autumn's garden

Writing about what I am learning – summed up best by Paul Newman: "If you have a pulse, you have a purpose."

An Aunt by Marriage: Dorothy Walton

Dorothy Smith Walton (unrelated to the TV Walton’s) always dressed with a flair that was planned and polished. She internalized the glamour of the 1930’s and ‘40’s, but she radiated the informality and warmth of the ‘50’ and ‘60’s. Was she perfect? From my limited exposure I would say pretty much. She set me an example of loyalty, kindness, and unfailing cheerfulness. Our friendship lasted barely twenty years. As she coped with painful disability and old age, these two limitations will never be how I remember her.

She was born on February 12 1898 in Minerva Texas, the eldest of her surviving siblings that included three brothers and three sisters. (C.R., C.L. –“Bill” — Burck, Mildred – “Gail” — Flo and Polly) From conversations with Dorothy, I learned her early years were tough – filled with much heartache but much love. Her father, Roy Edgerton Smith, was unstable and prone to wander, but her mother, Marion Burck, was a dynamo of ingenuity, holding the family together. She instilled in her children the principles of hard work and loyalty. The Smith kids all did their mother proud – and Dorothy was ever quick to recount and extol their accomplishments, and the undertakings of their children – and grandchildren. Dorothy was a cheerful chronicler and encourager of the Smith family. She had a kind word for everyone, but no words about her father.

Early on, Dorothy had a knack for sewing and she made clothes for her brothers and sisters. She went to work at Neiman Marcus in their bridal department, and her way with a needle impressed Mr. Marcus who helped her gain an apprenticeship in the garment district in New York in the 1920’s. She mastered dress design, and construction, later opening her own shop in Austin, where her mother still lived.

When she met and married her husband, James Walton, she moved to Charlottesville Virginia. Together they restored an 18th century farmhouse in Barboursville, and Dorothy added decoupage to her skills set. She didn’t talk so much of her accomplishments; she demonstrated them.

When I met Dorothy, she was 74. We first met when I drove my soon-to-be mother–in-law Elizabeth to Charlottesville to visit her. Dorothy’s constancy was apparent in this meeting. Although my mother-in-law had been divorced from Dorothy’s brother for more than three decades, she remained Dorothy’s beloved sister-in-law. When Dorothy discussed the failure of this marriage it was with great tact and understanding — she saw both sides and judged neither.

Driving Dorothy back from Charlottesville to Washington, for a stay with her brother, she began the oral history of the Smith family. Oh! How I wish I had a recorder! She was unfailingly complimentary – doting – about Doug, my husband to be.

We visited occasionally over the years. She was one of our first house guests. Our visits were limited primarily by her bouts with rheumatoid arthritis and the Smith predisposition for privacy. While we were waiting for our son Will to arrive, we slipped down to Charlottesville, but Dorothy felt so bad she was unable to celebrate with us.

Before she moved to California seeking better weather and to be closer to her brother Burck and his wife, Jane, she asked that Doug and I pick up a family heirloom – an enormous walnut wardrobe which collapses to a fraction of its dimensions when assembled.

She told me all about the piece – details I hoped to commit to paper, but never did. It had traveled west by Conestoga and then back east is all I know. When I see it, I remember the weekend Doug and Will and I drove down from Maryland and how it looked in her Charlottesville apartment. Now, when I look at it, I remember how kind a hostess Dorothy was when I invited myself to be her houseguest while Doug went fishing with his Dad. Overcoming reclusiveness and playing hostess at 77 in the summer heat while combating RA were a set of skills I did not then appreciate.

She avidly followed the news and read widely and voraciously. Dorothy recounted what she read and her life experiences with vibrant details. She was a great storyteller, and a better listener. When she visited in our home, she loved to sew  and made me a lovely dress, stitching in the zipper by hand.

When we visited her in California, she knew some nifty restaurants and loved going out when she could, or sending us to these places to enjoy them on our own.

She wrote great letters – pages and pages of stories, thoughts, observations and cordial compliments, all committed in her distinctive handwriting to either legal pads, home-made stationary, or cards. And sometimes we would chat on the phone, congenial conversations that always left me with the feeling that I mattered to Dorothy – no distinction of “in-law.”

She had lost her brother Bill in 1979, and her sister Polly around the same time. Flo had died decades earlier from breast cancer. Our last conversation was shortly after her brother C.R. died in April 1990. By then she was no longer in her apartment on Euclid Avenue in Santa Monica – she was in a nursing home – defeated by the RA and age – outwardly focused. She died about two weeks later. I knew an “original” had gone.

Dorothy held onto life lightly. A father who is unable or unwilling to care for his wife and children, consigning them to poverty can teach that. His absence can also teach a child to be the person they longed for their dad to be: present and loving. For all she had seen and all she could do, Dorothy practiced the gift of making others feel they were important – encouraging us to believe she had no greater pleasure than to be with us in the moment.

