“She Has Had No Role in My Life Except…”

. . . to keep me sane, fed, housed, amused, and protected from unwanted telephone calls. Also to restrain me fairly frequently from making a horse’s ass of myself in public, to force me to attend to books and ideas from which she knows I will learn something; also to mend my wounds when I am misused by the world, to implant ideas in my head and stir the soil around them, to keep me from falling into a comfortable torpor, to agitate my sleeping hours with problems that I would not otherwise attend to; also to remind me constantly (not by precept but by example) how fortunate I have been to live for fifty-three years with a woman that bright, alert, charming, and supportive.

Wallace Stegner, who died in 1993 after a car crash, on his wife of almost 60 years, Mary Page, who died last week at 99.  Perhaps fittingly for someone who so self-effacingly played the helpmeet role —

[Their son] Stuart Page Stegner said that while his mother was an accomplished violinist with the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, most of her attentions were lavished on her husband and marriage.  “She quite deliberately decided that his gifts and talents were so great, the best role she would play was to be his helpmate,” he said [in her Salt Lake Tribune obit].  “She wouldn’t win any points in the modern women’s movement for that, but that’s what she did, and did deliberately.”

— Mary Stegner is represented in her brief L.A. Times blog-obit by a photo of her husband!

But she outlived him by almost two decades!  What did she do, who was she, for those 17 years?  Only a living memorial to him?

An occasion to ponder the costs and gifts of the helpmeet role, without which the helpee’s great work might never have fully seen the light.  It’s not exclusive or “natural” to women — Leonard Woolf comes to mind — but for most of history, it’s been overwhelmingly a woman’s job, and until fairly recently, her identity.



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