Still drawing strength from strong women, thru changes & years


COOPER, Iowa, Nov. 24, 2016 — While sitting in front of the fire this week in thoughtful prayer for so many who seem to be in need right now, it occurred to me that I often draw my strength from several women in my life. 

And then I remembered a column that I wrote five years ago about some of them.  So, I pulled it from my electronic files and re-read it. 

A few of these same women have been on my mind and heart recently. 

My mother Sue Burt, of Des Moines, is now 81 and is having memory issues.  Her memory doctor has diagnosed her with brain atrophy, triggering some semi-serious memory problems.  But she remains all the things I describe in this 2011 column.  She just doesn’t remember things like she used to.  

Carla & Suesy & livestock on a walk Nov 6.JPG

Carla Offenburger and her mother Sue Burt on walk at the farm in November, 2015.

And then there is columnist and “radio homemaker” Evelyn Birkby, now 97, of Sidney in southwest Iowa, who just lost her husband Robert.  They celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary this fall right before Robert died at the age of 98. 

Family counselor and community activist Mary Riche, of Des Moines, and I continue our strong friendship. 

And I just finished reading a book Faith Ferre, now retired from her ministry in Des Moines, had on our book club’s reading list. 

And young mother Nicole Friess Schilling, now Nicole Bennett Tuel, of rural Jefferson, is preparing to watch her oldest child graduate from high school in the spring. 

Life moves forward faster than we want it to.  And along the way, it brings heartache and pain, doesn’t it?  Perhaps, right now for some of these women, I am the strong woman they need, and I’m grateful I can be so.

I think this column is worth sharing again during this time of Thanksgiving because I am forever thankful for each one of these women.  Still.  Of course, the storyline has changed for all of us, with a few birthdays, a few illnesses, a few sorrows and struggles.

More wisdom, too.

As I wrote it in August, 2011:

Over the course of the last few weeks, I have been fondly remembering all the strong women who have been a part of my life.  These aren’t women I admire from a distance, but women I know intimately as mother, friend and mentor.  I kept wondering why these thoughts were hitting me right now – in the midst of August.  It’s not the month of my mother’s birthday, or Mother’s Day.  It’s not the month given to women for Women’s History.  It’s August – not a time devoted to the thoughts of strong women, necessarily.

Today it hit me.  I get to add another one to my list.

My list isn’t necessarily long, and it will come as no surprise really to those who know me well.  And I’m not sure I can answer when the list started to take shape – and where it might lead in years to come.

There’s my mother, Suesy Burt, of course.  She’s everything a mother is supposed to be.  Loving, forgiving, fun-filled and funny.  She’s constant and steady – all through my life – constant and steady.  I have no doubt on who she is and who I am when I am with her.  Mother, daughter.  I wish I had daughters so I could be a mother like my mother is to me.

There’s the late Lillian Hildreth, my 10th grade English teacher at Des Moines Lincoln High School.  She influenced my life more than I ever gave her credit for when I had the opportunity.  I love reading because of her.  And I love reading the classics because of her.  I went on to teach English at the college level because of her.  All things I’ve ever tried to be in a teacher are because of her.  She was enthusiastic, insistent – and persistent.  She was a friendly face in years of high school nervousness.  When she passed away at age 93, in late June of 2007, I wrote this about her: “I think Lillian Hildreth was the most influential woman in my life during my years  at Lincoln – and still to this day I count her as the most important female role model in my determination to reach my career goal.”  I listed the many things she taught me, including self-esteem and self-confidence.  She indeed was life-encouraging and life-changing. 

There’s Evelyn Birkby, from Sidney, whom I met when I married my husband, Chuck Offenburger.  At 91 years of age, Evelyn is as spry and endearing as she was when I first met her 20 years ago.  She is a wonderful woman.  We have become fast friends – we’ve had sleepovers at her home in Sidney, shared our writings, and public appearances.  We share recipes and books to read.  We share politics and current events.  She’s liberal in thinking, and honest in action.  I adore and admire Evelyn.  She’s the role model I hold up as how I want to be when I am 91.

There’s Mary Riche, of Des Moines, whom I met years ago when I was a very young woman trying to get a handle on life in the business world – sorting out young behaviors and business etiquette.  She introduced me to influential people in Des Moines without me realizing their influence.  She is savvy and spunky, cool and so with it.  She has been an inspiration to me for years – her attitude, her demeanor, her loyalty in friendship and growth are inspiring and endearing.  Her spirituality and faithfulness are steadfast.  We share books and gardens and good food.   We can go far too long without contact, but when our voices connect, it is has if time has stood still.  Solid, everlasting friendships with women of such character are like that.

There is Faith Ferre, of Polk City, one of the many ministers over the years at Plymouth Congregational Church in Des Moines, who touched my life in meaningful ways.  Faith drew me into Plymouth and helped me make it my religious home for years.  She empowered me with leadership roles without me knowing the impact they’d have on my life long after they were over.  She married Chuck and me.  She has long stayed influential in my own faith journey.

And today, it was at a funeral, as I watched Nicole Friess Schilling, a young widow with her children, that I knew another woman was going to be added to this list of mine. 

Over the past few weeks when I have been with Nicole, as her husband Chris was dying, I must have been continually reminded of the other women of strength in my life.   Nicole was showing me what strength can look like in the midst of great pain and heartache.

Nicole, without hesitation, has demonstrated to me true strength and perseverance in the face of illness and discomfort.   I have known her for only seven years – a far shorter time than others on my list.  My connection to Nicole is filled with diversity.  She’s a well-known artist in the community, and I have marveled over her talent for years.  When she and I belonged to the same church, I was blessed to participate with her and her children in many church functions.    But mostly, I think the connection that has given us a new bond, is our connection by illness.  Her husband Chris and my husband Chuck were cancer patients on parallel journeys.  Nicole and I have shared many hugs, many gifts of comfort and laughter.  There was more than one occasion when we were at the University of Iowa Hospitals at the same time.  Sometimes it was a surprise meeting in a hallway, others it was an intentional visit to a hospital room.   Today, I felt a twinge of guilt that she was the widow and I was sitting with my husband, the survivor.   I am sure she would not want me to feel guilty. 

What Nicole has shown me over the past few years is that love is without match.  And principles are without compromise.  She has shown me what suffering with grace is.  She has shown me how to move forward while holding on.  She has shown me the type of woman I want to be in nearly all things.  The woman is astounding, amazing, strong, solid, real and poised.  She is talented – very, very talented – musically, theatrically, motherly, and otherwise.  My father would have described her as one filled with “spit and vinegar.”  Indeed.  

She is without a doubt, a mother who is in the midst of transforming the lives of her four children in ways I have never witnessed.  They are all – every one of them – wise beyond their years, bright, creative, funny, and friendly.  As I watched her and her children today, surrounded by immediate and extended family, I watched a woman of strength endure pain before she deserves to – with grace and faithfulness.  I have no doubt that her loss will be transformed into living with a wise dedication to her children and herself.

There will be more strong women that enter and stay in my life in the years to come, but right now I can’t imagine how different my life would be if these women – my mother, Lillian Hildreth, Evelyn Birkby, Mary Riche, Faith Ferre and now Nicole Friess Schilling – were not in my life. 

Each one is so different from the next, entering my circle of friendship under different circumstances at different times, over a span of 35 years.  But each one is special to me. 

And I’m thrilled that today with teary eyes and a heart filled with sadness, it dawned on me that once again, a woman of strength has entered my life to stay.

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