Dan Shaw: A mother for the ages

## Joan Shaw
## Joan Shaw

As I write this, it has been 11 days since my mother’s death in McMinnville, and I’m finally able to sit down and think about her with my fingers on a keyboard.

It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about her. It seems that everything I do brings back a memory. Some come with a tear, some with a chuckle.

I’ve spent some time on the phone with my brothers and sister. Because of the coronavirus restrictions, we’re postponing our family memorial service, so we can only console each other long distance.

I was surprised when my brother, in a conversation the day after our mother’s death, described her caring nature as her most noticeable character trait.

It’s not that I disagreed. Joan Shaw was one of those people who just about always put other peoples’ needs above her own. While somewhat shy and reserved by nature, she had a smile for everyone and was always there when help was needed.

But as I think of my mother, the first thing that comes to my mind isn’t her caring. It’s her adventurous spirit.

She was up for anything, anytime, whether it was camping, biking, hiking, skiing, or traveling to the corners of the earth. She had an active husband and four kids and never said no to an outing.

One day, several years after my father’s death, I was sitting in my office at work when the phone rang. My mother’s voice was on the other end of the line.

“Guess where I am,” she asked, the delight clear in her voice.

“I can’t imagine,” was my response. Last I heard, she was home in Oregon.

“Churchill,” she blurted out.

My mind swirled, trying to think of where Churchill might be. 

“Are you in England?” I asked.

“No, silly. I went on a polar bear watch today. There aren’t any polar bears in England. Tomorrow I’m going whale watching.”

My brain began to focus. Polar bears and whales. Churchill. She must be in northern Canada. Before I could guess again, she continued.

“I’m on the shore of Hudson Bay, at the northern edge of Manitoba. I saw dozens of polar bears today. You can’t imagine how big they are.”

I could go on telling stories forever.

There was the time, when she was in her early 80s, when I invited her to go on a baseball road trip. We saw seven games in seven days, catching all five California teams, including three featuring my Giants, one in San Francisco and two in San Diego. Oh, and we fit in the San Diego Zoo and the San Juan Capistrano Mission.

Then there was the time she and my father decided the family should see Expo ’67, the world’s fair in Montreal, even though we didn’t have the money for a cross-country trip. So we camped every night for six weeks, and worked as migrant laborers picking cherries in Michigan and cucumbers in New Jersey, to cover the cost.

Maybe the craziest example of my parents’ adventurism was their camping trip across Europe.

No one thought they should have camped across America working as migrant laborers — two school teachers from Oregon with two kids in tow, as my older brother and sister were already in college. So they didn’t pay much attention, either, when people told them they couldn’t camp across Europe from Paris to Istanbul — through the Iron Curtain and across several countries under Soviet control.

They had a few close scrapes — a Bulgarian border guard who didn’t want to let them cross from Romania, for example. Or going days without finding another person who spoke English in Yugoslavia and Hungary.

But they found the people of rural Europe, on both sides of the Curtain, to be friendly and helpful. And camping in Romania in 1971 wasn’t much different from camping in Pennsylvania in 1967.

There was the African safari, when they rode through a herd of elephants in one of those Volkswagen buses with the top cut out, so you could stand up and take pictures.

Or bathing naked in the hot mineral springs at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan – even though she had sworn she wasn’t taking her clothes off. And that was at age 75.

When I thought about it more, though, I realized that my mother’s adventurous spirit wasn’t her most noticeable personality trait — it was just the trait that most appealed to me.

Rather, her central characteristic was her stubborn sense of doing the right thing. Decisions about life, from the little ones like whether to sweep up the crumbs or brush them under the rug, to the big ones, like whether to save for a purchase or borrow the money, all came down to a careful, reasoned approach. Do the right thing.

For most of my life, my mother was a teacher. She was known throughout Junction City, where I grew up, as one of the best teachers in the elementary school.

It wasn’t until recently, when my mother began reminiscing about her life, as many do as death approaches, that I learned she never wanted to be a teacher, never really enjoyed it, and thought she wasn’t very good at it.

Why, I asked, unable to keep the shock from my voice, did you keep teaching all those years?

She shrugged. “We needed the money,” she said, in her matter-of-fact voice. “And it was something I could do.”

Left unsaid: It was the right thing to do for her family, and she did the right thing. So she was the best darned teacher she knew how to be.

My mother grew up in Enterprise in the 1920s and ’30s, when it was still somewhat of an Old West town. Her father owned a ranch, but also built a house in town, managed the local farmers’ co-op, and got himself elected mayor. Her descriptions of her childhood sound a lot like Opie running around Mayberry on “The Andy Griffith Show.”

After high school, she went to Oregon State University, not so much to study, but to get a little more refined — and find a husband.

At a sorority “mixer,” where soldiers training at the university were invited to a carefully chaperoned dance, my mother found her match. It only took one dance, to a recording of Bing Crosby singing his new hit, “White Christmas,” and they knew.

Did I mention that Joan Shaw was 4-foot-11 and Eldon Shaw was 5-foot-4? That may be what drew them to each other at that first dance. But whatever got the romance started, he walked her home that night, and it didn’t end until my father died in 1993, almost exactly 50 years later.

They were married a week after he returned from the war in Europe. They raised four children, who eventually became a dietician, corporate executive, newspaper editor and restaurant owner. She taught school for 25 years, earning first a master’s degree and then a doctorate in education. She directed the church choir and was active in service clubs.

My mother lived another 27 years after my father’s death, and continued to do the right thing. She moved to McMinnville to be near my sister and brother-in-law, Mary and Bill Maas, who settled in the community after college and never left.

She went to “work” most days, into her late 80s, either as a volunteer at Columbus Elementary, helping in Susie Bavies’ kindergarten classroom, or at the Willamette Valley Medical Center, helping file in the Human Resources Department. 

She led exercise classes at the Brookdale Town Center care home into her early 90s. She read to a blind woman until she went blind herself. She collected money for Christmas gifts for the caregivers, even after she could neither see nor walk.

At the end, when she had little left to be happy about, she still had her smile — especially when we talked about her family. Maybe she couldn’t see the photos on the wall, the four children on one wall, the six grandchildren on another, and the 14 great-grandchildren on a third, all arranged by birth year.

But she could see them all in her mind. And until the last few years, she visited them regularly in South Carolina, New York, Michigan, Colorado, California and Washington.

She died March 19, a few weeks after her 95th birthday. She went to sleep one night and didn’t wake up.

But she left behind a treasure trove of memories for the people whose lives she touched.

Dan Shaw is a retired journalist who worked at the Statesman Journal in Salem in the 1970s and 1990s before finishing his career in the Midwest. His mother, Joan Shaw, had made her home in McMinnville since 1994.


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