A gracious person for a lifetime

Feb 18, 2016 Betty Starks Case

'Sister/cousin' Mae could show today's athletes and pols a thing or two

Maesie. I don't know how her dad would have spelled the name. But that's what I remember him calling Mae when she was a little girl.

When you heard it, you just knew she was treasured.

When Mae's only sister, Dorie, and my two sisters, Lorraine and Gladys, passed on, Mae and I declared ourselves sister/cousins. We both loved the term and the relationship, though it was not as manufactured as you might think.

Mae lived with us from age 12 until she was grown and left home. Her mother had died in childbirth. Her father's tragic illness made it impossible for him to care for his family. Aunts and uncles quickly found room in their families for Mae and her five siblings.

My sister/cousin's full name is Ella Mae, the first born child of Will Starks and Ella Fees Starks. Will, a gentle man, was my uncle, my father's brother. When we were children, their family and ours were often visitors at one another's country homes, about a 50-mile drive between theirs near Kadoka and ours a few miles from Stamford in South Dakota.

In our Wyoming home, where we'd moved from Dakota a year earlier, Mae fit right in. She knew us well. She also filled a niche in our family, age-wise, where she fit as if planned between a brother and sister. Somehow, we'd held the perfect spot for her.

As my sisters and I grew up and left home, Mae became big sister to my four younger brothers.

Today, Mae is seriously ill. Shared childhood memories flood my mind.

Mae's family home in South Dakota was a pleasant house built on the edge of some of the most threatening, yet picturesque badlands in America.

Should I add "tempting?" When we visited their home, our mothers always warned, "Now don't go out into the badlands. They're dangerous. You could get lost."

Unfamiliar ground to us, my sisters and I felt the rugged, ghostly formations might just reach out and grab us.

In later years, the memory brought a merry laugh from Mae.

"We played in the badlands all the time. No one ever got lost or disappeared!"

My cousins' home had a feature that I found most fascinating as well - a dumb-waiter. In the event you are too young to know what that is, it's a box-like elevator containing a collection of shelves that rises up from below the floor of homes that are lucky enough to have them. Mae's mother kept it supplied with home-made desserts, milk, candy, butter, and other foods that needed to be kept cool in the days before refrigerators were common home appliances. I loved to see my aunt bring the dumb-waiter up, filled with surprises.

Mae's mother, Ella, was an excellent homemaker and seamstress. One of my special memories is of a big trunk spilling out a colorful assortment of fabrics when she lifted the lid to show my mother. Ella made many of her children's clothes, beautifully.

When I began this column, I was feeling torn about the many negative things happening in our world, politicians childishly spewing hatred toward one another as if that might be a reason to vote for them, daily news reports of economic disaster, local reports of lost jobs, etc.

Then I recalled the big Super Bowl game of football and the childish tantrum of Carolina's famed quarterback, Cam Newton, when they lost the game, rolling on the ground, crying and rudely insisting that he did not owe good sportsmanship behavior to the young boys who'd admired and looked up to him.

I began searching for positive, spirit-lifting people to share with my readers.

For years, I've phoned my loved sister/cousin on her Valentine's Day birthday for a long, playful visit. This year, she didn't answer the phone. I hoped she was visiting family members in California where she lives.

Instead, we hear she is hospitalized, dealing with serious illness. My thoughts are filled with the lovely person she grew up to be when she had reason to respond to tragedy beyond imagination. Her grace shames the behavior of today's politicians and athletes.

Mae married and was blessed with five children, all fine people, creating her own family, which surrounds her with love today.

This sister set an example of courage and spirit for the rest of us, yet remains the sweet, gentle person she's always been. The dark years we pushed behind makes us realize how far life has tipped our scale toward joy and love.

Your Valentine birthday will always remind us. Thank you, Maesie, with our love.