The year is ending and there’s a loss I haven’t faced. On August 6, Elizabeth Connor Von Eschen died after a two-year struggle with tongue cancer. I’d known Liz since I was a child. Her son, Mark, and daughter, Kristin, grew up alongside my brother, Brett, and I as we met every summer on the south shore of Lake Superior, near the town of Ontonagon, Michigan. Liz was one of “the Lake people”: a circle of families connected to Beloit, Wisconsin, and reconnected in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Liz’s father-in-law, Clarence (aka Von), introduced my parents to the area in 1968, when my dad came to teach at Beloit College, in the education department chaired by Von. Von was a mentor to my father, and over the decades, Liz became the older female figure I knew best, and saw most regularly, besides my own mother — more than my actual aunts, or neighbors, as my family separated and left Beloit. But Brett and I always come back to the Lake. And Liz and her family were one of the main attractions.
Liz was the most amazing conversationalist. She loved literature, music, art, and nature and was deeply committed to social action and progressive politics. Educated at Wesleyan in Ohio, she didn’t work outside the home, as the saying goes, but she never seemed trapped in some Virginia Woolf dead end. As her husband, Don, put it in a beautiful remembrance he wrote, “She invested her time to support and perpetuate the network of voluntary associations so essential for vitalizing our formal democracy, and to engage heavily in political action.” Her mind and her heart were lively and relentless, her life active and engaged. All the Von Eschens were that way: social and intellectual, thinkers and drinkers. It was one of my favorite parts of the summer, when we’d meet on the beach to catch up on family events from the past year — and talk about the news of the world. Liz would be in her lounge chair, smoking a cigarette, sipping a drink, and smiling wryly at the latest doings of George W. Bush — or of her three grandchildren, playing alongside my son in the sand. Our families were adding generations to the Lake people, generations that would hopefully be as committed to thought and action.
Liz and Don lived in Montreal, in a beautiful old house. But she loved the Lake. A few years ago, they finally expanded the ramshackle cabin Von had built, to hold their growing family. They planned to spend more time there, once Don retired from McGill University. Don did retire, but Liz only lived a few months longer, getting one last chance to visit the UP in May. Dad and Brett saw her then, but I couldn’t make it. I hoped that she and her family would be there again in July, the time of year we usually — since 1968 — converged on Superior shores. But Liz was too ill. Instead I got the news of her death while in Wyoming, on our drive from Michigan to California.
The morning Liz died I mailed her a letter with some gifts from the Lake: birchbark, agate, driftwood. Maybe they met in the air. I don’t really believe in such things, but it’s a comforting scene to imagine.
I can hardly envision going to the Lake without Liz there. Who will wisely smile and offer comforting advice with a hint of irony about my new life in academia, a life she knew so well? Who will ask Cole what books he’s been reading, or how his pets are doing? Liz loved animals. She and Don adopted and raised an Irish setter my family had found wandering the beach, a great, loving, loyal dog. I don’t believe in such things, but in my heart, Liz and Tara are walking the lakeshore together, collecting rocks and watching the sun set over the Porcupine Mountains.