Sarah B. Murray and her 16-year-old granddaughter, Chelsea Murray
By John Murray
In the early morning of June 17th, 2005, the Waterbury Observer lost its staunchest supporter, a woman who invested $10,000 to help launch the Observer 12 years ago, a woman who floated needed capital into the business when we veered towards the rocks, a woman who championed the paper across all corners of America, and beyond.
The Observer lost its biggest booster that fateful day in June, but more significantly, I lost my Mom.
After a decade long battle against a rare form of blood cancer, Waldenstrom’s Syndrome, my mother collapsed on the second floor of my parent’s home in Gales Ferry, CT. She blacked out, came around seconds later, and then with the help of my father, went to the New London Oncology Clinic for her weekly appointment.
Despite the fall earlier in the morning, she was alert, and went ahead with her routine blood work at the clinic. My parents explained the blackout incident to the doctor, who quickly made arrangements for my mother to go to Lawrence and Memorial Hospital for a CAT scan. As my father helped her into the car, my mother passed out in his arms. She had lapsed into a coma.
A CAT scan revealed massive hemorrhaging inside my mother’s brain. In her fight against cancer my mother had been taking blood thinner, which now made it impossible to stop the bleeding inside her head. Whether the fall triggered the bleeding, or the bleeding triggered the fall, we’ll never know. The only certainty from the doctors was that my Mom was now living her last hours on earth.
Our family gathered around her for what turned out to be a 40-hour bedside vigil. We believed that she could hear everything we said. My father talked about the first time they met, their 52-year marriage, and the more than dozen homes they forged together around the world.
We set up her favorite photographs around the room, talked to her, laughed with each other, and tried to celebrate her life with dignity, compassion and love.
She passed away at 4 AM, June 17th, ironically, just as a truck pulled into my driveway to deliver the Observer’s Best of Waterbury issue, our biggest and most popular edition of the year.
The coincidence would have made her smile.
But enough of how my Mom died, I’d rather share with Observer readers how she lived. How her passion for life and love for children influenced Ledyard, Waterbury, Hudson, Ohio, and many other communities and individuals around the country, and the world.
At times in my life my mother was my best friend in the whole world. At times, she was my only friend. She was the one who always took the time to listen to my struggles and tales on my bumpy journey from child, to man.
She always encouraged her four sons to chase their dreams, to travel, to seek, to question. My Mom seldom talked about the plausibility of a dream, but fanned the embers of possibility.
She was my biggest fan when I wore #83 on the Ledyard High School gridiron. She watched every play through my eyes, cheering for a successful block, celebrating the handful of catches I made during a disappointing senior year.
My Mom continued to encourage me as I traveled around North America, Europe, Africa and India. She believed that I could make it as a writer and photographer and was delighted when I parlayed my experiences into a job as a journalist. She had always framed and displayed our elementary school artwork and she began to do that with my first articles from the Litchfield Enquirer.
Even though she lived on the other side of Connecticut, she always read my work, and usually had a rapt comment about every issue of the Observer.
When I first began exploring the idea of launching a newspaper in Waterbury with Marty Begnal in 1993, my Mom thought it was a fantastic idea. Although my marriage had just ended in divorce, and I had a four-year-old daughter as a sidekick, my Mom never cautioned me about money or danger. She gave me $10,000 to buy our first computer and printer. It, along with money from the Begnal family, was the seed money that launched the newspaper.
She believed we could do it.
After we published our first issue, she mailed dozens of copies around the country to her friends, a habit she continued for twelve years. After we published an article or paper that she found especially interesting, she would ask for 50 to 70 copies, and rifle them off to her network of old navy friends and classmates around the globe.
Nearly every time I visited home this past decade my mother has handed me a small stack of letters from her friends making comments about a column that my daughter or I have written in the Observer. In addition to her friends she occasionally sent the Observer to George W. Bush in the White House, to Governor Lowell Weicker, to Senator Chris Dodd, and to Senator Joe Lieberman. All but the President wrote back.
My mother even corresponded with Republican-American publisher William J. Pape after she found out that her father, and his father, were classmates at the United States Naval Academy in 1922.
And even though the Observer has been harshly critical of the Republican-American’s political bias, Bill Pape wrote a nice letter back to my Mom.
