My Mom was born in 1943 as the surprise baby to Epps Marshall and Elena Lowe Marshall in the tiny desert town of Blackfoot, Idaho. Mom often said that she had four parents, because her eldest siblings, David and Anita, were both several years older and lavished extra care on their little sister.
|5 year old portrait
The daughter of ranchers and farmers, Mom grew up in hardscrabble poverty. There was no running water on the property until she was twelve, so dashes out to the out-house in the howling dead of winter were part of her growing up experience.
Mom considered these inconveniences to be mostly irrelevant. As she described it, “We would have rice and raisin pudding for dessert because there was nothing else.
We kids had no idea we were poor, because it was our favorite dessert!”
|Feeding the Lambs
David and Anita doted on their younger sister, giving her that “best beloved” feeling in her family. In that tiny house that David and their father Epps had built, David and Anita would swing MaryLee high in the air like a pair of dock-workers and chant, “Shadrack, Meshack, and A-BED-YOU GO!” and toss her flying through the air onto her bed.
|The Epps McCord Marshall Family:
front: David, Epps, Elena
back: MaryLee, Anita
Riding horses, learning the piano, and playing games which required no electricity and no money were how Mom spent her childhood. She attended feeble, storefront churches which never managed to stay running for very long, and this too became part of her spiritual expectation.
So let me pause here for a moment, and at the cost of surprising many of you, let you in on the secret life of MaryLee Webber: Mom was brought up to have two modes of interaction with people: either politely public, or unguardedly personal. This was a regional and generational trait that let her gloss over personal conflicts, while at the same time letting some few people into her private life where things were a lot more zany than the surface that she projected for the public.
|Zanier than you thought,
but only when you weren't looking.
So let me clue you in: My mother was so sharp, her brain should have been continued on the next three people. In her youth, she was outgoing to the point of brashness. She also sported a darkly macabre sense of humor that fed on the absurdities of life. If you remember The Addam’s Family line drawn cartoons that ran in the New Yorker, that was right up her alley: a vicious inversion of the proper 20th Century American family. In college, she cackled over the satirical and controversial Smothers Brothers Comedy albums. Throughout her life, she privately reveled in the skewed visions of reality from cartoonists as varied as George Booth and his strange cast of characters to Gary Larson’s “The Far Side” panels. These, of course, became running family “in-jokes” which my sister and I can quote as shorthand for almost any situation. During the most trying professional times of my mom’s life in the late 1990s, she regularly escaped into edgy animated shows like Ren & Stimpy, I AM Weasel, and Cow & Chicken. However, she rarely let her enjoyment of the absurd and dark humored show in public.
As was typical for her generation, her older brother went off to University for a degree and worked a surveying job in the summers to put money away to pay for both of his sisters' college educations.
My Aunt Anita worked for the local phone company before she left for college, and my mother would leave High School at lunch time and join her sister at the local lunch counter. The two beauties appeared in public as a pair of working office girls. This experience with her sister gave Mom a sense of hope that there was more “world” out there to experience beyond a dull life in a one-horse town.
|Off to College!
Her brother David was eventually able to pay for Mom to attend Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington, in 1962 to pursue a photo-journalism degree. At Whitworth, she glutted herself on the college experience as only a small town girl could, siphoning up knowledge, culture and everything that always took an extra few decades to make it to her small town home. She left time for silliness, however. One of her escapades included piling into a VW Van at midnight with some friends, including one who, for laughs, styled himself as the Guru “Drawah.” They roared around the snowy, wooded campus until Drawah proclaimed a random tree to be THE sacred tree and did donuts around it in the VW. Mom later claimed that this was the closest she ever came to Eastern Enlightenment.
Between classes and silliness, Mom earned money on campus as assistant to the photo-lab manager, a World War 2 army photographer calling in his wartime benefits to get his degree. When this gruff character found out that she didn’t have enough money for bus fare to return home to Blackfoot for Thanksgiving, he took her home with him to his family of four. No, this was not my father. This was my Grandfather, research photo-journalist Bert Webber. That Thanksgiving, when he took his lab assistant home to his family, MaryLee met Bert’s number one son, Rick Webber.
