by David Lewis, son, for for Peggy’s funeral 3 June 2005
Charlotte, Ruby and Peggy Conley
Catherine Elizabeth Conley was born in Salt Lake City, Utah on October 12, 1920 to Charlotte Meisel and Philip Conley. Her mother Charlotte and the entire Meisel family had immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1909 after joining the LDS church. At an early age, Charlotte decided that Catherine looked more like a “Peggy” and the new name stuck. It probably made sense given her older sister’s more playful name “Ruby.”
Without a father in the home, the burden and blessing of raising Peggy rested with Charlotte and Ruby. There is no doubt that the hardship of a sacrificing mother supporting a family during the depression played a large part in shaping mom’s gentle but resolute personality. Although they lived modestly, Charlotte gave the girls all the love any child could want and imparted much of her German heritage to Ruby and Peggy by making Pfefferneuse and Streussel treats on special holidays and taking trips up the canyons to walk in the woods or sit by the creek.
Charlotte and her two daughters moved to Los Angeles in the Fall of 1927, living with relatives or renting homes until Charlotte’s salary as a seamstress enabled them to buy their first home in the Wilshire area in 1935. Not much is written about mom’s early teenage years, but we do know that her good looks and “sweet” personality soon attracted the attention of many boys at Los Angeles Polytechnic High School. Several boys noted in her yearbook that although they enjoyed their friendship with Peggy, they wished they could have been “closer” friends. Even though we have an image of Peggy as a terribly shy woman, her 1937 yearbook shows her as extremely popular and active. She was:
-member of the girls volleyball and field hockey teams;
-one of the lead actresses in a school play;
-VP of the Kelita Klub; and
-a member of the Girls Advisory Board and Athenians.
By early 1941, dad had met mom and, after a couple of weeks of intense dating, asked to marry her. Mom’s response was typical: “Don’t Rush Me.” It seems she had a boyfriend who was attending Harvard Business School and would be home in June. Dad’s spirits were dampened but far from crushed, as rolled up his sleeves and dated her virtually non-stop through the spring and summer. To make a long story short, dad won the battle and John and Peggy were married in the Logan LDS temple on August 8, 1941.
While historians tell us the BABY BOOM lasted after WWII from 1946 to 1964, mom began her own BOOM in 1942 with the birth of Christine. Then Kathryn in 1944, followed by Roberta in 1946, Bonny in 1948, John in 1954, Barbara in 1956, Jeff in 1960, and twins David and Diana in 1963.
As mom noted later: “The war influenced everything the first five or six years of our marriage.” By the summer of 1945, Dad was carrying 11 draft cards in his wallet. Each time he was drafted, his employer, Lockheed, would get a deferment. He figured the only way he could get his military service behind him was to quit Lockheed, which he did. Fortunately for him and the family, it was on August 14, 1945, the eve of Japan’s surrender, and Dad was able to reunite with his anxious, 5-month pregnant Peggy and their two little girls after only a 26-hour stint with the Army.
Mom and Dad have wonderful memories of the period after the war—helping to build the Studio City Ward, gathering with friends in a monthly “dinner group,” and taking a long vacation in 1949 to Yosemite and British Columbia. Peggy’s mother Charlotte had joined them for the trip, and loved sliding down the slopes of Mount Rainier on a sheet of cardboard.
It must have been devastating to Peggy when Charlotte was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer at the end of 1950. For the final three or four months of their mother’s life, Peggy and Ruby were able to nurse their mother, returning the same tender care and devotion that Charlotte had shown them. Not surprisingly, it was Peggy’s portion from Charlotte’s modest estate that enabled John and Peggy to purchase a one-acre lot in Mesa, Arizona, where the family moved in the Fall of 1951.
The twelve years in Arizona were marked by citrus trees, great friends and, of course, more babies. Mom served in numerous church callings in the Relief Society (including something called “Cultural Refinement”), but really seemed to enjoy callings that involved music. Mom also made sure to bring the “dinner group” concept from California to Arizona, spending countless evening hours enjoying the company of the Wrights, Gardeners, and other young couples. She also sang in a trio with Betty Merrill and Jean Wright.
After spending two weeks sleeping in a rocking chair, mom gave birth to a very large set of twins (16.5 lbs) on March 19, 1963, signaling the official end of mom’s 21-year BABY BOOM. With such a large family and three girls attending BYU, John and Peggy decided to move back to California where dad could earn more money. A few months later, John, Peggy and their 9 children packed into a station wagon and moved into a four-bedroom house in Sepulveda. The cramped quarters and another job change forced a move in 1966 to Hacienda Heights. It was here mom and dad hosted three wedding receptions for Christine (who married Bill Owens in 1968), Kathryn (who married Tom Kimmel in 1971), and Bonny (who married Gary Lassen in 1972).
While John and Peggy went through their share of tragedies and setbacks during this time, including a tragic auto accident involving Roberta and a house fire, the Lewises were privileged to associated with some of the best friends on earth, including several who are here today. Mom was always the driving force behind family trips to the beach, and was concerned about skin cancer long before it was fashionable—applying a nauseating amount of Zinc Oxide to the younger kids’ noses as soon as the beach umbrella was staked in the ground.
Another job change sent the family to Fountain Valley in 1972, followed by a move to Salt Lake City in 1976. Mom made it quite clear to dad that she was not going to move again as she began landscaping the sloped terrain of the house at Brighton Point. Although mom hated giving talks in Sacrament meeting, she was able to manage four more as she sent her three sons and Barbara on missions. Mom’s weekly letters, written on a 1950-vintage typewriter or in her beautiful handwriting, were priceless. Mom again found a close collection of wonderful friends in this neighborhood. It was at this house where mom and dad gave away their youngest children in marriage: Barbara to Lowell Camp in 1980, David to Celeste Rose in 1986, Jeff to Kathleen McKay in 1989, Diana to Tak Wakimoto in 1990, and John to Ann Laemmlen, also in 1990.
