She was born Lee Erika Lellep in Dessau, Germany, on Sept. 18, 1930. Our mom immigrated to the U.S. at the age of eight on the last boat out of Genoa, just as Italy’s ports were closing at the advent of World War II. She imprinted on us her vivid memory of standing on the deck of the crowded ship holding her little sister Renate’s hand as the Statue of Liberty came into view.
As it did, every passenger, including themselves broke into cheers, knowing they had made it to the best country in the world.
Raised in Berkeley, California, Lee moved to the Midwest to attend the University of Wisconsin, where she met her future husband, the anthropologist Robert Maher. They married Jan. 7, 1957. A few years later the young couple traveled with two young children (both in cloth diapers!) across the world to the Philippines for a year of field research. Lee embraced this adventure, happily living in a thatched hut, without electricity or running water.
They then returned to the U.S. and made their home in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where they raised four children in all. Robert passed in 1987. In 2009 Lee moved to Moab to live near her youngest child, Eve Maher-Young.
With a passion for nature, theater, gardening, NPR, travel, rock climbing, cats, Brussels sprouts, hiking, and bluegrass music, Lee rose early (very!) each day with an enviable energy. A stranger to shyness, she spoke her thoughts and was always courageously opinionated, teaching her children to reach for fairness, prize justice, and stand their ground when needed.
And she taught us to live fully in the details of life. Eve recalls how, from early on, Lee showed her the importance of growing brilliant morning glories along a fence that only a few people would see, taught her how to dig to the back of the bush to find the best blueberries on a hot summer day, and how heavenly running into Lake Michigan felt after picking many buckets of those berries. She dragged us all to every single solitary museum and theatre in southwest Michigan, instilling in us an aversion to snobby artifice, as well as a deep appreciation for creativity and beauty.
Spiritually agnostic, she didn’t have much use for formal religion, but brought her kids to more than a few churches, to settle into balcony pews and soak in the sounds of the organ, and the light through the stained glass. She also knew, somehow — or figured out on the job — how to tend to people as they died, caring for her husband, Bob, then oldest son Kevin, in her home when cancer claimed each of them.
Thirteen years ago she sent Eve an article about dementia, with the parts pertinent to her underlined. Nine years ago, of her own accord, understanding she was going to need some help with the time ahead, she left her home of 50 years in Kalamazoo to move into a cozy trailer next door to Eve in Moab.
Her journey into the jungle of dementia went deep in her last years, actualizing the fear we all have of losing our self, and becoming completely dependent on others. Thankfully and mercifully, as her memory went, the separated moments of day-to-day life that became her new reality often showed themselves to her as funny, sweet, and even beautiful. She remained in her little home, the yard secured so she couldn’t wander away, with amazing caretakers that visited her every day. And as the lines between memory, other people’s reality, and what was on TV at that moment blurred, she didn’t find it terrifying, but instead, pretty OK.
On the Christmas before she died, son Mickle (who she no longer recognized) asked her straight, “Are you happy?” “Oh, yes, yes,” she answered, without hesitation.
Preceded in death by her eldest son Kevin and her husband, she is survived by three children, Mark, Mickle, and Eve; Mickle’s wife, Jean Keleher, Eve’s husband Steve Maher-Young; her sister Renate Fernandez and Renate’s husband Jim; and her four grandchildren — Tom, Zane, Talulah, and Lili.