My father was a seventeen year-old chatter-box, so excited about whatever he had just learned that he wanted to share it...whether you were interested or not. My mother’s father, Epps, was a loving, but “strong silent type,” as was typical of his generation. Mom found talking with Rick to be like drinking straight from the fire hose. Still, finally, someone who could hold up his end of a conversation!
When I was young, I always thought that my mother was just average smart, and my father was the really clever one because he could design, build, or improve anything. Somewhat later, I realized that while Dad was innovative in his field, my Mom was not only brilliant, but was also widely read across history, philosophy, and world literature. If I wanted to build something, I talked to Dad. If I wanted to know why to build it, whether it had been built before, and what the socio-economic consequences of building it were, I talked to mom. If mom got to me first, I usually wound up reading about someone else building it.
My parent’s courtship brought its own absurdities. Mom was grafted in to the Webber family in Spokane and joined in the hiking, camping and on one terrifying trip, spelunking, or cave-exploring. My grandfather, Bert, continued as her professional mentor and shot poses of her to be used as portraits for her newspaper columns.
Since my Dad was about to do two years in the Coast Guard right out of high school, Mom agreed to be “his girl” while he was on the high seas. She was surprised and pleased when someone so young, travelling the world, decided that what he wanted most was to come home and marry her. Mom did mention that the communications arrangements were not very romantic, nor very private, especially ship to shore calls. “I love you. OVER.” “I love you, too OVER.”
|Richard Ebbert Webber and MaryLee Marshall, married on June 11, 1967
|She let the mask slip a little there.
|Modern female photojournalist in action, photo by
her mentor and future Father-in-law, Bert Webber
While MaryLee did complete her photo-journalism degree, she opted to teach high-school English instead. She had started to feel uncomfortable with the hyper-aggressive professional journalists who were disrespectful of their subjects. But her final decision was made by nearly being a side-lines casualty during an out-of bounds tackle at a football game she was covering. Five-hundred pounds of offensive and defensive players hurtling toward her as she tried to scramble out of the way in a mini-skirt.
As my father started his Engineering Degree at Idaho State University, mom started teaching English and Newspaper copy-writing at her old High School in Blackfoot.
|The Webber Family, 1969
In 1969, I was born in my mother's hometown of Blackfoot. As young parents with adventure on their minds and no money, they worked like mad at their education and jobs and regularly camped all over the Pacific Northwest. When my Dad graduated, he got a job that could be a single income for the whole family. The exciting part was that the job was in New Jersey.
My Mom was thrilled to move to New Jersey. While in college in Spokane, she had made visits to Seattle during the 1962 World’s Fair and got a taste for what city living could be. For a girl from a one horse town, moving to the busy corridor between New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. sounded wonderful. Mom came from the desert where sagebrush was as green as it got. Her move to the Garden State is one she never regretted. Small time girl goes to the big city…and only goes back to the small town for high school reunions.
|The Webber Family, 1976
My parents moved to Westmont, NJ and mom stayed at home until a year after the birth of my sister, Leah, who was born in 1975. It was at this memorable point that MaryLee took my father gently by the throat and told him if she did not get out of the house to start working a mentally stimulating job, someone was going to get hurt. Mom went back to work in office management. She admitted later that it was more therapy than income. She loved being a mother, and was a great one. But there was more out in the world that she wanted to do.
About this time, my parents became involved with Laurel Hill Bible Church in Clementon. Until that time, our family had not been much in the way of regular attenders at church, though that slowly changed while my father was getting his degree. As his faith blossomed, my mother took her own faith out and gave it looking over and decided it was time to get serious, too. By the time my sister was born, my parents were at every service, every time the church doors were unlocked.
