive and gives us the willingness to life. Evolution is constantly creative. I think if you can recognize creativity or establish it in anyone else, then you have really saved that person. The antithesis of creativity is addiction. Addiction is a reaching out for the most uncreative. That’s the limit you’re going to go in life…your addiction. Get back to yourself and your powers or you’re going to find yourself at the end of the road very quickly.” Her desire to observe the world and its occupants motivates Liz's plunge into each new day. She constantly cultivates her creative garden.
Liz believes that her desire to write—to read, observe and create—contributes to her passion for living. “I’m a very passionate person,” she observes. “My strength comes from my background.” Women in her family from New Orleans were “women with backbone.”
BackgroundEducation played a pivotal role in shaping Liz's diversity and destiny, as well as in testing her determination. For many years she attended private schools, including a New Jersey Episcopal convent where women teachers, whose husbands had perished in World War I, recognized and encouraged her writing talent. Her family, forever outspoken, vetoed Liz's desire to go to Sarah Lawrence, fearing she would become "radicalized." Kingsbury, a finishing school in Washington, turned out to be a happy compromise. Because one of the teachers was Robert Frost’s daughter, Liz spent two years basking in the prominent poet's frequent visits to the school. "He shared himself with us, his great feeling of intimacy with poetry," she recalls. "We talked about life and the condition of the world."
After a year in the more practical setting of a secretarial school, Liz continued to scale Mt. Education. With her family's approval, she enrolled in the University of Maryland's Agricultural College to study Landscape Architecture. "I was the only woman in it," she states matter-of-factly, and there was "no future" for women in that field, other than "designing brick patterns." Even more discouraging, the program emphasized science, not her strong suit. Once again, however, Liz's writing impressed professors in the English Department. Her destiny appeared to be written in words, not bricks.
When World War II intervened, Liz left school temporarily to drive a Red Cross ambulance for the city of Annapolis. She returned to academia, this time to New York City's very progressive Mills College of Education, which awarded her a degree in 1945.
While attending Mills, she lived near the reclusive actress, Greta Garbo. Years later, Liz would write in "French Windows Open on the Balcony, Madison and 72nd, New York, 1944":
It is wartime. The street is full of people
heroes walking by with roles even Garbo
could not imagine, framed by
the French windows every afternoon.
The still-famous 92nd Street Y, formerly known as the Young Men's Hebrew Association, offered additional creative inspiration of exciting writers like Dylan Thomas and Frank O'Hara reading from their work. Liz inhaled it all.
More credentials followed: a Masters in Special Education from George Washington University and, in the 80's, an almost PhD in Early Education she completed the course work but not the thesis at her former stomping grounds, the University of Maryland
Liz has lived an involved life. Before the multi-tasking trend prevalent in the younger generation today, years ago Liz was multi-tasking as a volunteer Red Cross ambulance driver for Annapolis, a kindergarten teacher, and a laborer on her uncle’s tobacco farm.
“I’m curious about people and revelations…jewels in the middle of what is happening.” When she talks about her past, she does not merely relate names, dates and events but delves into deeper character traits of people and what motivates them.
During her two-year tenure at Mills, Liz experienced the death of her first love, pilot Jack Turnbull, killed overseas while on a bombing mission in 1944. So ironic that this independent spirited woman, who resisted for years her family's powerful pressures to marry, had finally met "the most amazing man," and then lost him to the brutality of war.
They met on a boat heading for Norfolk, Virginia. She was a twenty-two year-old college student, on the way to visit her parents. Liz's naval officer dad was stationed in Norfolk, preparing soldiers for the assault on North Africa. Jack was ten years older, a major in the Air Force, about to travel all over the country to learn the art of flying bombers. They connected on that voyage, and continued a long-distance correspondence and courtship.
Liz's voice lowers when she speaks of the tragedy. "It complicates one's life a lot…," her words trail off. "I lost my hearing for a week. It was like a disconnect. I couldn't talk or anything."
