by Jessica Abbe
My mother, Pauline Kirkpatrick Abbe, spent 20 happy years in Santa Barbara, though she never intended to live here. In 1982, my father, Justice Richard W. Abbe, had served as Superior Court judge in Shasta County for 18 years, and was hoping for an appointment to the California Court of Appeal in the last days of Jerry Brown’s governorship. When he learned that the vacancy on the Sacramento bench had been filled, he dealt with the disappointment in his usual way: by taking an early morning run along the Sacramento River in Redding.
While he was out of the house, the governor phoned. Mom figured there was still hope. Though she was not a runner, she put on her gardening sneakers and went after my father. When they finally returned to the house and called the governor, she stood at Dad’s side as he thundered in surprise, “Santa Barbara?!”
“We’ll take it!” she cried.
My father’s career was also my mother’s. She supported him through anxious election campaigns, and created a home life that was a refuge from the difficult reality of the courts. She believed in adapting herself to the situation, never regarding her actions as self-sacrificing, as younger women more focused on their own achievements might have done.
The daughter of a physics professor, she grew up at Stanford University. Her parents built a home on campus, igniting Mom’s lifelong passion for architecture, landscaping, and self-education. When she had her first daughter at age 18, she put aside her dreams of becoming an architect and set about becoming the best mother she could be. She accepted occurrences beyond her control without agonizing; her natural stoicism and optimism may have been the key to her happiness.
That, and growing a garden of girls and landing in Santa Barbara. She loved Santa Barbara, and had the good fortune to move here after her four children were out of the house and she could throw herself into her civic passions. She worked as a legislative aide to then-senator Jack O’Connell. She fundraised for the Fund for Santa Barbara and Environmental Defense Center. She escorted women into Planned Parenthood. She provided a beautiful home for likeminded people to promote the causes she believed in, argue about politics, and further friendships. After a lifetime of getting her hands dirty, her backyard garden in Santa Barbara was the most bountiful of all. She also volunteered at the Botanic Garden.
“Her life was her art,” said Diane Johnson, author of Le Divorce and my mom’s friend of 35 years. “Pauline surrounded herself with beauty and shared it with her friends.” Rachel Ehlers, Pauline’s granddaughter, remembered, “She taught me that part of our responsibility in this world is to educate ourselves through both formal and informal methods, to form an opinion, and to act on our beliefs to try to make the world a better place.”
In Redding during the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, Mom was president of Redding’s public television station and active in Democratic politics. She helped establish the League of Women Voters in Shasta County and served as the first president of the local chapter. She expected her children to volunteer, too; I canvassed for Senator Eugene McCarthy when I was 11, and worked at the TV station when I was 12. I remember Mom taking me out of school to see Z, the Costa-Gavras film about tyranny in Greece. We marched together in the War Moratorium. My sister Jenny remembers being the only white family at a church remembrance for Medgar Evers.
During the Vietnam War, our home was often the first stop for workers who had joined VISTA — a domestic Peace Corps — to avoid the draft while serving their country. After some young men discovered that my mother was a good cook — with many daughters — they showed up every night. One idealistic young man from New York, a lawyer named Marshall Salzman, would always exclaim, “Spaghetti (or stew, or tacos)! My favorite meal!” That fellow married my sister Martha.
Toby McLeod and I were married by my father under the grapefruit tree in Mom’s Santa Barbara garden. We are documentary filmmakers, and my mother not only helped us with fundraising, but also traveled with us to remote Native American sites to care for our children as we filmed. I remember driving long miles through New Mexico while Mom and Dad sang “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” over and over to my teething son. My sister Sally and her husband Steve Osborn helped Mom build her dream cabin at Lake Tahoe. It says a lot about Mom that she has been so well loved not just by her daughters, but by her sons-in-law.
To me, the youngest of four girls, it seemed like Mom was always there at home, and I was the one who came and went; but, in fact, she traveled to China, India, France, Italy, Panama, Nepal, Peru, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Alaska. The year after my father died suddenly of an aneurism, Mom went to the Galápagos on his dream vacation. She missed him terribly, but believed in living for him, rather than letting too much of herself die with him. She celebrated her 75th birthday and their 50th wedding anniversary scrambling up the Trinity Alps with her family, and teaching her grandchildren to enjoy the meadow frogs and tiger lilies. In 2003, Mom moved back to northern California to live near her daughters. She joined the board of the Shasta Land Trust and volunteered at the McConnell Arboretum.
Were it not for the brain tumor, I believe she would have lived to be 98, like her father. Her body was incredibly strong. After her craniotomy last July, she took a few Tylenols and was home having a birthday lunch with grandchildren three days later. She never spent another night in the hospital and never complained, despite her radiation treatment, chemotherapy, and frequent MRIs.
As her world became smaller, she undertook her final great garden project. With the help of her daughter Jenny and son-in-law Dean Moyer — her nextdoor neighbors in Redding — she converted the tidy yard around her tract home into a thriving botanic garden. Children came by to help; neighbors cheered her on. She had a pool built, and used the excavated dirt to create small hills covered with native plants and trees that would grow long after she was gone. The week she died, her gardenias put on their greatest display of blossoms; her room filled with their sweet scent, the sound of grandchildren splashing in the pool, and the tears of four grown women.
Mom taught us how to live, and when the time came, she taught us how to die. Her death was peaceful. Her stoicism masked the psychic agony of her last weeks, but my sisters and I saw it; after all, we’re stoic too, and can see the deep pools of feeling beyond the mask.
“Does your head hurt, Mom?” asked my sister Jenny, her primary caregiver during the last six months.
“No,” she said.
“Does your soul hurt?”
“Yes.” It hurt to leave us, and it hurts us to let her go.
But now I must go out and water the garden.