Politics fascinated my mother, but she was especially in-tune with policies that helped people, not corporations. Both of her parents were staunch Republicans and they often called her “a bleeding heart liberal.” And she was. She cared about those who didn’t have enough food to eat, or didn’t receive adequate medical attention. She sent money to the Southern Poverty Law Center, sponsored children in the Philippine Islands, bought farm animals for third world families through the Heifer Project, and was a staunch supporter of the Free Tibet movement.
My Mom wasn’t enamored with everything we published in the Observer, but when we wrote about AIDS, homelessness and battered women, she was quick to compliment our efforts. When we reached long and far to examine the struggles of Native Americans, Tibetan refugees and blacks in America, she would ask for extra copies of the paper so she could zap them off to her vast labyrinth of friends.
In fact my Mom was such a loyal reader that when she died she possessed the only complete set of Observers in existence. The Silas Bronson Library has microfilmed the paper for the past seven years, and the Connecticut State Library has microfilmed the Observer for the past eight years. But nowhere on the planet, not even in the Observer office, is there another complete set of Observers besides the 215 issues tucked neatly in a bureau in my parent’s house.
Raising Her family
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when my parents were raising their four boys, most of the mothers stayed home to watch over their flock and maintain domestic order.
My Mom was no different. She made us a hot breakfast every morning and a hot lunch each day. In California and New Jersey school was dismissed for lunch hour and all the kids scrambled home to eat a hearty homemade lunch. Every day, week after week, year after year, my Mom was always home.
She cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. She used to wash and iron all of our clothes, schedule and take us to our doctor appointments, feed the menagerie of pets we didn’t take care of (iguanas, guinea pigs, hamsters, owls, pigeons, fish, rabbits, chipmunks and our two dogs, Snoopy and Lobo).
She took us seashell collecting after typhoons in the Philippine Islands. She was a den mother in the Cub Scouts.
One morning in California my parents took us on a trip into Death Valley (the hottest and lowest spot on the planet). After lunch we drove high up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains where we had a snowball fight in the afternoon. We gazed at the heavens through the largest telescope in the world at the Mt. Palomar Observatory, and spent many days wandering around the San Diego Zoo feeding elephants, riding on the back of massive Galapagos Tortoises (they actually let you do that back then), and watching the gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans.
My mother was the family cruise director, always searching for new and exciting experiences for her boys to plunge into. We went to see Camelot and Oklahoma, she took us to opera and ballet, to professional baseball and football games, and she even taught us to waltz and Hula Dance. We never had any money because my parents spent everything they had investing in the growth of their children. It was hand to mouth and ferociously living in the moment.
More than anything, my parents were givers. Their enduring legacy is of a man and woman who laid themselves down to give their kids an edge in life. My parents were 100% devoted to the mission of loving and nurturing their children, often at their own sacrifice. It is how I define the role of parent in my head and heart.
My parents raised their four boys to feel they had a special place in the world, fueling our beliefs that anything was possible.
It took many years to untangle that “special” knot in my head, and to figure out that nobody else thought I was special, it had only been my parents telling me that. It took a few major lumps on the head to learn that lesson, but around my mother I always felt like I was Jacque Cousteau, or Lewis and Clark, a daring adventurer taking on the world.
She made me feel that way when I was around her. She made most people feel that way when she was around them – hopeful and optimistic.
My mother always wore a dress and almost always wore flip-flops, or open toed sandals. Her light brown hair never turned gray, and for most of her life she had it pinned up into a bun on the back of her head. She didn’t care much for expensive jewelry, and often said that she’d be just as happy wearing a twisted pipe cleaner on her finger as a wedding band. To her, handpicked flowers (even if they were dandelions) were more valued than a dozen roses. She didn’t care for an expensive show of love, an example that later caused headaches for several of her sons who dated women who coveted diamonds and roses.
It was a tough lesson to realize not all women were like your Mom.
Landing in Hawaii in the early 1950s.
My Mom had a vast sea of friends from high school, college and the navy, but no best gal pal to gossip with. She liked news, issues and events instead of personal theatrics. She didn’t like drama and preferred to focus her energy inward on her family. She loved to talk on the phone, but it was usually with one of her sons, or her eight grandchildren. She was also a prolific letter writer and kept up a steady correspondence with friends all over the world.