Another person might have wilted or withdrawn after such a severe emotional shock. Liz rallied. Jack's untimely death contributed to a new fiery courage. A self-described introvert raised with nine boys (two brothers and seven cousins) in a military family, Liz overcame earlier feelings of inadequacy, and discovered in herself "a revelation of some kind of jewel in the middle of whatever was happening."
Diversity and problem solving have played a large part in her life. She says, “Problems should interest people.” Today she advises her grandchildren, “Don’t quit until you’re fired!” At one time she handled used clothing donations to be sent abroad during wartime and eventually the job would send her abroad too. She had to deal with difficult men on the waterfront in negotiating shipment of these donations. When someone suggested sending new clothing items instead, she went to the garment district in New York City where she was working and learned how to start a garment factory. The factory employees exposed her to a diversity she had not been used to—“radicals, people paroled from prison, conscientious objectors (wobblies).” She had to monitor the hooks used for sewing because of frequent fights among the employees. During this time, she observed people and developed a personal perspective from her observations.
An accomplished woman
|The poet at work.|
Liz lives with her husband Bob in a comfortable cluttered old house called Lilac Hill in Annapolis, Maryland, speaks with a voice that reveals the magnitude of her life experience.
In 2001 Liz's family helped her self-publish a collection of her poetry entitled Private Eye, Pictures from my Color Wheel. The book highlights this mother of four's devotion to family and nature. An environmentalist and conservationist, she has been a leader in the preservation of Weems Creek near her home, as well as a spokesperson for the Maryland Garden Club. "My dilemma was to get up there [in front of politicians] and make a passionate plea for sensible endeavors in the environment, when I knew I'd be as popular as a skunk at a wedding."
These observations now become part of the texture of her creativity today. She savors diversity and leans toward the unconventional. Although she is white, she is a member of St. Philips Church, a predominantly black church in Annapolis, where she tutors African-Americans with dyslexia.
“I’ve never experienced burn-out,” she says. “Diversity is the remedy to burnout.” Throughout her life and into the present, it is not unusual for her to experience as many as six different responsibilities at the same time. Today, she is involved in a garden club, tutoring, family, church, politics, and poetry.
Curiosity about human motivations is evident in her poetry. She meets once a month in Annapolis with a group of a dozen poets who call themselves the Poets of the Green Tables. They share, support and critique one another’s poetry. Her present goals are to write short stories and non-fiction travels pieces, as well as to write poetry that explores the inner workings of events both ordinary and big.
In Liz’s poem "Georgia O’Keefe," she leaves us with this line: "So she left us her poppy. It is very red." When asked what color comes closest to her own identity, McWethy does not hesitate. "I'm red -- unmistakable, passionate, inquisitive, fun-loving." One can detect the similarities between the independent New Mexico artist and the feisty Maryland poet.
“You have to develop a sense of humor and see the funny side of most everything,” Liz says. Her sense of humor shows in one of her favorite quips, “If you don’t like it, re-arrange the scenery.” However, this only goes so far. “You can’t control and shape others. You must back off sometimes and just accept. Support but don’t dictate.” As someone who believes that change, evolution, is a constant, Liz is still evolving, growing and strengthening.
Elizabeth Clark McWethy, a remarkable woman whose poetry reflects her past, as well as her present, anticipates even more new adventures.
In her poem "Evening," she concludes:
The night isfallingA thrush iscallingEverything isstill
Going Out with the Tide by Elizabeth McWethy
On the day of my death
at the moment when
the tide will be running out
my breath and the tide will mingle,
carry the shape of my words.
"Come with me."
"I love you."
"Feel the wind."
Cold, salty, lung-obsessed wind
will catch the beauty
of the receding waves, the revealed shingle,
its scatter of shells, pink, purple, gray,
the humping crabs in tandem retreat
under the foamy curtain of the wave.
My last breath will harness the ebb tide
and ride it eastward leaping from wave to wave,
leaving the beach behind, my canvas chair in place,
my life, journaled, going out with the tide,
possessed by the ocean at last.
(Published in the journal, Manorborn, in 2009.)