She was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1918, the year of the Spanish Flu. Her mother died of the disease when my mother was 8 months old. And as a baby, she also had the Flu, but she survived it, which may have given her extra immunity. This may explain the extraordinary health that she enjoyed during her long life.
February 22nd was her birthday. This year she would have been 103. She died only about 14 months ago, just 2 months shy of her 102nd birthday. It is fresh in my memory but no longer painful.
What a woman she was!
She lived life to the fullest, and she encouraged others to do the same. Her example certainly inspired many others. She loved matchmaking and arranging things for her friends. There were several weddings performed at Underoak when we were growing up.
She was married in 1940 to my father, Wiley Thomas Buchanan Jr., and they had three children. I came along in 1942 and then 2 years later, my sister Diane Dow, and 2 more years after that, my brother Wiley T. Buchanan III.
We all lived in a marvelous house on Nebraska Avenue, which had nearly 3 acres of land, and was named Underoak for the magnificent oak tree which shaded the house. Mother loved flowers and had gorgeous gardens. She did not care so much about the flowers remaining in the beds or on the bushes but picked them happily to go into spectacular flower arrangements. She was one of the Perrenial Garden Club founders, and she won consistent prizes for her floral entries at flower shows.??
She loved pretty colors and laces and silks and luxurious furs. She adored jewelry. She was beautiful and showed these clothes off to their best advantage. I guess you could say she was frivolous, yet she was so authentic it never seemed wrong. It was who she was. And her sunny nature drew people to her like bees to flowers. She lit up her surroundings, and people adored her for it.
As an Ambassador’s wife, she shown like a star. She loved the official entertaining, and she could charm elderly diplomats whom others could not stand to be around. The men loved her. She knew how to make a man feel special, and she used this skill at all times. But the women loved her too. She never competed with them. She was just herself. She liked women and always had a lot of friends. She enjoyed small talk and did not want to discuss weighty subjects. She never put forth a controversial topic. Though she would comment on the conversation no matter what turn it took, she was always evenhanded.The time she spent as wife of the Chief of Protocol when my father had that job under President Eisenhower’s second term was the happiest in her life, she told me. She was made for the position of helpmate to the Chief. She and my father traveled all over the United States with heads of state from many different countries. Official entertaining was in their blood. They both excelled at that job.
Later as a hostess in her houses in Jamaica and Newport, she relished having houseguests. They were feted and dined and danced with. They clamored to be invited again next year.
She continued to adore being a “Gramma,” and her grandchildren adored her during all this entertaining. As they grew up and married, they began producing “Great-grandchildren for her, and she loved that too. Though she said, she learned an interesting thing about men from being a great grandmother. “You can flirt and laugh and enjoy the company of a man at dinner and still mention your grandchildren without alarming him.” She said. “But if you mention that you have GREAT grandchildren, their eyes sort of glaze over. So I never do it.”
She enjoyed playing the field in between the three great romances of her life. She was happily married to my father for 46 years. But at the end of his life, he had Alzheimer’s Disease. So the last few years were pretty tough. Then she had a raging romance with Barkley Douglas after my father. I loved Barkley, and I asked her if she was going to marry him. “No.” She said, “Barkley has been married 3 or 4 times already. I don’t believe he makes a very good husband. So we are going to be ‘engaged NOT to be’ married.” He adored her until the day he died, so maybe she was right. Last, but certainly not least, was Ed Wheeler, to whom she first gave her heart when she was 17 years old. They grew apart and married others, but after his wife died Ed called up my mother and asked her out to dinner and a movie. She was shocked. “I can’t go out with you. Your wife, Charlotte, just died. What will people say?”
“You are right,” he said. “I will wait. How long do you want me to wait? Shall I wait a week, shall I wait a month, shall I wait a year? I am 81 years old. How long do you want me to wait?” And my mother, who had always loved him, said, “What time will you pick me up?”
Their love and marriage in their 80s was probably the greatest love story of their lives. At their wedding, my husband said, “That horny old devil; he can’t keep his hands off of her!” And it was true; they absolutely adored each other. The only time they had a disagreement that I know of was early in their relationship when Ed was sharing a bed with Mother in her house in Newport. Sharing the bed with my mother and two dachshunds horrified him. He said, “Ruth, I am not used to having dogs in the bed. I just cannot do that. If you insist on keeping them with you every night, I will have to go back to Washington DC”.Mother looked up at him with those winsome, blue eyes and said, “Oh Ed! I am REALLY GOING TO MISS YOU!” Naturally, he did not leave.
And before long, mother solved the problem by buying a dachshund puppy for Ed to have his own. He fell head over heels in love with that puppy, and no more was ever said about having dogs in the bed. Mother seriously knew how to handle a man, any man, and make them think she was terrific at the same time. Truly, a feminine woman of a type that young women today think they do not want to emulate. Too bad. But that just makes her memory more special.
Copyright©. 2021 Bonnie B. Matheson