Mary Lee Riddle ( January 18, 1923 to October 24, 2007)
by Tom Riddle, their son. Written in rural India, Nov 1, 2007.
Their second son, me, was born in 1951, 14 months after my older brother, Bruce, and 13 months before my younger brother, Scott.
I can imagine that the day I was born my mother told her friends, “I had a baby boy today. And he's going to become a lawyer.” Imagine then, my mother's surprise when, as soon as people started asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up I said, “I want to be a bum.” Being a bum appealed to me because bums don't work much and they travel a lot. Things have turned out better than I could have imagined.
Growing up, my parents, although I didn't know it at the time, were models of community service. I don't know how many charities and boards my father worked on, but I remember that he always gave blood, was busy during elections, and that he was on the board of directors of Robinson Memorial Hospital. My mother also did community service. Her two favorite positions were with the Garden Club and the hospital. She loved wearing her yellow hospital volunteer's uniform and taking a cart of books and magazines around the hospital. She enjoyed being cheery and cheering people up. Later she enjoyed working for the annual holiday fund-raising projects at the hospital. Shortly before she died, she said that she wanted to be remembered as a hospital volunteer.
The other extraordinary thing about growing up with my parents that I didn't appreciate at the time was that every Saturday night they went out on a date. It was amazing—no matter what was going on in their lives or their childrens' lives, every Saturday night they would get dressed up and go somewhere—to a party, a dinner, to play golf, to a movie or to a community social event. They were the equals of any Hollywood socialites. That continued until my father was almost 80 years old.
Meanwhile their small children grew up and she and my father had the misfortune of being parents to teenagers in the late 1960s. At that time Hugh thought that long hair on men was a sign of radicalism, drug use, or homosexuality. (Later though he grew a beard and wore a black armband to work to protest the war in Vietnam.) Mary Lee though saw longhair and teenage rebellion as a part of growing up. She did, however, want her sons hair to be neat and not shaggy. She once told me that I would be very wise to get my mop neaten up. She suggested what at that time was a new idea, "a hair styling saloon." At the know-it-all age of 19, I brushed off my mother's suggestion with, "Mom, I'll go there and half way through the haircut that guy is going to put his hand on my leg."
A few days later my mother told me, "I talked to my stylist and she knows for sure that this barber is a REAL MAN."
Shortly thereafter I gave up and got a hair cut.
No doubt there were many times when I must have caused my mother more than a little worry. Let me describe just two of them. In 1977 I was working as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the South Pacific when I was assigned to an island where the one and only boat came once a month. Unfortunately though, after I got there, the boat didn't come back for four months. Meanwhile I got seriously ill with a tropical infection. When I finally left that island and the boat docked on an island with a telephone, I called home to say that I was okay. My mother later said that she was so relieved and excited to talk to me that after she put the phone down she couldn't sit down for an hour.
Another particularly dramatic moment came in 1993 when I was working in Cambodia for the United Nations as part of the Cambodian peace process. The job started off as a grand adventure, but things got ugly when a few of the people I was working with were murdered by the warring factions. Many of my colleagues quit, but I stayed on. Finally while the whole world was watching, Cambodia had an election which I was in the middle of. My mother must have lost some sleep worrying about me. But then, as always, she never asked me to come home and always seemed proud of what I was doing.
She hated to hear people say that he was crazy. He had, she told everyone, memory loss. And until the very end, to her, that was all he had lost. He never lost his charm or any reason for her to stop loving him. Selflessly she stayed with him until the very end.
Those of you who attended Hugh's memorial service will recall that she handled that with unimaginable grace, inviting everyone who attended the memorial service to lunch at the Elk's Club saying, "If you've stayed with us this long, you're family."
Just then my mother started doing something that I think she had wanted to do for a long time. It was very simple: she started ending her phone calls to her sons by saying, “I love you.”
Hers sons liked that and always replied in kind.
After Hugh was gone, Mary Lee enjoyed life at the Laurel Lake retirement community. She, one of the Laurel Lake staff told me, was one of the few residents who asked the staff how they were. At Laurel Lake she moved from her own apartment, to assisted living, and finally to 24-hour-a-day care. She did all of this without one word of complaint about her severe arthritis and generally deteriorating health. Indeed the opposite was true — she was thankful to everyone and for everything. Thankful for every visitor, every card, letter, and phone call. Thankful to the volunteers from the church who gave her communion and to "Helping Hands" who helped her answer the phone and to every nurse, orderly, and doctor at Laurel Lake.
Very literally, Mary Lee demonstrated until and with her last breath, that no matter how much one's own health deteriorates one can still face the world with a smile and good cheer for those around you.
My mother, more than anyone, else gave my life whatever normalcy it has had. Without her, my life will be very different. She leaves a gap that I'm sure no one will fill.