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Monday, January 21 , 2019, 12:44 pm | Fair 62º


Tim Durnin: Woman’s Life Reflects Light Despite Dark History

Her tales of tragedy are heartbreaking; her hope and optimism inspiring

Catherine is a diminutive woman, standing less than 5 feet tall. A shock of white hair flows in a classic 1950s style. Her hair frames an expressive face. Her eyes laugh and comfort, her smile engages and puts at ease. When she walks into a room, joy walks in with her.

Catherine and I sit down to talk over a dining room table on a typically sunny Santa Barbara afternoon. She puts me at ease but warns me she is a private person and feels much more comfortable listening than talking about herself. I press on.

I am never quite sure what tales might unfold in conversation, and I admit here, Catherine’s life stories give me pause. I didn’t believe it was possible for so much light to emerge from a life filled with such great heartbreak and loss.

Catherine was born at the former St. Francis Hospital in Santa Barbara to an Irish mother and an Italian father. Her father belonged to one of the first acting companies in the city. Her memories of childhood are fond, recalling a small-town Santa Barbara with vacant lots for kids to play.

Catherine attended local Catholic schools, graduating from Santa Barbara Catholic Girls High School. In World War II, during a blackout drill, she lost her mother to a hit-and-run driver. It was, as she describes it, “a crushing blow.” She married and had two children, Marshal and Daniel.

Marshal was in the first graduating class of Bishop Garcia Diego High School. He married “too young,” in her words. He and his wife, Betty, had two girls. Marshal wanted to pursue a career in law. He was returning from dropping off an application to law school in Los Angeles when he was killed in an automobile accident.

Our conversation pauses here, honoring Marshal’s memory. Catherine looks past and through me as she remembers the events of that day, the life-changing, indelible images of tragedy and loss. Marshal’s wife took her own life a short time later, leaving Catherine to help raise two small children. Catherine would also lose an adopted daughter, Janice, to cancer.

While tragedy was familiar company, Catherine’s life reflects remarkable hope, optimism and appreciation. She talks about her children and grandchildren with obvious pride and genuine affection. She steps out into a world each day filled with promise and delight.

I ask about her remarkable cheerfulness in the wake of so much loss. She doesn’t hesitate to offer this counsel: “You get to the point where you understand you just have to relax and let it go. Loss gives you perspective. I’ve come to understand the small things that seem to matter so much, really don’t.”

Our conversation wanders across decades of Santa Barbara and personal history. Catherine recalls the early days when Fiesta was confined to a few short blocks. She draws a detailed portrait of Santa Barbara in simpler times when shopping was done at the corner grocery store and hours passed in vacant lots and open air.

“It was wonderful for kids to grow up like that, without fear,” she says.

She recounts trips to Paradise Valley and the Indian reservation — “to sell booze,” as she tells it. And she remembers an innocent and active Santa Barbara night life at El Paseo.

“You didn’t need to go very far to have fun,” she says.

Toward the end of our conversation, Catherine quotes Rudyard Kipling’s Recessional:

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget — lest we forget!’‘

Kipling wrote this passage foreseeing the eminent decline of the British Empire. I wonder, as we part, if Catherine isn’t reluctantly aware of some other decline. Regardless, she remains a light, spreading a particular and sacred joy to those whose fortune it is to know her.

[Noozhawk’s note: At Catharine’s request, the names have been changed.]

— Tim Durnin is a father, husband and writer. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) for ideas, comments, discussion and criticism.

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