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The Art of Aging: Mary Lou Goertzen

For years, Mary Lou Goertzen greeted the arrival of spring in the wooded landscape around her home with an artist’s pen and sketchpad in hand.

She began with the lone crocus pushing a purple bud through the wet soil at a corner of the former schoolhouse where she lives. Next came the trillium behind her home, nestled in the quiet forest up Deadwood Creek Road about 60 miles west of Eugene.

After the trillium came the blue hydrangeas and on to the rose hips of fall. Then she turned her gaze on the woodpile, the bed, the blue washpan in the kitchen.

“I drew everything, “ she says. “I was drawing my life.”

The drawings spilled from sketchpad to note cards, to postcards and original watercolor prints. They built a following of admirers at Eugene’s Saturday Market and in 1981 caught the eye of a New York china company that splashed her blossoms on dinner plates around the world.

They came to my table too—gifts of a place setting for Christmas or birthdays from family members until I’d gathered a bouquet of trillium to spread before dinner guests. The simple elegance and essence of Oregon lifts from these plates to nurture my body and spirit.

But now the trillium no longer nourish Goertzen’s spirit. The crocus bring no joy. The creative flame that fueled her artistic productivity for five decades has lost its heat. At 85, she feels empty without it.

Two years ago, when she approached the crocus to launch the seasonal ritual of sketches, she waited for the creative effervescence that always bubbled up in the past. Waited, but it didn’t come. She turned to the trillium when it appeared. She saw nothing except what she had already done. Nothing new she felt eager to capture.

“I realized I did not need any more trillium drawings,” she says. “I was not inspired anymore. I had lost enthusiasm for drawing.” She sits now alone in the blue schoolhouse facing a future she hadn’t envisioned.

I never imagined being where I am now...

been there, done that, ready to go

“I never imagined being where I am now, but I think what I am experiencing is not abnormal,” she says. “It’s a feeling of ‘been there, done that, ready to go.’ “But I have to be prepared not to go for a while. That is my challenge now. I don’t really want to live to be 100 but I probably will.”

Her words frighten me a bit. Blunt. Honest. Bare. “I’m writing this down, you know,” I caution her. I am sitting beside her on the worn, cozy sofa in the blue schoolhouse, reporter’s notebook on my lap.

She has moved, since we started this interview, from the armchair to the end of the sofa and now sits tucked close to my side, feeding a hunger to be heard and understood.

“It’s courageous, what you are saying,” I continue. I want to be certain she is comfortable with this level of exposure. She responds without hesitation.

“I think it’s sort of par for the course,” she says. “I don’t hide this. I’m not all smiles and joy. I am sad. I think there are a lot of people in my club.”

It’s a club of widows and widowers. Alone in the late years of life. A club of creative people who find the zest draining from a passion that energized earlier years. A club of deeply spiritual people struggling to hold fast to hope and faith.

Hope and faith carried Mary Lou and Ernie Goertzen to Deadwood in 1975, bringing their three teen-age children from the war protests and pacifist resistance acts of Berkeley CA to a rural tranquility similar to the Mennonite communities of Kansas where they grew up and wed.

They’d lived ten years among flower children, artists and social activists and now sought simpler days, a life of conscious living, environmental awareness, and respect for all beings. Pacifism formed the steadfast foundation of their political and social views.

They converted the empty blue schoolhouse into a home with a wood stove for heat and a garden for sustenance. Both had achieved enough success as artists to meet the modest financial needs of their family. Then one day the owner of Block China in New York called to propose an innovative china line called the “Watercolor“ series featuring Mary Lou’s floral art. He had seen her drawings on notecards and imagined them as china patterns.

For a Cinderella decade, the china propelled Mary Lou and Ernie into a world of Bloomingdales, Marshall Field, and affluent shoppers who snatched up 48-place settings of her poinsettia pattern for holiday dinners. On promotional visits across the country, Mary Lou took a seat in the china department and strummed her dulcimer. As curious customers strolled the aisles, she and Ernie extolled a simple life in songs of faith and peace.They left each appearance with the benediction of a Bach chorale:

As we leave this friendly place, love give light to every face. May the kindness which we learn, light our hearts ‘til we return.”

When it ended, following the sale of Block China to a new owner, they drained their earnings into business and educational opportunities for their children, one of whom now lives nearby, one in Eugene and the third in California.

Their own focus returned to a rural life devoted to art and a hands-on approach to daily needs. Year by year, they transformed the blue school into a museum with their creative force. His soft landscapes in oil, her vibrant flowers. Quilts and sculptures. Pottery, china, embroidery art—all born of their attention to life’s beauty and delicate details.

After Ernie’s death at 78 in 2004, Mary Lou sought solace in creativity. She poured her love into a handmade book of drawings, wrapping her art around the “snuggery.” a downstairs bedroom added to the schoolhouse when Ernie was no longer able to climb to the loft where they had nested since 1975. That book ended up on a pedestal in the Jacob’s Gallery at the 2009 Mayor’s Art Show.

After that came a fierce period of quilting, igniting a creative passion that got her out of bed in the mornings. Twenty-five small quilts, lap and nap size, all hand sewn, emerged from her fingers in just over a year.

That fire, too, lost heat.

Now, her hands address the daunting tasks of age--sorting, discarding, organizing original art for a bequest to the Mennonite college in Newton, KS where she and Ernie met.

“Every love story ends in sadness,” she says “We had 53 years together. That’s a good time and I am completely blessed. I don’t feel angry at life. I feel sad.”

In the process of sorting, she uncovered a 1984 article from The Register Guard written at a time when Block China’s “Watercolor” dinnerware was selling at a rate of 6,000 place settings a month. She called me on a recent Sunday evening to say how much she valued that article, an interview I had written 30 years ago as a reporter. We’d had no contact since.

“And what are you doing now?” I ask casually, launching a conversation that continues a few days later in the blue schoolhouse in Deadwood.

I think it takes courage getting older,

and I pray for courage

“I think it takes courage getting older, and I pray for courage,” she says as we sit together on the sofa. “The time is heavy. I don’t feel like drawing anymore. I don’t feel like quilting anymore. And I feel overwhelmed with stuff.”

Looking back on life is more comfortable than looking forward these days. She lingers on memories of her parents and on the influence a Mennonite upbringing has had in shaping her life.

“I am very thankful for my prayerful, peaceful background,” she says. “I have never strayed from that.” Everyday, she prays that she will find life meaningful. She asks to feel joy in the joy of others when her own life seems to offer little.

“I think what I try to do is accept the mystery,” she says. “The whole thing is a mystery. I am trying to go through one day at a time with love and light in my heart. I don’t want to be cynical. It’s the mystery i want to keep appreciating.”

The only art that feeds her spirit now is the homely art of patching—prolonging the life of old, beloved things. There are the favorite work shirts she is repairing for a neighbor. Dresses worn by her daughter.

The metaphor intrigues me, I say, this piecing things together. Humble arts that create order, beauty and utility from the remains of a lifetime, Extending the usefulness of old, cherished things.

She nods in understanding.

“Yes. That’s one thing I’m still doing. Patching and helping other people with quilts. And I’m connecting now. Connecting with people. That is my work now. That is why I called you.”

Carolyn Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer.

Contact her at

Not the Retiring Type

by Carolyn Kortge

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