Mary Stuart Page Stegner died last month. Her obituary ran in a few newspapers, but it came to my attention as a blip in my Twitter stream, tucked appropriately between posts lamenting the destruction of nature in the BP oil spill.
The fact that she was still alive gave me pause as much as her age. At 99, she’d outlived by 17 years her husband Wallace Stegner, who died after a car accident in 1993 on his way to give a lecture in Santa Fe. Their 60-year marriage was a “personal literary partnership of singular facility,” wrote Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in The Geography of Hope, A Tribute to Wallace Stegner, a partnership in which he did the writing and she enforced the writerly environs. He brought her breakfast in bed; she fed him new interests and fended off distractions. The end of that partnership was like something out of Stegner’s own novel Crossing to Safety. Marriage and longevity. Loss, and carrying on.
Stegner is best known for his environmental writing, which has influenced generations of conservationists, and for his novel Angle of Repose (which won the Pulitzer in 1972), as well as his creative writing program at Stanford University. But my point of entry to his work was Crossing to Safety, published in 1987. I first read it in my early 20s and have returned to it several times, moved by its incisive portrayal of two couples over decades, two interconnected marriages and friendships that unfold with tenderness and tragedy. Because of this, Stegner is to me first and foremost a chronicler of marriage, and a mourner of the lost mother.
Just before his 80th birthday, he wrote a heartbreaking essay, “Letter, Much Too Late,” of his own mother who’d died young:
“My name was the last word you spoke, your faith in me and love for me were your last thoughts. I could bear them no better than I could bear your death, and I went blindly out into the November darkness and walked for hours with my mind clenched like a fist… Your kind of love, once given, is never lost. You are alive and luminous in my head….You are at once a lasting presence and an unhealed wound.”
I read that essay only last year, in a collection of Stegner’s works given to me by my husband on my birthday. But twenty years ago, what struck me about Crossing to Safety was Stegner’s proposition that character remains constant through life: We might become more pliable or more brittle over the years, but essentially, we are who we are—for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, and so on. There in the novel was the perky wife with just a whiff of control freak, doomed in the end by her own stubbornness; there was the solid, sensible other wife, locked by fate in her fortitude. In my 20s, world as my oyster and luck changing daily, I was wide-eyed at the suggestion that we were shackled to our unchanging natures.
Years later, when I read All The Little Live Things (1967), I felt a jolt of recognition. Here was the clear predecessor of the two characters—the earnest manipulator, as well as her foil, the training-wheels version of the solid, bemused partner. My surprise was naïve, but exhilarating: writers revisit their terrain! writers try out themes and prototypes that won’t stop yanking their chain, and return to them until they get them right! I wanted to talk about it to anyone who’d listen. My boyfriends in those days mastered expressions of polite interest.
One isn’t supposed to make assumptions about a writer’s own life based on his characters, but I did wonder. Mary Stegner, it seemed, was of the solid-bemused end of the spectrum. With characteristic wry humor, here’s what Stegner said of her in James Hepworth’s 1998 book Stealing Glances: Three Interviews with Wallace Stegner:
“She has had no role in my life except to keep me sane, fed, housed, amused, and protected from unwanted telephone calls. Also to restrain me fairly frequently from making a horse’s ass of myself in public, to force me to attend to books and ideas from which she knows I will learn something; also to mend my wounds when I am misused by the world, to implant ideas in my head and stir the soil around them, to keep me from falling into a comfortable torpor, to agitate my sleeping hours with problems that I would not otherwise attend to; also to remind me constantly (not by precept but by example) how fortunate I have been to live for fifty-three years with a woman that bright, alert, charming, and supportive.”
Rest in peace, Mary Stegner. May the two of you again amuse and restrain and agitate one another, lasting presences always, every wound healed.