Mary Lou Thorne Samuelsen

My Mom was my pal and my confidante. She was my friend, in addition to being my Mom. When I was younger, she was the one member of my family I felt I could really talk to. She was a school teacher, and she’d come home from a hard day at school, and get started on dinner, and there I was, pestering her. I’m sure it got awfully annoying. But she never pushed me away, never sent me off, never so much as suggested that I was bothering her, or ask me to leave her alone. She listened. She engaged. Sometimes she’d disagree, show me where my thinking about some issue had gone off the rails. What she never did, never once that I can remember, was push me away.

Mary Lou Thorne Samuelsen. She didn’t particularly like the ‘Lou.’ Preferred just Mary, unless Dad called her ‘Lou,’ teasingly. She didn’t mind that. She was the only woman in a family of rambunctious boys. Three sons, and a husband who was a boy through and through. We were outdoorsy and active, loved sports and hiking and waterskiing and wrestling. And fart jokes and terrible puns and pranks. Mom was, well, ladylike and refined. She did all the guy things we guys did, but with a feminine twist. So we’d go waterskiing. She loved waterskiing–her way. She’d slowly lower herself off the boat, careful not to muss her hair, and ski sedately behind the big boat, and then toss the tow rope aside and slowly sink into the lake, her hair still in pristine condition. We’d go camping, and she’d camp along with us, but while we were climbing trees and annoying bears, she’d find a comfy camping chair and sit there with a book.

She loved to read; still does. When she was a kid, she’d strap on her roller skates and skate down to the Provo library, and check out a half dozen books, and then at home, she’d climb out her window and onto the roof and read, where she wouldn’t be disturbed. I never saw her do that, but I believe it; she grew up in my great-grandmother’s house, and it had large gabled windows leading onto the roof. And the roof meant privacy. That’s my Mom. She was an outgoing, friendly person, but also very private, if that makes sense.

In some ways, the defining event of her life–of her family’s life–was the murder of her father, my grandfather, Harold Arthur Thorne, in 1940, when she was five. He was a traveling salesman, and he picked up a hitchhiker who killed him and stole his car. The killer was caught soon thereafter, and his trial remains my Mom’s earliest memories. The prosecutors wanted Mom and her four siblings to sit on the front row, in front of the jury, to remind everyone of a family deprived of their father. When the trial was over, my Grandmother, Lucile Thorne, moved in with her mother, Mary Markham, and Grandma Mary raised the kids, while Grandma Lucile went to work. Grandma Lucile eventually earned a PhD, and was hired on the faculty of BYU. She was a remarkable woman, and I was very close to her. But all of my aunts and my uncle were remarkable.

That generation of women, the ones born in the ’30s, raising their families in the late ’50s and early ’60s, that whole group weren’t expecting to, or expected to, work. They were to be the homemakers, while their husbands were the breadwinners. But my Mom and my fierce and smart and funny and wonderful aunts–Janice, Joyce and Sally–knew how untrustworthy that expectation could be. They all received advanced academic degrees, and they all worked professionally. (Aunt Sally also joined her Mom on the BYU faculty). Uncle Jim was also outstanding–a brilliant architect and a gentle and kind-hearted soul. The murder didn’t poison them. But it did affect them–how could it not? My Mom never particularly considered herself a feminist. But she was tough, independent, and proud; an overachiever. One Relief Society lesson too many on why women shouldn’t work outside the home and she boycotted Relief Society for years. Until a sensible bishop called her as Relief Society President.

My Mom was loyal. That’s the best word I can think of to describe her; loyalty was second nature to her. To Mom, loyalty meant that if someone she loved was fond of something, she would do whatever possible to understand it and embrace it and become fond of it too. She didn’t particularly like basketball, but then my brother Rob played on the varsity basketball team, and my Mom became an avid, knowledgeable and deeply passionate basketball fan. Same with me and theatre; same with Rolf and caving. If we were into something, she got into it too.

I’m sure that when she was growing up, she didn’t really expect to be an opera buff. But my father was an opera singer, and so she became a huge opera fan. We talked about it sometimes. You think of ‘opera,’ and you tend to think of a pastime, an art form, that is effete, precious, esoteric, refined. My father was a university professor and an opera singer; that suggests a certain aesthetic and approach. Hoity toity?