In an era when fewer American families gathered for meals, the Webber family usually ate dinner together in the evenings, with cloth napkins and with silver and china, a habit my parents set up so that from a young age, my sister and I could be taken out to any restaurant and have better table manners than most of the adults. (Tricky, mom.)
|Moving up to the Stratford House, Sept. 1978
Mom’s clever modus operandi at the dinner table was the same one that she had used with her students while teaching High School in Blackfoot: "Get inside their minds, figure out how they think, so that you can help them succeed." She used the same method on my sister and I at the dinner table. Get us talking, distracted by the food, and then she and my father would often have a post-dinner debriefing where they discussed what my sister and I had said, where to apply pressure, where to back off, how to steer, and so on.
My parents were not trained in child development: They just did the things that they liked to do, took us along for the ride, and watched our reactions with great attention and then discussed our behavior in detail before adjusted course. Mom spoke with us and not at us. (Dad could carry on both sides of the conversation.) Our opinions were solicited to keep the conversation going. Most importantly, they confined their social guidance to ethical living, without any attempt to coerce Leah or I into their ideas for our careers or interests. Today, this is called “free-range parenting” and as a kid who was given his head to choose any subject to pursue, it was wonderful.
|MaryLee, circa 1985.
This included our spiritual lives, where we were expected to understand the essentials of my parents' Christian faith, but the decision of whether or not to become believers in Jesus as our spiritual rescuer were necessarily up to us. Mom used to reinforce this by telling us, “You can only inherit customs from your parents, you can’t inherit faith. You must decide that for yourself. We want you to be the person God made you to be.”
I am truly grateful for my mom’s wisdom in being winsome and persistent when dealing with me, rather than trying get me into the kingdom of God with her boot in my back. I can say that I own my own faith, and I know that my sister can, too.
Our family changed churches in the early 1980’s, shifting our attendance to Grace Bible Church in Mount Laurel. Mom took up piano again for enjoyment and eventually learned enough about playing organ to offer to trade off with Grace Bible Church’s regular organist, Cathy Chattin, to give Cathy a break.
In their spiritual lives, mom and dad were a good compliment. Dad was an evangelist, the harvester who would encourage people to make their final decision for a life of following Jesus. As a teacher, my mom was a planter, a sower of seeds of spiritual thought and consideration for a later harvester to come along and help. The Gospel of John, in the 4th chapter records Jesus describing the need for both types: “What joy awaits both the planter and the harvester alike! You know the saying, ‘One plants and another harvests.’ And it’s true.”
My parents enjoyed the role of “auxiliary parents” to many here in this room today.
My mother’s own experience of having been brought in to the Webber home on a cold November and my father’s enthusiasm for trying to parent any kid within arm’s reach helped set her on a course of loving and supporting kids and young people around her who were not her own family.
|Webber Family, 1993, with our new 'plus one',
Brian Rykaczewski. They were married March 5, 1994.
One of those young people hanging around was my sister’s boyfriend, Brian Rykaczewski. When Leah was seventeen, Brian asked my parents for their permission to marry her, presenting a meticulously drafted plan to have both of them living on his single income within just a few years. To the shock of many, my parents said yes. My folks recognized Brian’s Christian faith, his drive, and his sharp business acumen when others only saw his youth.
Certified Medical Assistant
Over the years, my parents worked a variety of jobs to keep food on the table. When Mom tired of the chaos of her office management job, she switched to medical office management.
This is the stress point where some marriages fly apart. Instead, my parents reverted to what they called, “Run the deer.” One wolf chases the deer while the other one rests, and then they swap. My father had worked while my mother had started Leah and I on our way through childhood, then they had swapped, and my father went back and retrained. Then he “ran the deer” while my mother re-trained as a Certified Medical Assistant, and back and forth over the years, each one back-stopping the other in various jobs while the other one took the next step up in their professional career.
This was exhausting. They often excused their lack of vigor in life with the quip, “We had a bad decade.” Still, when opportunities permitted, Mom escaped into historical fiction where she often found the lift of a happy ending to keep her moving forward.
|Marriage of R. Marshall Webber to Sarah Boyle, June 21, 1997, in Fresno, California.
