How can we possibly succeed now in capturing the life of Elizabeth Baumgartner into words? It cannot, of course, be done; a complex woman, full of paradox: tough, but tender, strong, yet vulnerable, dignified, yet child-like. All we can do, perhaps, is to remember distinct memories of life, pieces of her story, and trust that the Holy Spirit will fill in the gaps of our memory as we honor the gift of her life.
The way she would, throughout her life, look up at the clouds in the sky and interpret the shifting shapes she saw there, and then insist that the shape she beheld was, in fact, the correct one.
The way she could be so very generous with her loved ones and so miserly towards herself, balking at a $12 manicure given to her as a recent Mother’s Day present.
The way she would hunt for bargains at flee markets.
The way she would proof read any written material that was placed in front of her, whether it was a letter written by her daughters, or the newspaper.
The way she would cook the turkey at Thanksgiving.
The way, in the midst of an attack of her bleeding ulcers, in response to a question from Rachel as to whether she’d like her to call 911, she said, “Nobody’s calling anyone before Grandma’s finished throwing up.”
The way she could worry for years over the grade she once gave a student long ago.
The way she liked to rearrange the furniture; the way she would refuse to wait until someone was available to help her move the furniture, and would move it instead by herself.
The way her mind moved with such clarity and intelligence.
The way she developed a strange passion for watching golf on t.v.
The way she would hide stashes of Hershey’s chocalates.
The way she liked to have her back scratched.
The way she played the cello, and the beautiful, full, lush sound she could bring forth.
The way she loved her solitude, and the way she cared about what was going on in current events.
The way she loved to go swimming, and how, at the age of 80, while visiting Helen and Maurice in the blistering heat of Phoenix, she confided to them that when they departed in the morning to go on their walks through air conditioned malls, she was secretly slipping into the pool for a skinny dip.
The way she smiled.
Elizabeth was a woman who loved good stories, so let us try now to remember the broad sweep of the story of her life, knowing of course there is always so much more to the story of her life that remains untold.
Elizabeth Baumgartner was born and raised in Woodbridge, New Jersey. She was the daughter of German immigrants, Carl (born 1892) and Anna (born 1896) Trantwin. The oldest of three children, Elizabeth was followed a year afterward by her brother Charlie, known as Sonny”, and thirteen years later by her baby sister Ruth. Growing up in the lean years of the depression, the family was rich in love — a home where music was often made. Her father was a masterful, self-taught musician.
Evidently Elizabeth was, even as a child, a rather determined and strong-willed. She enjoyed telling the story about the time when, as a child, some smart-mouthed, classmate boy persisted in calling her “Liz” in order to get her upset — she insisted on being called the more dignified “Elizabeth”. One day on the way home from school when the boy would not desist from his mockery she tackled him, pushing his face into the snow until he promised never, ever to do call her “Liz” again. And he never did, either.
In high school Elizabeth played the cello in the orchestra, and it was there that she met Frank, a trumpet player, a class ahead of Elizabeth. Smitten with Elizabeth from the start, Frank would carry Elizabeth’s cello home for her. In Elizabeth’s own estimation, it would take her some time to develop the maturity to recognize the depth of character Frank possessed that made him the prince charming for which she had been searching .
In the meantime, Elizabeth graduated from high school in 1933 and went on to the Newark Normal School for three years. Afterwards she attended the Columbia Teacher College. Elizabeth and Frank were married finally in 1942 at the First Congregational Church of Woodbridge, followed by a honeymoon in the Poconos. Elizabeth and Frank were soul mates who balanced one another’s personalities.
They lived together first with Frank’s parents for a year, after which they shared a house with Elizabeth’s brother Charlie. In 1947 they bought a house on High Street, where Elizabeth would call home for the next 49 years.
Four years after getting married, Elizabeth and Frank started raising a family together. Ruth Ann was born in 1946, followed three years later by Helen, and Susan five years after that. Family was always the center of Elizabeth’s life.
