Last Monday, December 7, was the third anniversary of my mother’s death. She was an amazing woman. Her married name was Rosetta Willima (Hunter) Seaton, but everyone called her Wilma. I loved her and miss her very much. I’ve cried a lot while writing this.
Growing Up in New Zealand
Mom’s life included some truly major transformations. She was born and grew up in New Zealand, an incredibly beautiful country on the other side of the world from the United States. It was the setting for the stunning scenery in the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. Mom’s birthplace was Dunedin, which is the second-largest city in New Zealand’s South Island.
Her father was a mining engineer. As a result, her parents lived and worked in many parts of the world. Mom and her two sisters lived in some difficult mining locations while growing up. They also attended a girls’ boarding school for a few years while their parents were out of the country working.
me, cousins Murray and Geoff, brother Andy, aunts Lesley and Evelyn
After graduating from the University of Otago in Dunedin, she took a teaching position in Auckland, which is New Zealand’s largest city. She taught home sciences (roughly equivalent to home economics in the U.S.) in a high school there.
Meeting an American
In 1956, at the tender age of 23, she married my father, Robert Wanamaker Seaton, in a small ceremony in Auckland. Dad grew up in Manhattan, Kansas. His father was the Dean of Engineering at Kansas State University there.
So how did a guy from Kansas and a young lady from New Zealand happen to meet and marry? It’s actually a pretty romantic story.
My dad worked for the U.S. Naval Oceanographic Office. He was part of a project to map the magnetic fields around the South Pole. The plane had some mechanical problems, so the team had to stay over in Auckland longer than they expected.
The story that my mother always told was that a friend invited her to a party. Her friend wanted to introduce Mom to a man she knew. Mom reluctantly agreed to go to the party. She didn’t actually care that much for the man she was supposed to meet, but she also met my father. To say the least, they hit it off.
Six weeks later, they were married. They stayed together for just over 50 years. Mom passed away nine days after their 50th wedding anniversary.
I have a letter that my dad wrote to his mother in Kansas a couple of days after he and Mom were married. Here are some excerpts from what he said:
We were married six weeks to the day after we met, and these were a busy and magic time. She had never given a thought to living in the U.S., and long-standing reluctance about such a kind of life had to be overcome.
Wilma is a talented young lady. She is not only a very fine seamstress, bur also a good and imaginative cook. She and I like the same things in the details of living [...] She has similar likes to mine in cultural and intellectual pursuits, and so you can see why I was so enthusiastic to leave behind the old imagined independence of bachelorhood.
At first, they didn’t get to spend too much time together. My dad had to continue on with his mission. It took a while before my mom could finally join him in the States. They had to get all the immigration paperwork sorted out.
Life in a New Country
Mon’s world was turned completely upside down. She went to Kansas first, where my grandmother lived. The flat wheat fields of Kansas were completely different from the mountains and ocean around her homeland. My dad liked to say that she had no idea the rest of the world didn’t look like New Zealand. It was quite a shock to her.
Eventually, they moved to Washington, DC, where my father’s office was located. He continued working for the Naval Oceanographic Office until he retired. I was born and lived there until I moved to Arizona in 2008. They both enjoyed living in the DC area.
However, my father’s office moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the late 1970′s, so they moved there. That was another major culture shock for both of them. The laid-back attitudes of the Gulf Coast were completely different from the hectic, high-powered world of DC. It took some getting used to, but eventually they settled in and built a beautiful house right on the beach. (It was on a lot that Hurricane Camille had cleared. Later, after they had sold it, Hurricane Katrina destroyed my parents’ house.)
On the Road
My parents, my brother Andrew, and I used to go on family camping trips for most of our vacations when I was growing up. We traveled around the country visiting parks, national forests, and other wondrous places. After my father retired, my parents decided to live “on the road” as full-time RV’ers. For several years, they lived in a trailer that they pulled behind a truck around the country. They loved seeing different places and meeting new people.