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10 thoughts on “An Aunt by Marriage: Dorothy Walton

  1. Ken Zuk on said:

    I was Mrs. Walton’s penpal from the summer of 1974, at age 9, until her brother Burck sent me a letter, thanking me for my long correspondence with his sister, near the end; while I was in college. A movie can be made of this woman, and I am a greater person for her letters over an almost two decade period. I would love to talk to you about her, as she is, and will remain, My, “Mrs. Walton”. We met by correspondence because as a silly kid, I thought she was a part of the “Waltons” My mother was an avid reader and visited the library at least 2-3 times a week. Liking the show, I went into the reference department and took down a whitepages book from the shelf and wrote to a James Walton, thinking he was really from the show and the rest is history for almost 17 years; a relationship developed with a worldly woman and a nine year old child, it vibrantly took off from there. Our letters were great and my joy was to receive a letter from her. I was appointed a US Senate Page, as I always had an interest in history and government and her praise meant equal with family. I tried several times to visit her in Charlottesville; especially from DC when I was there; but the timing was not right and she walways apologised.
    She annulally sent me a birthday gift as well as my sister (we are twins) one of which, was a very large elaborate book on the Tower of London.(I was 12 then) She signed the inside cover, indicating her family was related to Anne BoIeyn – whether metorphically correct or just correct – as she was always know to be; I adored her. You noted she varied her
    writing material; I did receive letters from my “grandmother” penpal and yes, she would vary with yellow legal pad, homemade cards, postcards, etc.,
    She also wrote of her time in Paris with Mr. Walton and sent my sister a set of French playing cards (war time) in tack, in their box, one year for our birthday. She was a legend and I do miss her. I am so glad I found your article. I certainly hope you see this and respond.

    I also plan on sending Fr. Hesburg a birthday card, he will be 95, Bless his soul, as Dorthory indicated long ago; he fished with one of her brothers; often. It might have been Burck, but for some reason, I dont think so. But it could have been. If you have any info on this, please let me know.
    Please know your finding on the internet, gave me joy! Please contact me!
    Ken Zuk

  2. Thanks for writing. Both my husband and I read your kind remembrances of a great woman. What you remember or Dorothy’s correspondence is just what I have treasured over the years.
    Her birthday would have been day before yesterday. And you are right, hers would make a great bio for a movie!

    While Fr. Hesburg may have fished with Burck Smith, he may also have fished with CR, Dorothy’s younger brother.

    How on earth did you come across this humble little blog?


    • Ken Zuk on said:

      I am blessed to have found your beautiful and most correct portrayal of this wonderful woman. I have been looking for years, seeing if I could find something. For some reason, I didnt think it was CR; but yes, you are correct! Fr Hesburg did fish with CR!
      I know it was her birthday on sunday, as my heart wore
      deep. I am older now, and never will forget her. I remember when she left Charlottesville for Santa Monica and told me to not forget her, because she had moved. I went from 4 grade to college with her!
      Our corresepondence continued until she got sick and then Burck was nice enough to write me, at the end. My business took me to Charlottesville after, and I never had the courage to drive by her address on Barricks Road, as it would have been too painful.Her letters to me from there were too good to demish that, simply because she was gone.
      I spoke on the phone with her a few times from ages 12 to 15; so did my mom and grandmother and they are all gone; but the beautiful memories exist. Its just wonderful that this gifted woman, kept answering this kid’s letters and with conviction, I might add.
      Thank you for the beautiful article in her memory and honor; I kinda always knew someone in her family would put it out there and thank you so much, for doing so. I had an imazing time “growing up” with her and I couldnt have asked for better. My family adores her as well, to this day. She was very down to earth. While I know about her father and she chose to share, I didnt know about her dress making skills. That was just like her. I also know from letters growing up, the hardships her mother, sisters and brothers went thru.
      What a priceless woman!
      Once again, thank you so much for your article that I found!
      I actually cried when I read it. It was more than time. I was going to write one myself; but thought no one would believe my story.
      Out of curiosity, how are you related again?
      How ever so, you are an angel for writing about her. It is most accurate. Ken

      • Ken Zuk on said:

        I suddenly realized that Doug is perhaps CR’s son. Dorothy spoke of CR often and through her, I admired him as a child. She also provided a wonderful history lession, not known to many kids my age. She was so kind to send me a momento when he was enshrined in the Aviation Hall of Fame. I have nothing but praise for CR and wish that either American or perhaps the history channel would put something together that would accurately chronicle his wisdow and foresight into our aviation history. Dorothy spoke so well of CR and it was evident that there was a very close bond between sister and brother. Her letters over the years and reference to his integrity and ingenuity point in no other direction, than greatness, when describing his efforts, focus and endeavors.
        It is also heartfelt that they had a close bond and she admired him for his hard work, but also cared deeply for him as a brother.

  3. Carla Smith on said:

    I am Burck Smith’s daughter, Carla. I’m not surprised that my dad sent you a thank you note for your correspondence with Aunt Dorothy; he was a kind & gentle man. He loved all of his siblings, caring off & on for all but Gail at our home in West Los Angeles.

    I was very fond of Dorothy. She had a great connection with young people. I was lucky enough to spend time with her. She even sewed as few dresses for me. Until the day she died, she had the most beautiful, wrinkle free skin….the face of an angel.

  4. Ken Zuk on said:

    Carla, what a nice surprise! Dorothy often spoke of family members in her letters and believe she had mentioned you. I do recall that your dad’s letter (I have it tucked away somewhere) was very nice and that it was written on beautiful stationery with a writers hand and a quill or pen etched at the top. So many years ago now, but I do remember. I certainly gathered that she was close to many members of your extended family and our years of correspondence is one of my fondest memories of growing up.

  5. Carla Smith on said:

    Ken — Way back when, I was known as Sukey and Dorothy was my “Aunt Dot”. Did she ever send you a photo of her? If you don’t have one, I would be pleased to send you one by email. She had such a beautiful & kind face. I wish she had children as she would have been a great mother.

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