A Class Act Until The End; Goodbye, Mother
by Hariett Worrell, Art Darts
Rather than putting this information in the more traditional section of the Vermont Standard, I am making this column the brief obituary of an artist in my life. Normally, I would ask my mother to listen to what I had written, because the subject is so personal. I would ask her, among other things, if she thought the brevity was too little or if I had said too much and did it ring true in this form. I would always ask her — but today I must go it alone.
Louise D. (for Durham) Denham was born June 11, passed away at the age of 96 years in a small room on the third floor of Dartmouth Hitchcock Hospital on Nov. 15 at 4:50 in the afternoon. It was already dark outside. The death certificate said 5:15, because the doctor of verification arrived at that time.
She was surrounded by daughter Harriet Worrell; son-in-law, Chuck Worrell; granddaughter, Perrin Worrell; grandson Temple Worrell; and granddaughter Meg Scherbatskoy. Grandson Ramsey Worrell had tenderly said his good by earlier. Betty Putnam, dear friend, tended her bedside the entire day and only departed an hour before. Bev Anderson, pastor of the Bridgewater Congregational and United Church of Christ had been their all day along with three great granddaughters (Genoa, Ekaterina, and Emelin Scherbatskoy), a dear grandson-in-law, Jon Scherbatskoy, and a treasured family partner, Teressa Brown.
Her grandson, Deacon Worrell, was in New York. Her granddaughter Marcia Gallatin waited quietly at her home in San Antonio. Her four stepchildren and their spouses, twelve more grandchildren with six spouses, and eleven great grandchildren and one spouse waited in Colorado, Texas, Alabama, California, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Florida.
During all the day hours of the 15th, kindly nurses and teams of doctors paid their respects. Many cried. Think not of the medical profession as jaded. They are not.
They are good and valiant even to the hour of death.
My mother was raised in Waco, Texas, among what my dad called Brazos River aristocracy. She went to the Montessori kindergarten and the public schools of Waco with a four-year stint in Louisville, Kentucky. She studied French and art at Baylor where her grandfather, Dr. John Thomas Harrington, was 49 years on the Baylor Board of Trustees. Her grandmother, Genoa Harrington, had been an instructor on the campus of Baylor at Independence, Texas, when it was an all-girl school. You begin to see the attachments.
As was the tradition in the early 20th century in places like Waco, her family lived in the same large house with the good doctor and his wife. Her immediate family included her sister, Jessie Nix, who pre-deceased her; her father, Perrin Sparke Durham who was an agent for theatre and concert artists and who died when mama was 16; and her stunning mother, Jessie Harrington, who died during World War II.
And so my mother grew up in a Victorian household. Among other things, it meant that family was everything. She wrote that “During growing up year, as my mother’s had been, I lived in a safe neighborhood in a lovely house with an equally lovely family. I was swathed in the assurance of love and family support. I was always reminded of the family obligation, and was always sent off to a birthday party with the admonition to “Remember that you are a Harrington and a Durham. What you do reflects on your family.”
A phrase was added to that after my sister complained that I embarrassed her. “And don’t eat the ice cream that the other children leave in their saucers.”
In 1942 she married Ramsey Yelvington and her life was joined with the theater, beautiful language, and brilliant, creative free spirits. In addition, Daddy moved her to a farm during a serious seven-year drought, but it was a place where my older and only sister Margaret and I spent many happy days. My mother, I am proud to say, ironed with a flat iron, killed snakes with a hoe, helped birth calves, corralled goats, drove a tractor, and sat comfortably as the necessary weight on a hay baler even as she took out the china to entertain guests, developed her own careers, and helped Daddy with his.
She was witty, smart looking and generous with notes, letters, gifts, and kind words. She listened. She loved us, beauty and wonderful writing. No surprise that she gave up teaching elementary school and running two of her own dress stores to become the head of the English department at a private school (San Marcos Academy) that educated and cared for children whose parents worked overseas. She was there for over 20 years.
After that career and the death of my dad, she made another turn and moved to the city to be the wife of Dr. William Denham, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Austin, Texas. She also became stepmother to his four children. Painfully, my sister Margaret passed away soon after on Valentine’s Day at the age of 40.
Mama was completely comfortable in Austin until Dr. Denham died on a Christmas morning. She left her surroundings of over 20 years and came to live with me in Vermont. Although she cried every day for a year when she didn’t think I could hear her, she loved Vermont and the friendships that came with it. Over the years her remarks began to be about how good it was to be here.
Mother was family matriarch, dear friend, artist, writer, educator, democrat, dear parent, dear grandparent and great grandparent. She was Texan and Vermonter. Her traditions came from the gentile, intelligent and pioneer woman.
She was loyal and made “duty” beautiful — never a chore. She loved first and questioned after. She adored travel and every art form. She said that she and I were the only people she knew that talked about bakeries like we were reviewing good books.
She was a woman of faith — the most courageous kind. She believed, totally. She knew where she would be now.
Year by year for 96 years she gathered wisdom that was dispensed in her own way. She encouraged, loved, directed and comforted. She was a straight shooter and delightfully sassy. She loved to tell her own story and all of ours as well. She believed our stories deserved that recognition.
Once when Woodstock paid me a lovely honor at a dinner, Mama contributed with a small address along with letters and photos of a lot of the people that influenced my life and work. During my own remarks, one of the audience called out the question ”Why are the influences in your life all men?” I answered back, easily, that, “With a mother like mine, what other women would I need.”
She birthed me, protected me, defended me, promoted me and loved me and mine unconditionally. Were she reading this, she would say I have rambled, and I apologize for that. She would know, as you may suspect, that I probably didn’t allow enough time for good editing.
Mama and I agreed years ago that after so many loved ones passed on celebrated days (I didn’t mention that my dad died on my birthday), that the two of us would pass on an innocuous day. She has fulfilled her part of the bargain. I will try to do the same.
I thank all of you who made mother’s life in Vermont rich and happy. All of my family thank you who have been so kind to us the last few weeks and who blessed us all with their stories and talents at the hospital, our home and at the memorial service this past Sunday afternoon.