Mom got a daughter-in-law in 1997 when I married Sarah Boyle. Mom also got someone who shared her passion for historical fiction and could also keep up in conversation about a wide variety of historical, philosophical, and cultural fields. Having looked up to my mother as someone who could keep up with a broad array of subjects, I had unconsciously gone looking for someone who was as brainy as she was. She also got to switch to Grandma or “Mimi the Great” mode
when her kids started supplying grandchildren. She was happy to take out her bag of teaching tricks for a new generation.
|Playing Piano with her first
Grandchild, Grace Rykaczewski
Mom eventually found a way to squeeze what she loved into one job. At my father’s urging, she pursued a Master’s degree in Adult Education from Widner University. When things got hard financially, she stopped for several years, writing it off as a missed opportunity.My father kept leaning on her try to go back and finish. Much to her surprise, Widner was happy to bring her back in, and she completed her Master’s degree. All of the cords of her professional life were finally braided together: Teaching, anatomy and physiology, and medical records management, to students that needed a confidence boost, and the opportunity to let her personal zaniness out of the box a little to keep her student engaged.
|Back teaching, her first professional love. Still with Rick, both older and wiser.
She taught medical office management and medical assistance at Burlington County Institute of Technology to both adults and teenagers. She truly loved her students and sparkled as each one of them took wing in their new career. Her greatest disappointment was being forced into retirement by BCIT administration in 2008.
|At the Rogers organ, Stratford Presbyterian Church
In recent years, to supplement her retirement income, mom began playing the organ at the Stratford Presbyterian Church. It was an ideal arrangement, she said. The congregation loved having an organist, and mom got to hear solid exegetical preaching each Sunday. For those of you here from Stratford Presbyterian, thank you for welcoming my mother in.
As some of you know, my father was diagnosed with a muscle wasting disease in 2000. By the time my mother retired, he was rarely able to stand.
|With the Rykaczewski family:
Leah, Collin, MaryLee, Rick, Grace, Brian, and Lilly.
Mom chose to care for him at home, even as he struggled to be out participating in symphonic bands with friends. She once cracked to me, “I married a younger man to take care of me when I was old. Oops.” They were able to get by together until both were diagnosed with cancer within a week of each other in 2015
If you knew both of my parents, you knew that my Dad kept rolling ahead with an ever present grin on his face. Mom reverted to her small town stoicism which kept her going from a well of deep toughness and faith that God’s Holy Spirit would give her just enough juice to make it through each present day. She worked to make my dad comfortable until his passing in August of 2016, while at the same time working to care for her own cancer.
|With the Webber Family (Nov 2019):
R. Marshall, Miranda Elena, Sarah, Alexander Matthew, MaryLee
When it became evident in December, 2019, that her latest flare up of the cancer would be her last, Mom said to me, “I got four extra years that I wasn’t expecting!” Indeed, she had made new friends, resumed old friendships, traveled, and for a few years, was able to relax in her retirement.
When she was in her final days being cared for at Tom and Lorita Boyle’s house, the whole family was gathered for dinner on the other side of the house. We munched, talked, laughed and made all of the raucous noises that large family gatherings do when they are happy together.
I snuck out to see how Mom was doing, and found her in the bed, limp as a rag, but grinning. “What’s funny?” I asked. “I am attending my pre-wake,” she replied with dignity. When I nearly choked at this macabre comment, she continued, “Really! I’m enjoying just hearing my family all together with love in the other room. This is better than a wake, because I get to attend. Most of all, I know that when I’m gone, this type of love is how things are going to continue for my family even in my absence.”
The most remarkable thing I can say about my mother was that in her final days, she did not look at death, she looked through death, as if it were a piece of glass. Most people, even those of deep faith, look at death with trepidation. Mom saw no ending, just a mere transfer point, as benign as crossing a train platform to switch to the express for Peoria. I have never known anyone who considered their dying days with more faith that her Savior would greet her at the moment of her passing, and with so little worry for what she was leaving behind.