Not so much. In fact, if you know opera at all, you know that it’s the most melodramatic, spectacle-laden, overpowering, sensational art form ever invented. My Mom loved Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, and especially Wagner. She loved the preposterous, violent, sexy plots, and the big, bombastic music. She loved the excitement of it, the energy. She loved opera, with everything it implies. She wasn’t much into chamber music. Wanted full orchestras, and other-worldly human voices rising above all the instruments in the pit. She thought rock-and-roll was, in contrast, rather tame. All that electronically generated sound; it felt unearned, she thought. I liked rock, and she’d politely listen, and she’d try to find the good in it–she rather liked Jethro Tull, for example. Simon and Garfunkle, some. But it just was all so tame, in her view. Opera’s visceral guttiness was what she loved about it.

Her way. She wanted to sit in the theater, sedately, and politely applaud at the end. She wasn’t a demonstrative fan, particularly. She loved opera, but she was always, always lady-like about it.

And so, as a teacher, she had her students write operas. She took a workshop offered by the Met, and she’d work with her kids. They did all the work; they wrote the scripts, they composed the music–there were always a few kids who had taken piano lessons–and they performed. And Mom would supervise. It was the highlight of the school year for those kids, and Mom loved doing it. She eventually worked with Michael Ballam, director of the Utah Festival Opera, and he brought the opera program to grade schools in Utah. She’d videotape the kids’ operas, and I watched a few. They were splendid. They were operas about issues the kids themselves were concerned about–bullying, and peer pressure, and making friends. Life changing. Couldn’t happen today, with teachers all teaching to the test, and what a shame that is.

And, oh my gosh, she could be funny. You could tease her, and she’d tease right back. She was, in short, an innovator and educator, a well-read sophisticated woman with a wicked wit and a deep compassion, and she was also my best friend.

A lot of that’s now gone. She has Alzheimers, and we’re losing her.  She is moving to Utah next week, where we can move her into a memory care facility, where she can be safe and have her medical needs met. She moved with my Dad to Indiana in 1962, and now she’s coming back to Utah. I wish there was another, better answer, but I’m aware that there really isn’t. She can still remember some things, from the past. Chatting with her, I can see the ghost of my Mom. But she’s lonely, and frightened, and we need to care for her. The way she cared for us.

But she’s extraordinary. Strong and capable and courageous. I’m so amazingly lucky.


7 thoughts on “Mary Lou Thorne Samuelsen

  1. Sally Taylor

    As Mary’s sister, I would concur with all that Eric has written. Mary is much loved by all of the family. Since I live maybe 15 minutes from where she will be living in Utah, I am much looking forward to spending time with along with Janice. Jim and Joyce have also expressed a desire to see her frequently, if possible. We called her the chameleon–like the lizard who can change its appearance to match its environment. With every boy she dated, she immediately loved whatever he was interested in. And I think her ability to become enthusiastic over what someone else loved was genuine. We will have those wonderful memories as we visit with the current physical Mary and mourn the lost part of her. I hope the chameleon will make her adapt to her new surroundings.

  2. Anonymous

    Love this tribute! Love your mom – a good friend for nearly fifty years! Love you kids! Our lives have been full!

  3. Nancy Wilson

    Thank-you for sharing this. My own father has had progressive (non-alzheimer’s) dementia for the last decade, and the need to mourn his loss – even as he still needs our care – has recently become very clear to me. Your tribute has reminded me that sharing music is something that can be meaningful well after memory has dissolved; thank-you for that.

  4. Julina Newsome Hall

    What a beautiful personalized tribute to the woman in your life that you honor and fully embrace as a part of you. Hi Eric, I hope you remember me, one of your old BYU students from 20 years ago. I have recently found your blog and have been pouring through it. I miss you my old friend!! I miss your intense desire to SEE people, and give each voice a space in your heart. You have influenced me more than you know. I often think about the way I was stretched to listen, to grow, to question by you in my naive 20’s, sitting in your classes, soaking in every word. Those lessons have become a deep part of the woman I am. I miss your mentor-ship and I am sad to see that you had to retire from teaching at BYU, as I know the students will miss out on having you as their teacher. Its wonderful to see you teaching through this venue though. Its beyond wonderful to hear your voice again!! Keep this up, you’re still probing us to listen, to stretch, to really think, and question. I love every word!

    1. admin Post author

      What a lovely comment! Thank you so much! I do remember you. So glad to hear that you’re doing well!

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