Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Bit of Family (and Oregon) History: Mary Alice Beebe Walden


Walking among the gravestones at the top of Portland's Mount Scott on a cold and sunny winter's day, I grasped a small bouquet of daphne, sword ferns and a sprig of Oregon grape with tiny bright green blossoms just beginning to form. I thought it was an appropriate memento to leave at the grave of my great-grandmother, Mary Alice Beebe Walden, whom I'd always heard was an herbalist and midwife in the tiny town of Bridal Veil in the Columbia River Gorge.

I'd found the record of her burial while searching for her name online. Driving to the cemetery, I picked up a map from the office that gave an approximate location, a plot in the older section of the vast hilltop property. The map placed her grave at the bottom of the hill, where the roots of old trees were lifting up some of the markers and other gravestones were partially obscured by mud that had washed down the hill in the winter's rains.

Triangulating the general position of the plot, a bit of wandering brought me to a small, flat slab of rose-colored granite with Mary A. Walden, 1863-1934, carved into it, and the word MOTHER in italicized type underneath. [From the family records I have, she actually died in 1933.] I'm guessing that her son, Carson (or Carsie, as he was called by the family), had chosen this place for her, since a gravestone with his and his wife's names on it was nearby (top photo).

In a short biography written by my father's older sister, Mary Alice was an almost magical presence:

"Nature was her religion. While my grandfather lived, the family attended church faithfully, but after his death, the dome of the sky and the pillars of living trees became their cathedral.

"Extraordinarily tall for her generation, Grandma carried herself tall and proud, as the Indian Princess we children were convinced had been her ancestress. Her blue-back course hair, piercing black eyes, dark sallow skin and high, hawk-nosed profile were considered [signs of] aristocratic beauty when she was young. She was slim, lithe-limbed, deep bosomed and untiring. On the long hikes through her beloved wilderness, her swinging, slightly pigeon-toed gait carried her on for hours, long past the endurance of the most seasoned of woodsmen.

"There were no plants, insects, animals or birds for which Grandma didn’t know both the common and Latin names. From her early years, she would often disappear for hours and, in later years, for days at a time into the wilds. When she emerged it was always with an apron or bark basket full of herbs and medicinal plants. We never knew where she learned the medicinal lore that made her healing powers famous wherever she lived."

The family eventually moved to Portland, at the time a small city of just over 200,000. Near the end her life, my aunt records her grandmother was still in fine fettle:

"In the late summer of 1932, she caught a bus up to the slope of Larch Mountain after arranging for my Mother and Father to pick her up later in the day. About five o’clock, we saw her swinging down the trail, her buckskin skirt and hiking boots soaked through from the showers that had fallen that day. Her floppy felt hat was pushed back on her head, an improvised sapling yoke over her shoulders weighted down with huckleberries in peeled bark baskets. She sang and hallooed to us, her face and hands purple with berry stains.

"Two weeks later, she collapsed and was taken unwillingly to the hospital, where the cancer was diagnosed as beyond remedy. The hospital was not to her liking and the doctors agreed that she would be happiest at home, nursed by her daughters. She died on December 17th.

"As a final gesture, she left instructions that at her funeral the hymns were to be joyous ones. She was to be dressed in the pastel violet gown she had chosen years before as her shroud, and anyone wearing black was not to be admitted to the chapel."

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