Words of Remembrance, written by Todd Williams:
We are gathered today to pay tribute to Lee Williams. She was a loving and involved grandmother to Annabelle and Abby, a mother not only to my brother Mark and me but also to scores of our friends, a loving and patient wife to my father, Fred, a caring sister to all five of her siblings, an indulgent aunt to dozens of nieces and nephews, an impressively influential English teacher, an accomplished competitive sailor, and a strong leader in the many community organizations she served.
In short, she was a living institution – and a fierce one at that.
To start, let me paint you a picture of Lee during the past few months. On one of my last visits home, she asked me to join her for a walk around her beloved Craigville neighborhood. It was a cold winter day, and she stepped out bundled in a down jacket and sleek polarized sunglasses bedazzled with diamond speckled frames. She came equipped for the walk with her bright red XR-XC Urban Assault Walker, a portable O2 tank stowed in its front pouch. Despite the conditions, she was determined to put in some distance doing loops amongst the winding roads of the village. As I reached out to help ease the walker down the porch steps, she spurned my assistance. She then proceeded to heave up the Assault Walker herself, mutter a few salty words about the aging process, and then jockied the craft down the steps before somehow nailing a clean landing on the garden walkway.
With that, our adventure began. I followed mom as she took the Urban Assault Walker off-roading, navigating both a loosely graveled trail and undulating hills. As she summited the steepest hill in the neighborhood, she paused just long enough to engage the Assault Walker’s handbrake and whip out her O2 monitor for a quick check.
“86 percent,” she stated. “That’s better than this summer. Let’s go.” The hand brake came off, and back on course we went – straight into a punishing winter headwind at the front of the bluff and then downwind to home.
That kind of tenacity was representative of her most essential character. Or as my daughters put she was resilient “as all get go.” These characteristics defined her approach to life from early childhood.
As a young teen she would routinely swim from West Beach, around the mile long Hyannsiport breakwater, and then to the dock at the Hyannis Port Yacht Club. No amount of chop or current could dissuade her. Nor could the threat of predators. One day, the local harbormaster caught a sizable shark near the breakwater and left it hanging up on the dock in an effort to discourage mom from challenging the open ocean that lay beyond the safety of the rock wall barrier. She was not to be dissuaded.
This undefeatable spirit continued throughout her life. As a very petite young woman just out of a Masters Degree Program at Boston College, she landed a job teaching high school English at Millis High School just west of Dedham, MA. She needed to establish her “street cred” as a teacher immediately. So at the start of her first class, she enlisted the biggest male “Jock”(her words, not mine) and told him to go to the back of the room, pick up the stack of books, and hand one out to every student in the class. In her mind, this was the best way to make the “class muscle” her closest ally, and to let the rest of the class know where they stood from day one.
In the 80’s she took a teaching job at The Fay School, both a day and boarding school in Southboro, MA., our hometown. She held her students to very high standards of writing and insisted that they complete rigorous grammar lessons, but they loved her for that. She was a nurturing presence for all Fay students, and especially those boarding students who were far from home. I love the memories I have of those students always referring to her as “Ma’m,” not Mrs. Williams. When a student of hers would fail to perform to the best of their ability, she would challenge them to do better.
“Why are you turning this assignment in,” she’d ask. “You are so much better than this. You are so much smarter than this.” The student knew that Mom’s love sometimes came in the form of a nudge to do better.
As my brother and I grew up, our mother and father also shared their love of sailing Nantucket Sound. During our summers racing Beetle Cats around the Cape, Lee quickly became the de facto “Regatta Mom” to the other kids in the fleet. For those of you who don’t know, Nantucket Sound has a natural afternoon sea breeze pumping up to 15-20 knots every day. These are conditions that leave the most accomplished adult sailors with their hands full out on the sound. For kids, these conditions meant growing up quickly and learning to tame their sailing vessels under some pretty formidable conditions. I remember as a child walking down the dock to rig up our boats for the afternoon races. Looking out at the growing white caps, my brother, our friends, and I would immediately start scheming about how to persuade Mom that there was too much wind for us to race. My mother, like John Linnehan, her sailing mentor, would simply tell us to stop whining, get out there, and make sure we hiked our boats flat.
