September 27, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Mrs. Townsend

By |2018-03-21T19:06:24+01:00June 21st, 2015|Area 51|
Marjorie Rhodes Townsend (1930-2015) was a NASA rocket scientist and a Washington, D.C. mother to "five."

n the Baptist faith they call it “to testify.” It is the act of coming forward in homage. That is what I am here to do. To testify. And to remember.

I was once as I still am a shy boy, and that shy boy met a thankfully less shy boy in late summer 1965, on the first day of the first year of junior high school. That boy’s name was Lewis Townsend. He became my friend. He remains my friend. My closest friend.

It was this boy who took me home to meet his mother that same year. She was Mrs. Townsend, Marjorie Rhodes Townsend, though to a boy of that age and in that generation the idea that a mother might have a given name — Margie — was then too daunting for an outsider to imagine.

Mrs. Marjorie Townsend also made it difficult to imagine the idea of a casual relationship. She was, at first glance, a tiny woman of steely resolve who knew what she wanted and ruled over her nest of boys, and men, like a benevolent tyrant. She had a sweet and caring housekeeper, Hattie, in the best tradition of such housekeepers, and a largely distracted husband, Chuck, to me Dr. Townsend.

I lived with my much older father a few miles from Lewis’ home. They were not easy times. Lewis allowed me to borrow his nest, his home, his lair, his family.

But it was Mrs. Townsend who sanctioned this arrangement. She and my father conspired to allow me to spend many nights at the Townsend home, with Lewis, with Chet, with John, with Richard. We played touch football on the badly asphalted street. We watched the moon landing together in 1969, with Mrs. Townsend providing running commentary.

I joined the Boy Scouts to be closer to my friend Lewis but it was his mother Mrs. Townsend who announced to me she expected me to achieve the rank of Eagle Scout. You did not face an enterprise, any enterprise, without attempting in good faith to rise to the top. This was your duty yourself.

I believed her.

I was terrified of her.

I respected her.

I saw in her a female figure the likes of which I had never seen before: ferociously driven while also maternal, someone driven to imbue her boys with her own vision of survival instinct and ambition. In those days she showed little of the luscious maternal love sentimentalized in films. But she was no less a mother, and more importantly, no less someone feisty boys could look up to, for better or worse.

I spent five fundamental years in her “keep,” so to speak. In those years my father grew sick. She maintained my morale by refusing to capitulate to coddling overprotection. Life required conquering, she insisted. It was not easy. This was what is now called tough love before such a phrase existed.

Tough it was, but it was also love.

I became an Eagle Scout and she stood up for, and with me.

We spoke only intermittently over decades. Her work in Italy saw to it she befriended my mother, and the two became unlikely chatting companions in Rome, perhaps comparing their complex life notes.

Years later, after my mother’s death, Mrs. Townsend met a girlfriend of mine and immediately took to her. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I should marry this woman and procreate. “For the sake of the gene pool,” she said. She was not joking. She was a scientist. She also believed in families. I was single, as I remain. This did not compute. She tried swaying me. I was moved. I testify to that.

Two years before her death I had a chance to speak to her at length in a room at Lewis’ home. She had mellowed. She reminisced. She spoke lovingly of her husband, “an amazing man.” I had not heard such words before. She spoke of Hattie. Her speech was gracious, loving, emotional. She said, “I know now that I may not have been the best but I sure tried hard.”

Mrs. Townsend had become Margie.

So it was that I met Margie, finally, some 50 years later, and I liked her. I liked her very much in fact. I told her as much.

That is when she stopped my in my tracks with a simple remark whose telemetry was true. “You know, Chris, I always saw you as my fifth son. You could be headstrong. So could Lewis. But you were good for Lewis and he was good for you.”

And, I testify, she was good for us, and for many others.

I am not a religious man but I do adhere to eloquence. The apostle John, speaking of those who testified to others on behalf of Christ, said: “We write this to make our joy complete.”

We learn over time that joy can also contain sadness.

But we also learn that sadness is part of completion. So is remembering. And we all take heart.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.