Saturday, March 10, 2012

March 10

Today, March 10, 2012, would have been the 100th anniversary of Mary Eleanor Lawton Sebeok's birth. My mother was born  to Charles and Mary Cullin Lawton, in Chester, Pennsylvania, but raised in Puerto Rico and educated there and at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. She earned her master's degree in linguistics at the University of Michigan in 1947. Also in 1947 she married Thomas Sebeok, who soon after became a professor at Indiana University; a few years later, I came along, and was to be her only child. 
Mother taught English as a Foreign Language and related subjects under various programs at IU from 1947 to 1973, when she and my father divorced, but she continued to teach at the University of Puerto Rico until long after she retired in 1979. She was often honored by her students wherever she taught, and some became lifelong friends. She also consulted, edited, served on numerous committees, ran language labs, and directed special programs at IU and UPR. In 1963-1964 and again in 1971-1973, she taught English and Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) in Spain. In 1993, she moved from Puerto Rico to Florida, where she organized and maintained the residents' library at The Landings at Sea Forest, the community where she last lived.
Mother was a great lover of animals. After her return to Puerto Rico in 1973, she lived in a ground floor apartment with a small, sheltered patio just right for enjoying balmy evenings with a drink in hand, chatting with friends, neighbors, and family to the music of the coquí:
(turn on your sound to hear the sound-track of my mother's patio every evening of the year)
Other creatures shared that patio as well, among them stray cats, and some brought their broods of kittens along. Being sympathetic, my mother put out bowls of cheap generic cat food, figuring it was better than what the cats might scrounge on their own. Unfortunately it was a little too cheesy for the cats and they didn't eat much of it, but she came out to the patio one evening, flipped on the light, and what should she see but a bowl full of immense toads chowing down on the cat food.  She continued to buy the cat food just so the toads would have a nice meal every day. Oh, and she captured the cats, adopted one of the kittens, and took the rest to the shelter in the hope they could find good homes.
Mother was an energetic world traveler. Shortly after she married my father, they sojourned in northern Scandinavia, bringing back photos of themselves in Finnmark (aka Lapland), "Land of the Midnight Sun" with a detour to Budapest, where my father's mother lived. Here they are with their Lap guide. He seems rather taken with my mother, does he not?
In the early 1960's, the whole family spent a summer Europe-trotting, with stops in England, Paris, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Moscow, Hamburg. As I've blogged before, she spent a total of three academic years in Spain, one with me as an eighth-grader, and two alone. And none with her husband (as he was a difficult man, it was just as well). In each of those years she had a car, and traveled widely around the Iberian peninsula, with little forays across the Straits of Gibraltar and to the Canary Islands. Here she is in Casablanca, 1963:
Being fluent in Spanish, she got the most out of those years; later, she and a lady friend took off for South America, exploring numerous countries to the extent their budgets allowed. We cruised the Caribbean together one Christmas week, and in another year, she steamed up the coast of Canada to Alaska with her oldest childhood friend from Puerto Rico days.
She was known as a generous hostess. My father ran a small research center at Indiana University that frequently hosted visiting scholars from around the world. When someone particularly noteworthy descended in our midst, my parents would throw a party. This is the delicious punch she made that somehow never gave a very accurate impression of being as loaded with alcohol as it was. Many a renowned pundit waxed silly by the end of an evening at our house. Note the samples of punch, and handle with care if you decide to make it:
She was also an extraordinarily good cook. Bloomington didn't have much by way of an international grocery trade in those days, but she managed to find or adapt recipes from around the world to produce fantastic facsimiles of exotica. She made wonderful bacon, sour cream, and paprika-laden chicken paprikás and oh-so-tender, better-than-Hungarian goulash (the secret ingredient of which was a can of Campbell's tomato soup). She even made completely convincing Peking duck. Of course she prepared Puerto Rican food like a native. But best of all were her All-American fresh blueberry pies and peach pies. Lucky were the visitors who were invited for an intimate dinner rather than a bash in a punch bowl!
She was always frugal with her money, but nonetheless was admired for  being an elegant, tasteful dresser. A big contributing element was her tall, life-long slim stature, which she enjoyed until her last few years robbed her skeletal strength and she literally pancaked into little old lady-ness. But here she was at her early best in this 1933 photo taken of her as a college student on a visit to West Point ("where the boys were"):
Eleanor Lawton Sebeok lived nearly a century, and what a century it was. Puerto Rico was an undeveloped agricultural economy when she was born, and now, it is a world-contender in tourism, banking, pharmaceutical manufacturing and other industries. She witnessed the beginning and the end of the Cold War, two World Wars, the Korean and Vietnam wars, and the Great Depression. When she was born there was no treatment for infectious diseases;  as happened to many families, her sister Louise succumbed to a streptococcal infection, but just 20-some years later her father, following surgery for cataracts, suffered an allergic reaction to newly-available sulfa antibiotics, but his sight was saved. We even sent a man, and more, to the moon during the prime of her life. She came from a background in which few women pursued degrees, but she not only graduated from college, but went on to take an advanced degree and enjoyed a long teaching career in academia. Well into her 80s, she got to swim with dolphins (Discovery Cove, Florida). She looks as happy in this photo as in any I've seen of her!
She died on January 24, 2005 following a fall, just weeks short of her 93rd birthday, in New Port Richey, Florida. KLK and I returned her ashes to the Atlantic Ocean off the shore of Puerto Rico, near the site of her favorite childhood home, in February 2006. Rest in peace, Mother, you led a remarkable, long life, and you left a wonderful legacy of memories for me.


  1. A most interesting and remarkable woman indeed....

  2. What an interesting life your family has led. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    1. [Blogger is not opening a comment window for me, so I'm using the Reply feature.] Great family history, Veronica, and what a rich life your mother (and you!) have lived. Are you by any chance related to Sebeok the famous semiotician?
      PS: were you also in Beibei/Chongqing when you lived here in China? I'll check your mpa!