She adored her parents, making hundreds of trips down to Maryland to see them. She had the blessing of having her parents in her life until she was in her 70s. Her mother died at the age of 96, and her father died at the age of 99. My Mom died at 82, so she got gypped out of 16 years that her genetic make-up seemed to promise.
Despite all the wonderful accolades that shower down upon a person at death, my Mom was not a saint. She struggled with her own insecurities and shyness all her life. She could enter a child’s world effortlessly, but she struggled, as many parents do, with accepting that her kids had grown up and had different ideas than hers on how they should live their lives.
My Mom could be controlling. She occasionally overstepped her boundaries as she pried around our homes looking for evidence of wrongdoing (which she sometimes found). She could occasionally be mean and biting, and her humph, or her silent treatment, were mind wrenchers. I have always loved my Mom, but there were times that neither of us liked each other very much.
We butted heads a lot in the 1980s and 1990s. My father said it was because I was most like my mother, and although I never thought so, maybe there is some truth to that. All I knew and felt at the time was that if someone was trying to control me, I was going to fight back.
When her sons were strong and independent she was not sure what to do with us. She was proud of us, but desperately wanted to be needed. She had so identified her life by child rearing, that it was difficult for her to sit back and enjoy the fruits of her labor.
Control and power were an integral part of her family’s background, and although watered down, these forces swirled through our family life as well. Most families have elements of dysfunction, and ours was no different. No child escapes the early family life without baggage, and I’m no different. Thankfully, whatever crud that was clogging my brain was washed away these past five years. I made peace with my Mom during long talks on the way to the Dana Farber Institute in downtown Boston. We circled through her life and my own. We mended wounds and talked about spirituality, death, and a life well lived.
She was fighting for her life, but through the battle – maybe because of the battle – there was healing.
In the early 1990s my Mom discovered a new and exciting outlet for her controlling urges – she began taping television shows on her new VCR. She stayed with me for a few months when Chelsea was little and I was a photojournalist at the Register-Citizen newspaper in Torrington. When I would come home in the early evening she would proudly tell me that she had taped the days programming for me to watch. It wasn’t just a 30-minute episode of Leave It To Beaver, but six hours of Regis and Kathy Lee, soap operas and news broadcasts.
After not being able to control TV for most of her life, my Mom went bonkers for videocassettes and the VCR. During the past 14 years she spent thousands of hours taping old black and white movies, Bob Hope Specials, ice dancing, football games and the complete run of Murder She Wrote, and Magnum P.I.
The irony is that she seldom, if ever, watched the tapes a second time. She would ship them off to my brother George’s house in Ohio, send them to Chelsea, or they would pile up in a stack that resembled the Eiffel Tower in the basement. The rest of the family stopped trying to dissuade her from her taping mania. It gave her great pleasure, so every birthday and Christmas she would receive dozens of new blank tapes for more unencumbered joy in front of the TV.
My mother was born Sarah Elizabeth Baurenschmidt in Baltimore, Maryland, on March 23, 1923. Her father, Rear Admiral George W. Bauernschmidt, was a recent graduate of the United States Naval Academy, Class of 1922, and her mother, Maude (Pearce) Bauernschmidt, was a farm girl from the heart of horse country in the rolling hills northwest of Baltimore.
Her parents came from opposite sides of the track. Her father was from an influential and wealthy family in Baltimore that earned a small fortune brewing beer from 1850 to 1900. After selling the brewery the Bauernschmidt family used their influence to improve area hospitals and clean up the notoriously corrupt Baltimore school system. Marie Bauernschmidt, my great grandmother, is considered to be one of the most influential politicians in Baltimore history. She was ferociously independent and campaigned for 30 years against mob influence in Baltimore politics. Affectionately called “Mrs. B” by the press, she bought radio time on the eve of every election to tell Baltimore voters who to vote for.
And voters listened. An endorsement from Mrs. B could sway an election.
My grandfather grew up in a thirty-room mansion, attended boarding schools and spent one year at Princeton before enrolling at Annapolis. He stood ramrod straight and when my grandmother first met him she thought he was a stuffed shirt.
My grandmother was straight from the earth, filled with common sense and an uncanny ability to connect with people from all walks of life – even young stuffed shirts.
And to no surprise, my mother became a wonderful mix of both her parents – dignified and reserved, with a remarkable ability to connect with people.