On Sunday morning Elizabeth would put the roast in the oven before the family would go off to church, and in the afternoon the family would sit down together — all three generations together — gathered around the table. She would say she didn’t like to cook, and yet it gave her tremendous satisfaction to see the family sitting down to enjoy a good meal.
For the sake of her daughters Elizabeth became a Sunday School teacher, a member of the Mother’s Club, as well as a girl scout den mother. The girls in her intermediate troop would balk when it was time to advance to the next level and leave Mrs. Baumgartner behind, because she was clearly the best den leader around, with the most creative activities.
Elizabeth was intensely loyal to her daughters. She wasn’t one to make a stink for herself, but if you dared mess with her kids she was sure to make a big stink.
Her daughters remember the patience with which their mother guided them into the love of music and the joy it can bring: Ruth Ann on the violin and French horn, Helen on the oboe, Susan on the trombone, everybody on the piano. She instilled in her daughters a love of learning. She said, “If I had anything to wish for my girls, I would wish they have inquiring minds.”
She loved to take her family traveling to see the beauty of the country: they traveled together on car trips to Florida, trips to New England and the Eastern provinces of Canada, and one trip, when Susan was only three, all the way across the country, making banana and cream cheese sandwiches for sustenance. Later she would say that if she could relive a part of her life, it would be the happiness she knew when her girls were young.
Elizabeth’s devotion to family included her parents, who lived just down the street from Elizabeth and Frank in Woodbridge. They would include Elizabeth’s parents on trips they took As the years passed, and their health declined, Elizabeth looked after her parents in their infirmities, until her father’s death in 1979 at the age of 88, and her mother’s death in 1981 at the age of 86.
And after her daughters were grown and on their own Elizabeth would travel to wherever they lived to see them. How she loved to talk of her daughters, to speak of their interests and their accomplishments. She loved to travel up to Connecticut to see the theatrical productions of Ruth Ann and Al, and to travel out west to see Helen and Maurice in their RV, to Europe with Susan and Greg.
Second only to her family was Elizabeth’s love of teaching. She was born to teach. Following college Elizabeth taught for ten years as an elementary school teacher before giving birth to Ruth Ann. When Susan was ten, she asked her youngest daughter if it would be all right if she went back to teaching, and receiving Susan’s permission, she went back to teaching English to juniors in high school, which she did for over 20 years. She deeply believed a person could improve his or her lot in life through education and she persisted in believing in a better life for her students. She loved the writings of Thoreau, which she passed on to her students; loved his sense of simple, principled living, his conviction that one should not succumb to the pressures of conformity but should find that different beat to which one marches, the road less traveled of which Frost refers in his poem. An appreciative student gave Elizabeth a mounted poster of a quote from Thoreau, which (Rachel) read for us earlier, and she proudly hung the quote on the wall of her sitting room.
Elizabeth’s German heritage included a strong work ethic, a persistent desire to do things well. She insisted on working until a job was done, and was loathe to take a break until the job was done.
It was part of what made her such a good teacher; she was determined that her students would master certain skills, even when in their short-sightedness they had no appreciation for the importance of these skills. It gave her great satisfaction when former students who would come back to visit her after they had gone off to college and tell her how much they now appreciated the fact that she had taught them the correct way to write a term paper. So many of their classmates were floundering from their failure to master this basic skill.
As Frank got up in years it became apparent that something was not right with his mind. He took an early retirement at age 58, and at some point he was diagnosed as suffering from the terrible affliction that is Alzheimer’s disease, a burden Elizabeth described as one she wouldn’t wish on her worst enemy. As Frank’s health declined, Elizabeth was there to look after her husband. She retired from teaching in 1986 at the age of 71 in order to stay home and care of Frank. In her retirement Elizabeth was awarded a well deserved state wide “Teacher of the Year” award.
In the final two years of his life Frank required constant attention, which, night and day, Elizabeth was there at his side to faithfully give.
