Sallee Engstrom lives in Petoskey, Michigan with her husband of fifty-eight years. She is a spry, pretty, square-jawed woman with piercing green eyes and almost snow-white hair. She says, “I can’t believe the birthday I’ve just had.” By discreet calculation, I figure Sallee is in her early eighties.
Sallee vacationed in the summer colony of Bay View, Michigan for many years before purchasing a full-time home in nearby Petosky. Bay View was founded in Victorian times as a religious and cultural community, which is still its emphasis. It is one of those summer enclaves one is born into and leaves horizontally. Sallee taught a writing workshop for many years and is still involved in Bay View’s music conservatory. Google Sallee and you will find her most recent volunteer job is with the Manna Project in Harbor Springs, Michigan, which is about ten miles from Petosky. The Manna Project distributes backpacks and school supplies to needy elementary school students in Northern Michigan. Sallee is pictured in a local newspaper wearing a Manna apron and packing supplies with other volunteers.
Sallee has always had a network of female support. During the early years of her marriage, in Corning, New York, her husband was gone a lot. Her girlfriends, with similar traveling husbands, were her best support system. All the women worked together to raise all the young children. People moved in and out of the community often. The community of moms was elastic enough to absorb both the loss of leaders and the gain of newcomers.
Sallee remembers Flood Agnes in 1972 as a high point of her collaboration with other young mothers. All the men in the neighborhood were gone and the women, cut off from everything, had to make do. By the time the men – stalled by clogged roads, closed airports, and security barriers – were able to get home, the women had figured out how to salvage food from the powerless freezers, haul water from a nearby stream to flush toilets and use for bathing, and distribute drinking water from huge tankers the US Core of Engineers brought into town.
Sallee also spent years in routine volunteer activities such as delivering cupcakes to Cub Scouts and classrooms on short notice and filling in for absent school employees. Though worthwhile, and sometimes appreciated by her children, these activities left Sallee so bored she took up smoking.
Talking to Sallee, I am struck by how small the chapter of a woman’s life active parenting consumes. Sallee had her first child in her mid-twenties, another in quick succession, and another three years later.
A mother in her twenties, she was done with the heavy lifting of motherhood in her early forties. And that was not even the halfway point of her life!
“What does one do with the substantial chunk of time left?” is my question for Sallee.
At first, Sallee sought out the female camaraderie she’d known as the mother of young children, but found ladies’ luncheons tedious and looked for other avenues of interest. She also continued her job as a support for her husband’s corporate career, which, reading between the lines, involved much showing-up-dressed-appropriately. Sallee confesses she did not find it easy to meet people and chat, but after doing a lot of it she learned.
Sallee found her beat pursuing education, divergent careers and volunteer opportunities, through many moves to different parts of the US. Sallee’s previous volunteer position as children’s choir director led to her first “real” job as children’s music teacher in several elementary schools in Corning. These jobs coincided with courses toward a Masters’ degree in English Literature and a part time job as assistant to an English professor at Elmira College. A move to Washington, DC resulted in a teaching position at a private school, which Sallee loved. With a Master’s Degree in hand, Sallee was able to teach for a few years at a Community College in Western New York. She was subsequently hired in the Communication Arts Department at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
At age fifty-five, Sallee “retired” and spent a year writing and living at Keuka Lake, New York. When her husband retired the next year, the couple moved to Colorado, where Sallee applied for and obtained a teaching fellowship to begin a PhD program at the University of Denver. She spent the next six years (“would have been five years, but a ski accident immobilized her for a time”) earning her doctorate.
Sallee’s doctoral thesis was on the Western New York lecturing of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Sallee’s book (based on her dissertation) is entitled, “The Infinitude of the Private Man.” The book was published in 1997 and is still available on Amazon.com.
Sallee is the quintessential life-long learner. I met Sallee at a writing conference at Walloon Lake in Michigan. Sallee chose the memoir class and picked as a writing topic her own mother’s life. Sallee felt her mother’s life was deeply influenced by the early tragic death of Sallee’s grandmother and maternal aunt in an auto accident when Sallee’s mother was just nineteen. Her mother never spoke of the accident. She confides that “writing is frustrating” and she doesn’t know how to get her most spontaneous and innermost thoughts on paper. One can see in Sallee the signs of a stoic approach to life and a disinclination to overshare.
Most recently, Sallee acquired the excellent musical instrument of her dreams, a Yamaha Conservatory Piano her husband thought she should have. She says she didn’t think her present level of skill gave her the right to own such a thing, but she set out on a daily schedule of practicing to justify the purchase; she remains disappointed that no amount of such practice seems to restore her to her former level of skill when she was a piano major in college.
Like most good mothers, Sallee is quite willing to point out her imperfections. Sallee refers to her unresolved issues with her adult children, issues that seem very like the issues my peers discuss. In other words, nothing all that horrific, but certainly important to the people involved. She seems to ache for closure and intimacy with her children as the last chapter of her efforts as a mother
I close my conversation with Sallee by asking how it is that one stays married for fifty-eight years.
She shakes her head. “I don’t know,” she answers after a few minutes, a twinkle in her eye. She seems delighted with the question. “We are very, very different, and I suppose in some way that helped, but we are very, very devoted in ways that don’t show.”
I am so taken with Sallee because of the creative ways she has used her life to pursue both paying and non-paying work for the benefit of her husband, children, grandchildren and community. She’s made many accommodations of her personal goals, while never losing the thread of independence and ambition that is uniquely her own. I consider Sallee a remarkable volunteer and a role model.