My mother was the eldest of three children and they spent most of their formative years bouncing around the world. My grandfather was stationed in the Samoan Islands for nearly two years, a place my mother talked about frequently during her life. The family also spent several stints on the Hawaiian Islands in the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s – before the explosion of tourism – and the islands were my mother’s favorite place on earth.
The Bauernschmidt Family, my mother upper left.
My mother was home schooled with the Calvert System along with her brother and sister until she reached high school. By that time the family had settled down in Washington D.C. and my Mom attended the National Cathedral School before enrolling in Connecticut College in 1941.
After college my Mom worked as a representative for C & P Telephone in Washington D.C.
During the Korean War she was a volunteer at the Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington D.C. working with paraplegics.
In 1952 she moved out to Honolulu, Hawaii, to live with her parents. Her father was an Admiral in charge of the Supply Depot at Pearl Harbor, and they lived next door to Admiral Stuart S. Murray, who was the commanding officer at the Pearl Harbor Naval Base.
At the time, my father, Stuart Grant Murray, was a young naval officer stationed in Monterey, California. When he came out to Pearl Harbor to visit his parents he met my Mom – literally the girl next door – and they were married July 18, 1953 in Honolulu. The wedding was between the son and daughter of two high ranking admirals in the U.S. Navy and more than 600 guests attended the wedding. It was like a Naval Royal Wedding.
After the marriage, my parents continued to move around the country as Navy life dictated. My family lived in Carmel, California, Quaker Hill, Connecticut, Kittery, Maine, Arlington, Virginia, Coronado, California, Subic Bay, Philippine Islands, Ridgewood, New Jersey and finally Gales Ferry, Connecticut.
By the time I was 16 we had lived in 11 different houses. Even when we finally settled down in Gales Ferry we moved four times within the same community. Old habits die hard. Finally, in 1973, my parents built their own house and they lived there together for the next 32 years. It was the first time either of them had stayed in one place for more than three years during their entire lives. It was home. Finally.
While some might think moving around that much during childhood is terrible, it wasn’t for us. There were four Murray boys and where ever we moved we had built in playmates. And the moving provided us with incredibly rich cultural experiences; driving across the country in a station wagon, living in the Philippine Islands with a tropical jungle in our backyard, visiting Japan, Hawaii and Mexico.
It was wild and wonderful and we settled down just as my eldest brother, Grant, was entering high school. My father had attended 10 high schools in the 1930s and was committed to avoiding a similar experience for his four sons.
As I look back on the 1970s with our rebellious, wild, and sometimes destructive behavior, I’m not sure how my parents survived. We all drank too much, vomited somewhere in or around the house, crashed cars and three of us were arrested for petty sophomoric pranks that went sour.
One time my Mom found a small amount of marijuana in my pants pocket. Instead of asking me what it was, she drove to the Ledyard Police Department to ask them what it was. They confirmed it was marijuana and then allowed this middle aged woman in a flowered dress with flip-flops to walk out of the station with a small bag of pot still in her possession. She drove to the nearest cemetery and sprinkled the marijuana around. She was later consumed by the thought that she had started a marijuana plantation in the cemetery and returned several times to check.
When I swiped a book from the school library she made me march in and apologize to the librarian. She was trying to teach values while my friends and I were intent on stealing cool stuff.
Sarah Murray and her four boys (from left to right, George, John, Charlie and Grant) boarding a plane to the Philippine Islands.
I wasn’t a star athlete in high school. I was more of a bean pole trying hard to stay on the varsity teams. Despite the fact that I am now 6’4”, 215 pounds, I am the runt of the family. My brothers aren’t large, they are massive, (picture a Greyhound Bus). Grant is 6’4”, 260 pounds, George is 6’2”, 245 pounds and my little brother Chuck was 6’7”, 320 pounds. All three were star football players, and two of them were undefeated state champion wrestlers at Ledyard High School.
One day, despite the physical disparity between sons, my Mom boldly announced that I was going to be the best athlete in the family. My three brothers burst out laughing. So she bet all three of them $50 that I would prove to be the best athlete of the bunch. When the dust settled, and she lost the bet, she paid off the $150 and then presented me with a trophy proclaiming me to be the “Most Versatile” athlete in the family.
Although my results didn’t measure up as an all-star in football and wrestling, I had played basketball, track, tennis and golf, and despite my brothers laughter, my Mom still believed I was a more skilled athlete than any of them (although they’d never admit it). And now I had a trophy to prove it.
