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Katherine Isaacson’s son John recalls how after a lifetime of sacrifice and giving to others ​— ​her family, her students, her church ​— ​his mother embraced her talent for song. | Credit: Courtesy

Katherine Laughlin Isaacson: 1946-2013

It’s been six years since my mother’s passing, and I still ponder her life and death. As I grew up, I saw her change from a self-sacrificing parent to a woman who sought the fulfillment of her own dream.

My mother, Katherine Laughlin Isaacson, was born to Herb and Rosemary Laughlin in New Hampshire, but the family moved and settled in Santa Barbara. Herb and Rosemary raised their four children on Schoolhouse Road in Montecito. Their home was large enough to have an elevator, with peacocks roaming the grounds.

Photo: Courtesy Katherine Isaacson

Herb hosted gatherings at which he would play flamenco guitar with his teacher, Pepe Romero. He had operated two record stores: House of Sound in San Francisco and Sea of Records on Coast Village Road in Montecito. A classical music aficionado, he owned state-of-the-art stereo equipment for playing his favorite German marches and operas.

On a trip to Mexico, he purchased two classical guitars, one for Katherine and one for her sister Peggy. Their mother, Rosemary, who played violin, signed the girls up for piano lessons, and later, after taking classes at City College from Erich Katz, taught them to play recorder. My mother’s life was steeped in music. At Marymount School, she sang in musicals and considered joining a convent.

However, in the fall of 1964, at the height of the Vietnam War, Katherine went to Berkeley. She and her roommates had to leave their apartment once when tear gas from the riots in People’s Park blew in through the windows. When her classmates dropped out to protest the war or shut down the university, Katherine prayed on her way to class, seeking spiritual guidance and peace in the turbulence of her surroundings. Her spirituality and love of music sustained her through the tumultuous times.

After graduation, she worked for several summers on the Darwin Ranch in Wyoming. This was a remote, rough-and-ready operation, but my mother had developed a love for the outdoors at the family cabin on Fallen Leaf Lake. During the school year, she earned a teaching credential at San Francisco State University. She returned to Santa Barbara and was working at a bank when a young architect named Deming Isaacson walked in to cash a check. He was so smitten that he handed her his Sierra Club membership card, rather than his driver’s license, in a bid to impress her. After a four-month courtship, they were married at All Saints-by-the-Sea in Montecito. They eventually had three children: I was born in 1976; my brother, Tom, in 1978; and my sister, Holly, in 1982.

Photo: CourtesyKatherine Isaacson

We moved from Micheltorena Street to the Mesa; then to El Chorro Ranch near Lompoc, where my father had grown up; and finally to Goleta. My mother wove the thread of her faith through all these moves, creating a sense of consistency and unity for her family. She sang in the choir at All Saints and taught at the church preschool. After taking night classes in Spanish to renew her teaching credential, she began teaching kindergarten and 1st grade at Isla Vista School. During her 19 years as a teacher there, and briefly at Brandon School, Katherine shared her love of music with her students, both entertaining and teaching them by singing and playing guitar and keyboard in class. Her colleagues recognized her gentle grace and calm, compassionate demeanor with students, and occasionally overheard her softly singing or humming.

When I was a student at UCSB, my mother seemed to undergo a transformation. My brother Tom was away at Cal Poly, and Holly was at San Marcos High. Mom was in her early fifties and still teaching at Isla Vista School when her father, Herb, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. After his death, she began taking voice lessons from Val Underwood. She began practicing religiously and performing at the Faulkner Gallery. Often out late for lessons, she would come home with a Starbucks Grande at eleven o’clock on a weeknight, energized and happy, only to wake up the next day at five in the morning to prepare her lesson plans. After work, her lip-trilling exercises became a familiar sound in the house. She often missed family dinners during evenings when she also had voice lessons. A sleeping passion of hers had somehow awakened, and we were thunderstruck.

I understand now that this new development was not only inevitable, as she attempted to cope with changing conditions in her life, but also fortuitous. It demonstrated that after a lifetime of sacrifice and giving to others ​— ​her family, her students, her church ​— ​she was finally embracing her own talents and abilities. She had studied French at Marymount, Italian at Berkeley, Spanish at City College, and was now learning arias in these languages through Val’s master classes, as well as in those of Jennifer McGregor and Jeannine Altmeyer. After studying classical songs and opera for many years, she began singing with the chorus of the Opera Santa Barbara, where she performed in Madama Butterfly, Don Pasquale, La Traviata, and La Bohème.

In retrospect, she may have sensed that the future was fleeting. In the decade that followed, she traveled with her family in Europe, took a cruise to Alaska with my father, and spent several summers as a chaperone for young singers at the Hawai‘i Performing Arts Festival. I was living in Portland, Oregon, when she told me that she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She met her first grandchild and then began chemotherapy and continued teaching on a reduced schedule. There was a remission. She spoke at my wedding, looking elegant and composed. Afterward, she told me that the cancer had returned.

The next year, in September, my wife and I welcomed our twin daughters. My mother had completed the school year in June but was already on hospice. She wanted so much to meet her grandchildren, one of whom was named for her. After a lifetime of resisting spirituality, the imminence of mortality prompted me to suggest that we have the girls baptized. My mom, who was struggling to eat, bloomed at the idea. She used all of her strength to arrange for a baptism ceremony at the family home in Goleta. The Reverend Michelle Woodhouse administered last rites to my mother and baptized my daughters. Minutes later, my mother drew her last breath. She had accomplished what she set out to do.

And so I ponder these events, turning them over endlessly in my mind, seeking a pattern or some insight into my mother’s life. I look back, but I also look forward, as I watch my daughters growing and listen to them singing.

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