Eventually, they found a small “park model” mobile home (about half the size of a traditional mobile home) in an RV park in Benson, Arizona. Although they still spent most of their time out on the road, they liked to stay there when they wanted a break. Benson is east of Tucson in southern Arizona, at the turnoff for Tombstone from I-10. It’s a fairly small town and completely different from New Zealand, DC, and the Gulf Coast.
My father developed Parkinson’s disease, and my mother took care of him up until the end. She took over the driving and all the heavy work of traveling with the trailer. They were dedicated to it and continued as long as they possibly could.
My mother used to say that they would be fine as long as she continued to stay healthy. We always thought that she would outlive Dad by several years. Unfortunately, she developed colorectal cancer in 2006 at the age of 73. Although she was in pain, she didn’t get the colonoscopy her doctor suggested until it was too late. I was still living in DC and believed her assurances that it was just a minor problem. I wish I had known and done something about it.
After she was finally diagnosed, I made several trips to Arizona to visit with them and help out as much as I could. I moved them to Tucson, where they still stayed in their beloved trailer.
Mom underwent chemotherapy and radiation. It was a roller-coaster of successes, set-backs, and uncertainties. We were always waiting for the results of the “next test.” Throughout it all, she kept up an amazing sense of humor and courage. She also continued to do most of the work to take care of my father, who was almost completely bed-ridden.
For a short while, it looked like she had conquered the cancer, but it came back. Finally, her oncologist in Tucson said the only option was major surgery. My brother, husband, and I all came to Tucson to be with her and Dad. We found the best nursing home there for him that we could find. I was at the hospital when my mom had several organs removed.
After a few weeks in the hospital, she came to the same nursing home as my dad to recuperate. They were together for Thanksgiving and their 50th anniversary, although neither was very joyous. We were all there for that, too.
I flew home, thinking that the situation was improving. It was tough knowing I was 2000 miles away, but I had taken a lot of time off and had to get back to work. Several days later, she got a blood infection from a line inserted in her arm at the hospital for medications. Her doctor kept assuring me that they would get it under control, but it advanced extremely rapidly. My brother, who lives in Portland, Oregon, and I raced back but were unable to get back there until it was too late. One of my father’s sisters, who lived part-time in Tucson, was with her when she passed away. Aunt Mardie and her husband Wally were a huge help during all of this, spending lots of time with both Mom and Dad.
Back in New Zealand
Mom’s two sisters and one of my cousins came from New Zealand to Arizona for my mother’s funeral. My brother, father, husband, Aunt Mardie, Uncle Wally, and some close family friends also attended. We had a small, quiet ceremony in which we all told stories about her life. She had always continued to be the “fine seamstress” and “imaginative cook” that my dad had written about. We displayed several examples of her handiwork, including clothes with incredible free-hand embroidery she had recently made, intricately knitted sweaters and other items, and delicate lace she had made by tatting.
My aunts and cousin took my mother’s ashes back to New Zealand and buried them in a Dunedin cemetery on a high hilltop overlooking the ocean. My father, brother, and I felt it was fitting to return Mom to the place she first called home and bury her with her parents. Andrew (my brother) was there along with many friends and family members.
My father only lived for another seven months after my mother’s death, passing away one week before his 81st birthday. He stayed in the critical care section of the nursing home because of his Parkinson’s. Andrew was able to work remotely and spent quite a lot of time in Tucson with Dad, for which I’m very grateful. Dad also developed colon cancer, which is listed as his cause of death, but I think he died mostly from a broken heart.
Andrew, my husband, and I took my father’s ashes to Dunedin a few months later. We wanted Mom and Dad to be together in the country where they had met and fallen in love 50 years earlier.
I had been to New Zealand twice before, once when I was in second grade and once about 15 years before when my parents were also visiting. She showed me many of the places she had grown up in.
Although parts of this trip were very sad, it was also good to stay with family and tour the country again. I enjoyed showing it to Doug, my husband. It helped me to appreciate and understand more about the many changes my mom had gone through in her life.
Growing up with parents who were willing to take big risks certainly had an impact on my willingness to take risks as well. Transforming your life is hard work, and it takes dedication. They both showed me that.
map photo credit: timmenzies