Remembering Emma Lou Thayne and Her Ability to Love
I will consider my life a success if I am able to master the talent that Emma Lou Thayne had to make people feel good about themselves. It must have been so second-nature to her that I, at first, didn’t realize that I felt better about myself every time I was able to talk with Emma Lou. I felt invigorated (she always had good advice for new directions and paths along with a willingness to help however she could) and happy (she had such great stories and a zen-like outlook on life). It took me some time to see that I felt these things because I felt her love.
She had this talent, an innate ability to love and cherish complete strangers so quickly, to make us feel like we would always be good friends. And, I feel blessed to have been one of the thousands to call her a friend.
I admired Emma Lou from afar for years when one day, I screwed up my courage to write her an email, asking if we could reprint something she had written for Exponent II. I was hoping for a quick “yes”—she’s a busy woman after all.
Instead though, I got a quick response with a generous “yes,” “was there anything else she could do to help Exponent II” and then, sincere questions about me. What was I doing? How many children did I have? What exciting projects was I working on at Exponent II?
I sweated over my response to her and tried to compose an articulate email in response to her kind questions. I had grown up reading my mother’s Exponent II copies and remembered in particular Emma Lou’s and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s East/West column. Though not much of a poetry fan, Emma Lou’s poetry spoke to me. Her essays opened my eyes; one of my favorites and not one I see mentioned often is “The Paintings, the Painter, and the Poet,” published in the Summer 1996 Exponent II on homosexuality, which talks about her friendship with a gay painter dying of AIDS. Other essays of her’s deepened my faith, like “Seeing without Seeing,” which talks about her experience seeing Helen Keller in the Tabernacle and musing on community means to her.
As they wrote their column, carried on successful careers, had thriving families while being active members of the Church, Emma Lou and Laurel were role models for me. In an age when women often eschewed technological competency, I took note that Emma Lou and Laurel composed their column by employing the most cutting-edge technological aid: the fax machine. (I only knew men who dared tackle that!)
Laurel’s and Emma Lou’s essays spoke to my soul when I felt lonely as a Democrat and a feminist in my Young Women’s classes. I was coming to the realization that perhaps it wasn’t so common to be a Democrat, a feminist and a Mormon. But, because I had those writings (and a family who shared my liberal leanings), I knew then without a doubt that I could hold all those identities.
After my initial introduction to Emma Lou via email, we would correspond occasionally. Her interest in me and the magazine always took me by surprise. In my more vain moments, I’ll admit that I thought I must be pretty special if Emma Lou took the time to email me.
I once was able to have lunch with her and my grandmother. Being in her presence made one feel even better than those emails did. She arrived at the restaurant she chose (Red Lobster) and was sad.
“My brother, Homer, passed away this morning.”
Unsure of what to do, my grandma and I said, of course, we could do this another time, and we were so sorry. Emma Lou said she’d still like to have lunch though.
That she would be so genuinely interested in my life and offer her assistance: “Well, what can I do for Exponent II?! What projects are you working on?! Aileen! We really must help these girls!” while mourning the loss of her last living brother, still so fresh, amazes me.
I’ve learned from other Mormon feminists from my generation that we all felt like we were pretty special because of Emma Lou. She took the time to meet and work with many of us, willing to give her time and generous abilities so freely that I sometimes forgot that she was THE Emma Lou Thayne, poet, author, and activist who I had imagined asking for an autograph. She was just my smart and thoughtful friend.
So, while I’m grateful that we have her writings (so many!) to remember her by, I am sad that we all won’t be able to bask in one of her best talents, the one of loving and cherishing complete strangers, of making each of us feel like her good friend.
I mourn with her family this week while also expressing my gratitude to them. Emma Lou touched so many of us, and I’m grateful to her husband, her daughters, and all her family for sharing her.
Please remember to enter our giveaway in celebration of Emma Lou’s life. All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir is one of my all-time favorite Mormon books, and we’re giving away three copies!