When mom was the victim of a very serious blood clot in her lungs in 1983 (spending 19 days in the hospital) and breast cancer in 1989, she said: “Don’t Rush Me” and her body agreed. Following their service as guides at the Jordan River Temple in 1985-86, mom and dad were proud to serve a one-year mission to Nauvoo, Illinois in 1988-89. Dad was the accountant, and mom’s job was family history research on the early Saints who settled in the Nauvoo area from 1836-1847, enabling visitors to obtain this information and, in some cases, direct them to their ancestors’ land.
Mom also loved to travel, and would recount in great detail her trips to visit children and grandchildren located in Chicago, Phoenix, Cleveland, Texas, Virginia, Japan, Minnesota, Vashon Island (Washington), and California. She also felt herself fortunate to have been to Hawaii and the Caribbean. Old joke about how fish and house guests began to smell after 3 days—not mom. Shattering the myth about mothers-in-law, her 2-week visits after the birth of a baby were always too short, and some of us would beg her to stay longer so we could bask in the peaceful setting she always created. After she and dad began wintering in Arizona, mom settled into a daily routine that included plenty of gardening, reading, and watching news/sports. If you wanted to give her a gift on her birthday or Mother’s Day, you would be wise to get a plant or gift certificate to Red Lobster.
The greatest hardship mom had to endure was the passing of her daughters Bonny and Kathryn to cancer in 1999 and 2001. Mom was extremely private with her emotions but told me once that it “just breaks my heart” to say goodbye to them. Only 10 months after Kathryn’s death, mom’s heart was broken again as she bid farewell to dad, whom she cared for as best she could during the last 2 years of his life when he suffered from mental illness. Thankfully, mom had the companionship of Roberta and the never-ending compassion of John and Ann next door to keep her going strong until the very end.
*Don’t want to end on a sad note, because our memory of mom demands happiness and laughter. Indeed, it demands a tour of one of her homes to give us a better idea of the person she was:
Tour of home: Welcome to Peggy’s home. As you move up the front walkway, you’ll notice the door is open with a screen door in its place to take advantage of breezes in the mornings and evenings. Even though mom and dad had central AC, they never really believed in it. Once inside, you’ll see a well used piano in the living room, and possibly a guitar leaning against the wall—instruments that confirm mom’s passion for music and the spirit it creates in the home. The living room was the scene of several conflicts—battles over the remote control, friction between dad wanting the kids to tear apart the wrapping over the presents on Christmas Day, while mom somehow managed to preserve and recycle box, ribbon and wrapping paper.
As you enter the dining room, instead of china on the table you’re likely to see a puzzle in progress or sewing machine on it, with patterns scattered here and there, and a large wooden yardstick leaning against the wall (had more uses than simply measuring). The dining room was often the focal point for large holiday gatherings (for the adults); children banished to the kitchen table. Upon entering the kitchen, our attention is immediately drawn to the cupboard, where mom stored the most boring cereal products like Nabisco Shredded Wheat, Rice Chex, and Cheerios. She was well aware of the connection between sugar and rambunctious kids. If company was coming over, you’d find a pot of soup on the stove and mom would probably just “throw a cake in the oven.” If you’re hungry for something in the fridge, don’t make the mistake of holding the door open too long or you’re certain to be chastized (after she calls out every child’s name before landing on yours).
Decorating the walls of the adjacent breakfast nook were two “Paint By the Numbers” paintings that mom had done years earlier, as well as a complete, A-Z set of the 1957 World Book Encyclopedia—chances are good that mom would be reading one of the books in her spare time. In fact, one of the few geography debates I ever won against mom was when I finally convinced her that she was applying her knowledge of a 1957 map against my updated sources. Walking down the hallway toward the bedrooms, you would find dozens of framed photographs of her children and grandchildren. The furniture, carpet and wallpaper throughout the house would be well worn, another testament to her frugality. Going down to the basement, you would find many beds and artifacts from distant periods of time, as well as unsolicited woodworking projects completed by dad. But the discovery that you would find most remarkable is the boxes upon boxes of fabric and sewing patterns. Mom was unable to discard the smallest scrap—just this morning, I found this “Mr. Goodbar” hidden in a box of fabrics in the Orem farmhouse. I’ve also recently come across addressed (but never sent) envelopes from 1998 which enclose newspaper articles of interest to me.
Stepping outside from the back door, you would notice several large pine trees, Aspens, and broad collection of daylillies, tulips, snapdragons, roses, peonies, and delphinium. While mom allowed John to help her design railroad-tie steps, and let me dig large holes for her trees, Jeff was the only son she trusted with transplanting her daylillies.
The sun’s going down quickly now, and we’d better get back to the house, where family and friends have begun arriving to celebrate a birthday, holiday, or any excuse to get together and laugh. As we walk up the flagstone steps leading to the back porch, we see mom and dad relaxing in their swinging lounge chair, enjoying the sunset and admiring their colorful surroundings. We smile because we see that mom has persuaded dad to slow down and take in the beauty around him. While we ache to be with them as they enjoy some well deserved rest from their earthly labors, we take comfort in knowing they are together with other loved ones, and that we best honor their memory by caring for our own families and living Christ-centered lives.
When Chris recently asked mom what was the “most important lesson or advice you have learned that you might pass on to others,” mom replied:
Take your time making decisions. Consider all the angles. Stay close to good people, whose example will be good for you.
I am grateful for the privilege I had of staying close to a good person like Peggy Lewis, whose example will remain with me forever.