When I think about the gender barriers that my mom` faced as a strong woman coming of age in mid-century America, this strength seems even more remarkable.
After college, one of Mom’s greatest aspirations was to work for National Geographic. She applied and was told she was a strong candidate – until the hiring committee realized that Lee was short for Leonara and not Leonard. I think a lot of people would have felt defeated then. Instead, Mom just sought out other venues for adventure, accomplishment, and the opportunity to be of service. As my partner, Kate, remarked the other day, an entire generation of women found opportunities for themselves because mom was willing to push gender boundaries and shatter glass ceilings.
As mom entered what for many people might have been their leisure years, she continued to be a forceful presence in the sailboat racing community She took the helm of our family’s Wianno Senior and won the Ross Richard’s Memorial Cup in 1994. No matter the conditions, you could find her charging through the clogged and chaotic starts of those races, making tight mark roundings, and braving winds and weather that would leave even the strong of heart pleading to be taken back to shore. Again in my daughter’s parlance, She was a bad ass sailor chic.
During this time, she also served as the Hyannis Port Yacht Club’s first, and as of yet, only female Commodore. In that role, she was once tasked with welcoming the New York Yacht Club on one of their summer cruises, which brought hundreds of sailboats to the yacht club anchorage. They arrived one afternoon when the breeze had, of course, kicked up to over 25 knots and not even the locals were out on the water. I remember accompanying her to the NYC Commodore’s yacht that evening for cocktail hour as the visiting boats were in the harbor anchored rail to rail, pitching and swaying in the heavy onslaught of the breeze. We sat on the yacht’s upper deck, surveying the waves crashing over the breakwater. He and my mom engaged in polite “Commodorely” conversational exchange, each shouting to be heard over the force of the wind. He finally leaned over to my mom asking, “How concerned should we be about our anchors holding in this breeze?”
My mom’s response was simple: “They’ll hold as well as they were set.” And she left it at that.
As Commodore she also made sure Hyannis Port was an active hosting yacht club. She managed to simultaneously offer a warm welcome to visiting racers while also corralling (and sometimes cajoling) Yacht Club members, including Senator Kennedy and his occasionally unruly dog, Splash.
That same quiet leadership served her well as chair of the Craigville Conference Center board for years. In that role, she oversaw paving and sewerage projects. When the Town of Barnstable wanted to urbanize certain aspects of the village life, she led the charge to redefine Town ordinances so that cottage owners could continue to live the quiet, pastoral life that has defined Craigville since the early 1900s. She hung tough to her convictions, while also befriended paving crews who would offer her scallops they’d cooked on their pavers’ engine blocks.
My mom’s tenacious spirit has been incredible over the past two years, including dealing with COVID while my dad was slowly passing on to his next life in hospice, and her own trips in and out of the hospital. Throughout it all, she has been such a pillar of fierce determination and positivity, and I can only hope to role model a shred of those qualities for my daughters. What struck me most about my mom these past few years was the amazing relationship she had with my dad. After navigating their fair share of struggles, they forged what few of us could ever hope to achieve in a loving relationship with a partner. Many of you recall the story I recounted at my Dad’s service last year about the two of them facetiming each other while my mom was quarantined upstairs with COVID while my dad was downstairs in his hospice ward.
One night, shortly before my Dad passed, they were chatting on their phones from their separate wards of the house. My dad said to my mom in his weakened croaky voice, “Do you remember when we would sit together simply sailing out beyond the breakwater? I just wish we could do that one more time, but this time not turn back, just keep sailing out and on beyond the breakwater together forever.”
I pray that is where the two of them are right now, just like the image etched on their shared gravestone. Sitting together in their boat, sailing away together on whatever course they chose, heading to their own destination together, while leaving this mortal harbor behind.