A Great Turtle Mother

She would never answer to matriarch, but that she has been

As the keynote speaker for this year’s (virtual) presentation of Rowland Publishing’s Pinnacle Awards to women of consequence in Northwest Florida, Lisa Walters, general counsel and senior vice president at The St. Joe Company, said there are only two things that her parents ever specifically forbade her to do.

Fixing a tire was one. Too dangerous. Vehicle might fall on you. The other was jumping out of a plane while clinging to an Army ranger. The notion was dismissed as absurd on its face.

The mention by Lisa of parachuting caused me to think about my mother-in-law, who for many years said that it was something she wanted to try. She may have said likewise about running with the bulls in Pamplona or swimming with sharks or swimming with bulls in the Rio Grande, but it is the skydiving comment that stands out for me. I thought about her, too, when I found her name written inside the cover of a book, The Wilderness Coast, written by naturalist, entrepreneur and author Jack Rudloe of Panacea. I had consulted the book looking to find a fact about the world’s largest isopod or some such.

Margaret Ann Wischmeier has been hanging around the front of my mind because she is about to turn 90. Awarenesses lead to “coincidences,” you know. Of late, her daughters have been making plans for a birthday celebration, which will take place on St. George Island. Her five children and their spouses will be there. It will fall to me to shuck oysters for her, shellfish from Louisiana or Cedar Key, probably. Who would have thought she’d live long enough to see the suspension of natural oystering in Apalachicola Bay?

Born a Ritter, Marg, as she is known to all who have met her even once, grew up on a farm in windswept Sac City, Iowa. Her father, Charles Ritter, grew corn. He was as solid and about as stolid as a silo, and his hands were big enough to surround a John Deere carburetor and then crush it. His wife, Melva, was a mother, homemaker and pragmatist who cooked without seasonings, but who demonstrated an unexpected capacity for personal evolution. She never became a Democrat, but she got around to embracing moderate Republicans, back when there was such a thing.

From that sepia background, Marg emerged as an entertainer. Never could she sing or dance, really, not that that prevented her from trying. She has thrived not on her talents, but her nature and energy. She always has been spirited and interested, and that has made her interesting and engaging. She is short on one end, as she likes to say, but I will think of her forever as someone whose zest for zest was inconsumable.

She is a sun, a center, a chronicler, planner, organizer and one who brings about gatherings that no invitee fails to attend. Her excesses are easily forgiven. She prepares too much food, she buys too many gifts, she insists on too much forced family fun.

For decades, her family — grown now to include grandchildren and great-grandchildren, so many that two of them are named Miles — has come together at lakeshores and the Gulf front and, once, at the Iowa home where Marg and her late husband, Dick, raised two girls and three boys.

On the island, we will gather “one more time,” as we have said many times, and we will marvel at the sand and water and later repair to card tables to play gin and Hand & Foot, and someone is sure to bark, “Where are we hung up?” when a player studies his options too long, and someone will complain about the quality of store-bought tomatoes, and we will weep at the memory of Dick, a small businessman and fine golfer who admonished me 200 times, “Let the club do the work,” but his advice never took.

And we will raise a glass to Marg, who in the parlance of Rudloe, is a “great turtle mother” — not the one who causes the sea to bring forth abundant life, but one who birthed a family and kept it together all these years, a trick about as rare nowadays as a Junonia shell.