Later, I dropped out of college for a year to travel through Europe with my friend, Kevin Fiftal. We drank way too much beer at the Oktoberfest in Munich, stumbled around Amsterdam, and ran out of money in Morocco. We must have given our parents a heart attack. When I walked in the door of my parent’s house in Gales Ferry, unannounced, three months after the adventure began, my Mom looked at me, burst into tears, and ran from the room. I thought I had offended her, until my father explained she was shedding tears of happiness that I was safely home.
And she always worried about our safety. She never slept while we were out late at night carousing in the bars and driving around with friends. At the time I thought she was being overprotective and wasting her energy. Now I find myself unable to sleep until my 17-year-old daughter Chelsea comes home safely at night.
Slowly, as time marches on, we become our parents.
During her 37 years in Gales Ferry, my mother was an active volunteer with various school, prison, and youth service programs, which earned her the distinction of being named Volunteer of the Year in Ledyard in the late 1980s. She volunteered as a tutor at Ledyard High School and she and my father co-founded the Ledyard Alcohol and Drug Awareness Committee. (We provided plenty of research material).
She also served on the Ledyard Youth Services Board, was a member of Women in Safe Houses, and ran a safe home for troubled teens. I knew that after we all had left the house my parents had an occasional teenager stay with them for a period of time. But after my mother died, and I was writing her obituary, I was shocked to find out that my parents had provided a safe home for 18 Ledyard youth. My Mom’s life was dedicated to helping others.
My older brother George and I frequently referred to our mother as “Rescue Ranger”. If someone were in trouble she would be the first one on the scene to help out. At her funeral several people came up to share a story about how my Mom had touched their lives.
An old friend, Roy Springer, told me about the time he was in a car accident and had shards of glass imbedded in his scalp. The doctors had been unable to contact his parents – he was 16 at the time – and he was alone in the emergency room. Somehow my Mom found out about the accident and came down to the hospital to see how Roy was. For the next hour she sat down by his side, holding his hand, while doctors pulled glass from his head.
She routinely pulled clothes out of our drawers and closets and sent them down the street to families that needed them more than we did. It was always odd to drop your favorite shirt down the laundry shoot and then next see it on the back of a high school classmate. That happened more than once.
My Mom’s life was all about helping other people. She touched thousands of lives with small acts of kindness and compassion. She saw much of the world in her 82 years on earth, and yet felt unfathomable pain at the loss of two sons.
The first, Robert, was my twin brother who died during childbirth in 1957. The second loss, Chuck, was the youngest son who committed suicide in his late 20s when his marriage was crumbling, and he couldn’t see another way out of his darkness and pain. My Mom was never quite the same after Chuck’s death. She stopped eating for a long time and lost 40 pounds. A few years later she nearly died in Alaska when her blood count plummeted to freighting low levels. It was the onset of her cancer.
Although I have no scientific or medical proof, it is my belief that my brother’s death led to a weakening of my Mom’s immune system, which led to cancer taking hold and eventually causing her death.
A parent’s worst nightmare is losing a child, and she lost two. It was a pain she took with her to the grave.
The living are left to process the love and life of those who die before us. My mother lived a long and splendid life. She loved, and was loved, by many people.
I’m not a believer in heaven, or reincarnation, or riding a white horse up to Allah, yet I firmly believe my mother’s spirit is still at work here on earth. Not in any mystical, metaphysical way, but rather I believe my Mom is still alive on this planet in the thousands of compassionate gestures she made during her lifetime. There is energy in kindness, an energy that still lives on in the hearts and minds of all those people my Mom touched. There is power and energy in the values she and my father taught us, values that are being passed along to our children, and further along, hopefully, to their children.
A week after my Mom’s death the family gathered together on the rolling farmlands of Maryland to lay her to rest next to my two deceased brothers, her sister, and her daughter-in-law. After a short graveside ceremony, a tape player was switched on and two Hawaiian songs wafted over the gathering. The first song was a hauntingly beautiful one performed by Iz, a 400-pound native Hawaiian. The second song was Aloha ‘Oe, the classic Hawaiian departure song performed from docks and airstrips in Honolulu for the past 100 years. As the song played, my family walked over to the grave and dropped in fresh Hawaiian leis that had been flown in from the islands. The final line of the song is “until we meet again”.
And until then, Mom, Aloha.