Sunday, December 22, 2013

Bethine Church, Rest in Peace

          When my friend Stan Zuckerman called last night to say Bethine Church had just died I received the news calmly.  Stan has been a good friend of the family, particularly of Bethine’s son, Forrest, we had worked together on two Church political campaigns and we had visited Bethine together the week before.  She was obviously near the end of her long and productive life and we were pleased to have seen her one last time.  It was okay, it was time, we said to each other.

However as soon as I put down the phone I was sobbing.  I was not sobbing for Bethine the politician, the conservation leader, the woman being called the grand dame of Idaho Democratic politics.  That Bethine was not always an easy personality for me to deal with in the eight years I worked for her husband, gracious as she so frequently was.  I was sobbing for the woman I came to know since we both came home to Idaho in l984.

In “Being Alive and Having to Die,” a new book by Dan Cryer about Bethine’s son Forrest, Bethine is portrayed as busier as her husband’s partner and running mate than as Forrest's mother in the earliest years.  But I was mourning Bethine as the last mother I had in this world.

Neither of us said anything of the sort, you can be sure, but I knew she cared for me and tried to protect me as I entered politics myself, failed twice, and then moved near where she was living in Boise.   She was always great company, of course, but she was also always welcoming, caring and quite dear as the year went on. 

Among the many powerful and fascinating tributes to Nelson Mandela was one written by Paul Simon in the New York Times.   He recounted how his magical album, “Graceland,” had brought together the music of South Africa’s bitterly divided tribes (“Homeless” being Zulu and “Diamond’s on the Souls of Her Shoes” being Xhosa, for example) and how the project, controversial at the time of its creation, had been joyfully received by Mandela.  Simon wrote how incredible it seemed that Nelson Mandela was alive in our lifetime.  And that now he is with us only in memory.

I feel the same way about Bethine.  Yes, it was time.  But it is incredible that Bethine was such an important figure throughout virtually my entire adult life (I joined Frank’s staff in l963), that I lived under the cloak of her friendship for the last 27 of those years and that she is gone.  I will miss her.

There will be much celebration and a good time had by all when Bethine’s memorial takes place in January.   The Clark and Church families have been among the finest spirits in the history of Idaho.  I am quite confident a final gratitude will be accorded to Chase Church, Bethine’s son and her father’s namesake, and his wife Pam.  They were her constant support.

Chase tells the story of Frank and Bethine visiting countless nursing homes over their political career and of the often sad circumstances encountered.  They vowed to improve the lot of seniors and did so.  We forget that at the time Medicare was passed a majority of older Americans  lived in poverty.

In the retelling of the Senator’s life, attention is seldom paid to his role as chairman of the Senate Committee on Aging but it was an important one.  I do not know the details but I believe Church played a swing role in how Social Security is indexed to inflation and how seniors can earn or receive other income while receiving Social Security, two issues being reexamined today.  They also campaigned for hospice.  That hospice is covered by Social Security and insurance today may be traced, in part, to the Church’s—one more legacy to add to the list.

Chase Church was his mother’s constant support during the last 27 years she spent in Idaho.  He and Pam were her caretakers during recent years when she needed more or less round-the-clock support.  They moved to a home compatible with her needs and one of them was with her or close at hand most every minute.  She died at home with the support of hospice as she wished.

In a famous family, it was left to Chase and Pam to demonstrate the greatest fealty, the most generous patience and the dearest care anyone could receive and to do so with enormous competence, faithfully and with humility.   This is a service equal in its own way to that of the rest of the family.  All those who loved Bethine honor and thank him today.