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Women of Many Faces

Introducing Mary Ann Jung; Remembering Valerie Lester

Valerie Lester 1939-2019

In this week’s packed paper, you’ll read about Mary Ann Jung, a woman of many faces. I won’t say introduce, because you’ve likely already met her. Actress Jung impersonates her history-making women far and wide. You might have seen her — and them — live in festivals, schools, libraries, museums, senior centers, conferences as well as in in-between stops at, say, the grocery or mall. Next week, she introduces a new character, Irish Pirate Queen Captain Grace O’ Malley at a Chatauqua event at Severn Library.
    I won’t tell you any more of Jung’s first person story, for I don’t want to steal her thunder or deprive you of the pleasure of reading her words for youself.
    It’s another woman of many faces I’ll introduce here. For some of you, it will be a re-introduction. Valerie Lester made her presence known with us in many ways during the years she and husband Jim lived in Annapolis Roads. Among those ways was as a Bay Weekly contributing writer, a role in which she flashed a new face in each appearance.
    If you watched the Annapolis Fourth of July parade during the last decade of the last century and the first of this century, you saw Val. She strutted and sweated in the parade along with instructor Lisa Malone’s Jazzercise class.
    “It is so much fun to dance down Main Street,” said Val, who called herself one of the Jazzercise group’s older members, interviewed for our 2002 feature Everybody Loves a Parade.
    “There’s no traffic, and you’ve got this great view from the top looking out over the water. Even in the rain it’s fun. In fact, it’s even better, because you’re cool.”
    I got to know the Val of another face, as we were drawn together by our love of words and stories. If memory serves me, we got together over her second book, Phiz, the Man Who Drew Dickens. Phiz — formally Hablot Knight Browne — was for 23 years the illustrator who brought Charles Dickens’ words to life. He was also Valerie Browne Lester’s great-great-grandfather, and dutifully and enthusiastically, she devoted eight years to bringing him back to life in her biography.
    Our July 2006 story introduced Phiz and Val the sleuth to Bay Weekly readers (www.tinyurl.com/Phiz-Val). But readers back then already knew her in the many other faces she revealed as a Bay Weekly contributing writer.
    A great listener, Val loved other people’s stories as much as her own. So I assigned her fascinating characters. One was astrophysicist Peter Perry of Harwood, who she introduced in the story Yes, It’s Rocket Science (www.tinyurl.com/yxm4ual2). Another was midshipman Stephanie Hoffman of the class of 2005, herself a woman of many faces. We chose her to profile because both Val and I had seen her extraordinary portrayal of Lady MacBeth in the Naval Academy Masqueraders’s steamy production
(www.tinyurl.com/y2qskf8m). When Val interviewed Stephanie, she was training as a Navy flyer.
    Val had her own flight stories to tell. She combined her experience as a Pan Am flight attendant in the early 1960s with her usual thoroughgoing research to write Fasten Your Seat Belts! History and Heroism in the Pan Am Cabin. But her interest in flight began in utero, she wrote and shaped her life, both broadly and specifically.
    England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland are island nations. The vast waters around them seem to call and certain of those islanders — or so I have observed — to leap into the wider world. Val’s parents were of that sort. She grew up in Jamaica, went to boarding school in England, signed on to fly internationally and traveled and lived comfortably around the world for the rest of her life. After she left Annapolis in 2009, we in her worldwide network of friends would hear from her in Italy, England, Singapore — who knew where.
    Val as the intrepid world traveler fascinated me — and occasionally set off spikes of envy — as I sat year after year at my same desk, producing issue after issue of the same paper. She was, I think, at home any place in the world.
    The specific consequence of her flight years was her husband. She met James Lester in the air, working his return flight from Mount Everest, where he’d talked his way into Base Camp as the first psychologist interacting on site with climbers.
    Encountering the Lesters in Annapolis, where they’d decided on something of a lark to retire after raising two children and living years in D.C., I couldn’t tell who to be more impressed with, Val or Jim. Like me a native St. Louisan, Jim had broken out into the wider world in ways as spectacular as his wife’s. He was also an author. As a psychologist, he’d worked with Timothy Leary about whom, late in life, he wrote a book. A musician as well, Jim had also had to his credit the Oxford University Press book Too Marvelous for Words: The Life & Genius of Art Tatum.
    I never could get Jim to write for Bay Weekly, but I ranked Val quite the catch.
    When Val decided to translate the French novel Le Grand Meaulnes as her third book and she became too busy for Bay Weekly features, she continued offering us shorts and reflections revealing many more of her faces.
    She might write in praise of local garden clubs (www.tinyurl.com/gardenclubs).
    Or in praise of kale, as in “The other day, I dashed into the supermarket and came to a screeching halt in front of the most dazzling display of kale …” (www.tinyurl.com/in-praise-of-kale)
    She might tell a ghost story in poetry (www.tinyurl.com/y4o67jtw).
    Complain about the foxes digging up her garden (www.tinyurl.com/fox-digging).
    Or describe the heroism of a young neighbor who’d snatched her Chihuahua from the claws of an eagle (www.tinyurl.com/snatched-Chihuahua).
    My favorite of her paeans to daily life stretched me far beyond my daily life. It was a little contribution to a What We Want for Christimas story, titled To Knit the Raveled Sheeve of Care (www.tinyurl.com/BW-christmas-2005).
    Val left Annapolis, with Jim, when ALS began to take away his independence. They had less than one more year together.
    Then Val took flight again, revealing many more faces as she delighted in life and created three more books each one so particular that no one but she could have imagined them: biographies of the type-designer Bodani, the botanist Clarence Bicknell and a historical novel, The West Indian.
    She came to the end of her many travels on June 7 in Hingham, Mass. Her children were at her side.
    With her death, the world is duller and many hearts heavier.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher
[email protected], www.sandraolivettimartin.com


