A few years ago I interviewed my friend Mariel for an assignment in a writing class. The article below appeared in the Columbia Daily Tribune. I reproduce it here for those who knew Mariel, whether slightly or well, to savor a life well-led.
There are things Mariel Stephenson would change if she could, but her life is not one of them.
Mariel was nine when she first saw America from the deck of the MS Nieuw Amsterdam. The sun was rising; Manhattan shimmered in golden light. “It was absolutely glorious,” she recalls.
Her father, William, had come a year earlier as a visiting professor at the University of Chicago. His wife, Maimie, and four children were joining him from England. Mariel smiles at the memory, “It was all exciting. The ship was luxurious and the food was...wonderful.”
With her came memories of war-time Oxford: Her mother teaching her birdsongs and the names of wildflowers along a brick wall; a house always harboring English refugees; POWs in work gangs. She had begun to look to nature when ponderings of man’s inhumanity toward man became too heavy.
The first two years in North America were not easy. After six months living in cramped quarters, Mrs. Stephenson and the children went to live with her brother in a small town near Vancouver, BC. Mariel was teased about her Oxford accent. She sought solace and solitude in the beauty of nature.
The family was reunited in Chicago; Mariel was comfortable at the University Lab School. “University towns are much alike, the world over,” she notes.
Mariel entered Bennington and immersed herself in art, history, music. The cultural achievements of the world were before her; she imbibed and built the foundations of a life-sustaining perspective and vocation.
A clerical job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art paid the rent, but was unchallenging. Mariel decided she really wanted to teach art. She earned a Master’s degree in art from the University of Missouri in 1964, but had no teaching certificate, so applied at a private school on Long Island.
She notes with a chuckle, “It was my accent that got me the job--they were all anglophiles--the accent and the Metropolitan Museum on my resume.”
So began a 24-year run of teaching on Long Island--a run she loved. “Art is a fabulous way to introduce the rest of the world to students,” she explains. “Teaching art is teaching the cultures of the world, the people, geography.”
Those years were not all idyllic. Mariel was 35 when she learned she had breast cancer. She sums it up with, “You think you are in control of your life, and then you find you aren’t, and you jolly well better deal with it.”
Mariel returned to Columbia to help care for her mother. She attended Columbia College to earn a second bachelor’s degree and Missouri teaching certification. She taught art in Columbia from 1992 to 2001.
As in New York, she brought nature into her classroom and taught art as a cultural ambassador, bringing the world’s diversity to American kids who often possessed a limited world view.
Mariel became a U.S. citizen in 1996. Citizenship gave her the right to vote, and she says of that right, “It is the ultimate defense.”
She became more assertive, a change necessary to teach effectively in public schools, but difficult for a self-labeled loner. With it came another change: Mariel became a gentle political activist.
The cultured Oxford accent is as clear and precise as it was in childhood. Mariel attributes it largely to Miss Franklin, headmistress of a school in Squitchey Lane, who taught the children to speak clearly and move lips fully.
Her quiet voice has often championed maintaining the integrity of “places people can feel at peace and be of one with nature.” She is proud of her involvement in the Green Belt Land Trust and in the designation of Rock Quarry Road as a Scenic Road.
More than her mode of transportation, Mariel’s car has become a vehicle of expression. One of many stickers sums up Mariel’s life credo: We belong to the earth; the earth does not belong to us.
Mariel continues as she has always lived, assured and active, living a life she wouldn’t trade for the world. Her vibrant, freedom-full brush strokes share her love of space and freedom of movement with all who view her work.
There are things Mariel Stephenson would change if she could, but the way she has lived her life isn’t one of them. Perhaps she wouldn’t trade that for the world because she already has the world.