Thursday, August 2, 2012

Farewell, Eleanor

I was looking at the obituary section of my hometown newspaper's website, and I saw that an old friend of the family passed away this week.

Her name was Eleanor Opitz, and she was one of my mother's closest friends. They were community activists together in the central Arkansas town where I grew up. They frequently supported the same political candidates and volunteered in the local campaign headquarters, giving out pamphlets and bumper stickers and buttons and answering phones.

Even though I was quite young, I put in some time with them at the campaign headquarters. I learned a lot from both, and it was from Eleanor that I learned much about people and politics.

I have always thought Mom was the most knowledgeable person I ever knew, but Eleanor was a close second. And I'll tell you something that is funny.

My mother died more than 17 years ago (that isn't the funny part). But ever since I saw Eleanor's obituary, I've had the same thought bouncing around in my head. I have to tell Mom that Eleanor has died. She would want to know.

And then I remember that, of course, I can't tell Mom.

I haven't had that feeling since the Christmas after Mom died, when I went through the stores and saw all kinds of things that I would have given Mom if she had still been around. And I had to remind myself that, of course, she wasn't around anymore.

There aren't many people in this world — outside of my father and brother — I associate that closely with my mother.

Once, I recall chatting with Eleanor on a primary day.

In those days, you practically had to have sworn affidavits in your possession affirming that you really would be out of town on Election Day in order to cast what was known then as an absentee ballot. Otherwise, you had to vote on Election Day. No exceptions.

Today, early voting periods are commonplace, and no one has to jump through hoops to vote early.

Anyway, Arkansas held its primary in June in those days so I was out of school and I had gone early that day to the headquarters for whichever candidate it was that Mom and Eleanor and I were supporting.

Eleanor wasn't in the office when I got there around 9 a.m. She showed up a few minutes later and explained that she had been voting. I didn't think much about that, and I didn't ask her why she had gone to the polling place in the morning, but she told me, anyway.

"I always vote early in the day," Eleanor told me. "That way, if I get hit by a bus or something in the afternoon, I know my vote will be counted!"

The more I think of it, she may have told me that on the day in 1974 that Bill Fulbright lost the primary for his Senate seat to Gov. Dale Bumpers. Mom and Eleanor and I were supporters of Fulbright, and the outcome wouldn't have been affected if Eleanor had been prevented from voting. My memory is that Bumpers won by a 2–to–1 margin.

But Eleanor impressed on me the importance of showing up. On one of my favorite TV shows, The West Wing, the point was often made that "decisions are made by those who show up." Eleanor was a believer. She made me a believer, too. It's probably why I always vote in the early voting period.

The other memory of Eleanor that stands out probably was from around the same time.

Mom and I were visiting Eleanor one day, taking advantage of her swimming pool on a hot summer day. I brought along a book I had just started reading — a paperback copy of the edited White House transcripts that Richard Nixon hoped would satisfy congressional investigators who had been trying to gain access to the tapes of Oval Office meetings and telephone conversations.

And I read it between dips in the pool.

When Nixon released the transcripts, they only succeeded in re–igniting a debate over executive privilege, supplemented by discussions about the content of the transcripts. A lot of people criticized the frequent "expletive deleted" labels that were inserted to hide Nixon's private swearing from public view, but many others read them more critically — including Eleanor.

Eleanor compared the transcripts to what had been said in congressional hearings and took a pretty even–handed approach to it all. Mind you, she loathed Nixon, but she was nothing if not fair. She wouldn't kick a man when he was down unless she had been given ample reason.

"There are times," she told me, "when I read the transcripts and I am inclined to say, 'Hang him!' But then I will read something else and I will think that, just maybe, his story is plausible."

If you are old enough to remember Nixon, you may agree that that is about the fairest thing anyone could say about him.

(I learned something ironic from Eleanor's obituary. Her birthday was August 10 — which was the day after Nixon resigned.)

I don't know what caused Eleanor's death. Her obituary didn't mention a cause, but my guess is that she had some sort of illness — and that, at some point recently, she knew that she was going to die.

I say that because the obituary explicitly stated that Eleanor asked that anyone who would be attending her graveside service wear casual clothing. She wanted everyone to "be comfortable," the obituary said.

That really was typical of Eleanor. It's supposed to be 104° in my hometown Saturday. The graveside service will be in the morning, but it is sure to be in the 90s by then.

Yet, even with her own mortality staring her in the face, Eleanor's thoughts were of those who would be left behind.

Eleanor was a remarkable woman, an inspiration to me when I was young and I'm sure she was every bit as inspirational to others in her last years.

Rest in peace, Eleanor.

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