To Knit the Raveled Sheeve of Care

by Valerie Lester
bayweekly.com/old-site/year05/issuexiii50/leadxiii50_1.html

 

Links. Not sausage links. Not golf links. But links between people and places. I’ll tell you a story that illustrates what I mean.
    Recently, in the face of the enormity of the earthquake that struck Pakistan, Kashmir and northern India, with all the force of a nuclear explosion, I felt wretchedly impotent. What can a person do in the face of such horror? Send money, of course, and I intended to do that. But I became obsessed with the idea of actually participating in the effort to help.
    Reason, of course, intervened. A 66-year-old woman flying to Islamabad with packets of food and clothes tucked into bags and the interstices of her coat, demanding to be taken to the epicenter, might not exactly be General Musharraf’s idea of aid. But with a harsh winter approaching in the mountains of the region, the idea of contributing something real was persistent.
    Eventually, I dug out my bag of yarn and started crocheting a scarf of many colors. Shortly thereafter, I set off on a trip to England and crocheted my way across the Atlantic. (My crochet hook is short and discreet. It’s made of aluminum and doesn’t set off airport security alarms the way knitting needles sometimes do.)
    I finished the scarf in Shaftesbury (which is a lovely town in Thomas Hardy’s Dorset countryside). There’s an Oxfam shop on the main street, and I took my scarf there. The shop is staffed by delightful, very elderly ladies, who do a brisk trade in second-hand goods and holiday cards. Taking pride of place in the center of the counter was a collection box whose label announced Earthquake Appeal. Yes! I stuffed some money into it (priming the pump, as it were, for the reception of my somewhat dubious gift), then produced my somewhat raffish scarf, asking the ladies if there was a way to send it to the earthquake victims. They didn’t laugh, bless them.
    “Will Afghanistan do?” they asked. “Some volunteers are putting together shoe boxes and shipping them there?”
    Afghanistan. It’s cold and miserable in the mountains there too, so even though it wasn’t my first choice, Kashmir, I agreed. Then I looked around the shop and bought several boxes of Christmas cards. On a whim I asked if they had any donations of yarn. They had a crateful. I dug through it and found a dozen balls of excellent navy wool.
    There’s a chain here: Someone donated leftover yarn, Oxfam accepted it, I bought it and am now nearly three feet into an enormous scarf.
    This time I’m going to make sure it gets to an earthquake victim in Kashmir. Does anyone know how I might? That will forge another link, and that is what I want for Christmas.