Awards aren’t given for devotion such as this; the kind of courage it requires to steadfastly attend to a mate in the midst of Alzheimer’s doesn’t garner headlines in our world. But in the big picture, the dedication Elizabeth showed to Frank in his illness is the stuff of true heroism. It is the nitty gritty of true love and bravery.
Frank died at the age of 73 in 1988. Elizabeth missed him deeply, and through the years found comfort in talking over her life to his picture in her little sitting room.
In 1986 Elizabeth’s granddaughter Rachel was born and she quickly became the same source of pride and joy that Elizabeth’s own daughters had always been. She consistently made herself available for babysitting Rachel when she was young, and transporting her from school and various activities as she got older. In 1996 Elizabeth moved with Susan, Greg and Rachel from Woodbridge to share the home together in Parsippany.
One of the endearing aspects to Elizabeth was her awareness that when you are driven by the desire to do things well and do things right, the temptation is to become hard-hearted and judgmental regarding human frailty and weakness. Elizabeth self-consciously resisted these tendencies. Over the years there was a wisdom of the heart that grew inside her that knew that love in the end is all that matters. There was a vulnerability to Elizabeth, as I said, that gave her compassion to the vulnerabilities of others.
There is a quote from the play “The Fantastiks” that says Elizabeth was fond of: “without the hurt the heart is hollow.” She suffered some extremely painful hurts to the heart in her adult life. Her beloved little sister Ruth died as a young woman giving birth to a son, breaking Elizabeth’s heart. (Elizabeth took Billy, her little infant nephew into her home and cared for him as one of her own, until suddenly one day his father decided to take the nine month old Billy altogether out of Elizabeth’s life, breaking her heart surely a second time.) The was the heart break of witnessing her parents decline and death close at hand, followed by the particular agony of watching her beloved husband Frank’s horrid decline into mental oblivion. “Without the hurt the heart is hollow.” Her heart was not hollow.
In her most recent hospital stay, while looking at an x-ray of her chest, a doctor commented on the fact of extraordinarily enlarged her heart was, a function of the heart disease, and her beloved Dr. Poon replied, “This woman is all heart.” It summed her life up nicely.
Looking back on her life, she said, “I have had a hard life — a good life. I’ve really grown.” Learning, as we have said, was central to Elizabeth’s understanding of the meaning of life. Whatever the sufferings of life, from Elizabeth’s perspective, if you could glean some learning from the experience, the experience, not matter how difficult, was redeemed.
Four years ago she took a long flight out to Portland, Oregon to visit Helen and Maurice for three weeks as they traveled along the western coast in their mobile home. When she was he arrived she looked truly old, weary, worn down. For ten days they stayed on the beach in Washington. Each day she would walk along the shore, picking up sand dollars. As the days passed, her bearing changed dramatically; the years fell way. She said that out there on the beach she had received what she called an “epiphany”; she could not put it into words other than to say she experienced the “oneness of creation”, some kind of glimpse of the glory of God.
She brought back the sand dollars, and gave them as gifts, and expression of her hope that somehow the sublime peace she had touched there on the peace could be ours as well. (Pass one around, let it be touched by all of us, this sand dollar first touched by Elizabeth.) It is a nice image, is it not, of Elizabeth walking on the shore, letting the fatigue of life fall away, becoming young again.
She was, in the end, so tired. (In the last ten years or so of her life she had battled cancer, bleeding ulcers, a stroke and heart disease.) She was ready to let go, to enter that great rest, to find that ultimate renewal. She departed knowing she was loved, at peace with her life, at peace with God, ready to be reunited with Frank, with her parents, with her sister Ruth, with the whole communion of saints.
What happened to Elizabeth on that beach in Washington has happened now in a utter completeness. It is so very beautiful there: more beautiful than a beach full of sand dollars with a misty breeze blowing on your cheek. She has a new body now. One that doesn’t ache when she moves.
“But listen to me: For one moment, quit being sad;
hear the blessings dropping their blossoms around you.”