A Life Well-Lived – Joanna Ratliff Ballou, My Mother, 1920-2010
After a brief illness, my mother died January 22, 2010. She was one of a kind. So full of life, plans, and energy that it seems unimaginable that she’s gone. She was our “Mimi.”
She was born in Oklahoma City and went to college in California about the same time as “Grapes of Wrath” was published. Determined not to be identified as an “Okie,” she evaded questions about her origin – until the moment she realized that every time she opened her mouth, her accent gave her away. And while life took her many places, she never forgot grits, hominy, and a strange tamale pie recipe using IXL canned tamales.
When she met my father in Los Angeles at a gathering of folks from Virginia (her father’s home state), she thought he was quite stiff. Unlike her college-boy suitors, George Ballou had already worked his way through college and business school. Well, he grew on her and they married in 1942. Upon her arrival with hat boxes and shoes to move into his bachelor apartment, it turned out that the only place for his clothes was behind the Murphy bed. My father found another apartment the next week.
My father’s career took them to Washington, DC, San Francisco, New York, and back to San Francisco. Those were the home bases – travel, civic and international affairs were their shared passions. Europe, the Middle East, Asia – wherever there was something to see you would find them. After his death in 1994, she continued on the move.
An indefatigable world-wide traveler, my mother welcomed the new millennium at Angkor Wat and recently finished a tour of the California missions and the Alaskan Inland Passage. She never tired of learning new things and meeting new people. A great gift was her ability to enjoy anything from a symphony to a crossword puzzle. When lecturers called on the small woman in the front row, they were often startled by the background she brought to her questions.
Traveling on trade missions and study tours, people learned quickly to follow my mother. Wherever she found herself – among the Uighars or the Masai, in a souk or a bazaar in Montenegro, Mimi identified the most wonderful items to acquire. She lived surrounded by treasures she had brought home, promising my father in the early days of international air travel that “she’d hold it on her lap.” Who doesn’t need date baskets from Hofuf?
My mother was an active volunteer in Bronxville, NY, where they lived from 1949 to 1959. After their move to San Francisco, she launched into 50 years of service with civic and nonprofit organizations, serving on the boards of the Volunteer Auxiliary of the Youth Guidance Center, Edgewood, the World Affairs Council, the International Institute, Nob Hill Association, the St. Francis Hospital Foundation and the International Diplomacy Council, among others, as well as two terms on the San Francisco Juvenile Justice Commission.
Mimi’s energy and creativity in entertaining and fundraising were legendary. She reveled in the details of food and decoration, all done with a subtlety that made it seem effortless. Only those of us who lived with her and were drafted into her service saw the lists that had lists and the down to the quarter-hour timetables. When the moment came, she was simply delighted to see the guests.
Her family was her delight and pride. She was fierce in her loyalty to her small tribe of daughters, grandchildren, and greats. And an unfailing friend to many.
All of this tells you so little about a woman who loomed so large in the lives of those around her. Her death for us is though a continent had disappeared. But the continent hasn’t disappeared, she is simply obscured by the fog that separates the living from the dead. And we will find our Mimi again.