A few days ago I went to a gathering at El Chorro Ranch to celebrate the life of Esther Isaacson, a special lady who lived to be 102, most of those years spent in that very place. As the memorial booklet said, Esther was a lover of family, wildflowers, birds, books, chocolate, tall tales, mischief, and El Chorro. Born in Solvang to Danish settlers Anton and Karen Ibsen, she was teaching at the Solvang Grammar School when she met a cattle rancher named Baine at a dance in Los Olivos. “I had no intention of becoming a rancher’s wife,” she said. “That would be the living end.” They married in 1939.
I first met Esther about twenty years ago. I was a teacher at Vista de las Cruces then, and my students and I were interviewing people in the community, and my friends Bob and Sally Isaacson very kindly arranged for us to come out to El Chorro and talk to Esther. It was April, a bright hot morning, and the earth was singing, and we were all under a magic spell as Esther led us on a bit of time traveling. She told stories of the early days in Solvang, and delighted in sharing memories about Baine and the boys and life at the ranch. She spoke of blackout curtains during the war, treasure hunts, kite-flying, even a miniature steam railroad. She wondered aloud if my students knew how lucky they were to live in the country. Then she grabbed her cane and rose from her chair, went into the house, and returned with three boxes of popsicles.
In the years that followed, I came back a few times without students to talk to Esther on my own. She was always so proud of her family and their various accomplishments. She talked about Baine’s hard work and vision, and the fact that El Chorro would be permanently protected by an agricultural easement. She loved the Ranch with all her heart. “I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” she said. “It’s a magic place. It always has been.”
Esther herself initiated my last visit. It was a couple of months after her 100th birthday celebration and she wanted some help putting a few thoughts on paper, so she asked her caregiver to call me. I felt honored to have been chosen to serve as her scribe. I set out in the morning with a notebook and pen, and found her sitting at the table in front of the window looking out at the trees beyond. We chatted about being here in this familiar and enduring place, about sons and daughters-in-law, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, old friends from town and valley. But it turns out that what she really wanted was to write thank you letters to people who had been kind to her. Thank you letters! She was having difficulty writing, wasn’t sure about names and addresses and the logistics of getting things mailed, but what she wanted most of all was to tell people…thank you.
So I only knew Esther in the latter part of her very long life, but what a privilege it was to glimpse the person that a century of living had shaped. My own mother, also named Esther, died earlier this year, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we grow and learn and change over time, how life keeps throwing us challenges and questions right up to the end, and how maybe we eventually become whatever we most truly are. Esther Isaacson weathered loss with courage and faced mysteries with grace, and it seems to me that everything finally distilled into the two things that mattered: gratitude and love.
Memories were shared and songs sung at the memorial gathering, and Esther’s granddaughter Katie read Mary Oliver’s beautiful and fitting poem, Long Afternoon at the Edge of Sister Pond:
As for life,
I’m without words
sufficient to say
how it has been hard as flint,
and soft as a spring pond,
both of these
and over and over,
and long pale afternoons besides,
and so many mysteries
beautiful as eggs in a nest,
though warm and watched over
by something I have never seen –
a tree angel, perhaps,
or a ghost of holiness.
Every day I walk out into the world
to be dazzled, then to be reflective.
It suffices, it is all comfort –
along with human love,
dog love, water love, little-serpent love,
sunburst love, or love for that smallest of birds
flying among the scarlet flowers.
There is hardly time to think about
stopping, and lying down at last
to the long afterlife, to the tenderness
yet to come, when
time will brim over the singular pond, and become forever,
and we will pretend to melt away into the leaves.
As for death,
I can’t wait to be the hummingbird,
One of the speakers, Jim Poett, said this: “Esther lived forever. She is eternal, as far as I’m concerned.”
I think so, too…as long as there are oak trees, blue birds, hills and sky.