Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Voluntary Simplicity

Pardue Porch, Thousand Island Park, 2006

An old friend has been on my mind lately. I don’t know why. All I know is that she’s one of those people who comes into your life for a short time and leaves you changed.

During the mid-1980s Margaret Rdzak and I were presidents of local chapters of the American Marketing Association. Margaret’s chapter was in Madison, Wisconsin, mine here in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia.

For reasons that probably have more to do with us both being outspoken kinds of people rather than any organizational expertise, we both ended up on an international advisory council to the association. We came into office at a tough time in the association’s history. The members of our council, volunteers all, worked tirelessly. Margaret and I were among the few who were self-employed. It wasn’t unusual for us to exchange council e-mails at 3:00 a.m.

To call Margaret a feminist would be discounting her many talents. She had worked in health care administration at a time when women got little respect in that industry. She was a single parent for many years. She eventually hung out her own shingle as a consultant. By her early forties she had attained an enviable beauty and elegance. Her smile was one of the warmest I’ve ever known. By then she’d also found Al Chechik, the man who became the love of her life.

Margaret was an intelligent woman, a conscientious and proud mother and a tireless contributor to our council. Her biggest contribution to our lives, though, was her strong and unwavering values. She was a champion of social justice. In the course of our work together, she never allowed us to lower our standards or our expectations of each other. No one worked harder than Margaret and no one enjoyed a good laugh and a few sulfite-free classes of wine at the end of a long day more than Margaret. She was what my father would have called “a feisty gal.” And she loved it.

Margaret was the first person to introduce me to the concept of voluntary simplicity. She and Al lived an abundant life, but not one necessary full of things. They nurtured and launched Margaret’s daughter Rachel into her independent life. They spent part of their summers volunteering at the Gesundheit Institute, the rural community health program in West Virginia that was later the basis of the movie “Patch Adams.” Their plan was to retire early and open a bed & breakfast up on the eastern shore of Lake Superior.

Our work together on the marketing association council lasted several intense years. Members of such groups frequently lose touch when their work is done. Members of our group, though, had bonded tightly during that period of adversity and stayed in touch.

In the spring of 1997, some of the members of our old group decided to get together for a reunion in Atlanta. It was a great gathering. We fell into each other’s arms like long lost siblings. As the gathering was planned, we’d sent word around to anyone we thought might want to join us for a weekend of purely social fun. Spouses joined in, as did several members of the association staff.

A number of unsuccessful attempts were made to reach Margaret. We knew that she and Al had finally retired the year before and started building their B&B in the north woods of Wisconsin. It took a little sleuthing to track them down. When they were finally located, the first thing we found was Margaret’s obituary. After that came a sweet note from Al.

They had finished building what became known as Artesian House in Bayfield, Wisconsin, in the late spring of 1995 and welcomed their first guests in June. Just as they opened their doors, it was also discovered that Margaret had cancer. She passed away just four months later at the age of forty-nine. Al reported that Margaret's death was as dignified and independent as her life.

I don’t mean this to be a sad story. Margaret’s legacy is much more about living life well than it is about being maudlin about death. I think frequently about her admonition to consider a life of voluntary simplicity, to throw off the aspects of life that are unimportant and keep just the ones that really are important.

I suspect the memory of Margaret is especially sweet because she was such a brief physical presence in our lives. Some people are part of your life for the whole long slog and never become more than peripheral presences. If you’re lucky, you get a Margaret or two to keep you balanced.


  1. She sounds like she was a gem. 49 is way too young to be snuffed out.

  2. I'm not really sure what: "To call Margaret a feminist would be discounting her many talents," means.