A life of curiosity and adventure—and newfound love
Photo by Tim Porter
You would think the rather conservative-appearing lifestyle columnist for the local daily would be the epitome of provincialism. Now 83, she’s resided in Marin since the 1940s and, for almost three decades, she’s lived alone while raising a family.
“In 1946, after graduating in journalism from Stanford, I worked in Southern California for a while, then went to live in Paris,” says Marin Independent Journal columnist Beth Ashley, who recently retired after 40 years at the newspaper, 1,200 columns and hundreds of feature articles. “After Paris I went to Germany to work for a magazine. It was just after World War II and Berlin was still so bombed out it was amazing just to look at, let alone live there.”
Paris? Berlin? Those were only the beginnings of Ashley’s well-traveled life. In the early 1990s, she took two breaks from the I.J.— one to write for a Chinese newspaper and live for a year in Beijing, another to write for a Russian publication and live in Moscow. In recent years she’s flown into Iran and Afghanistan. And to that Ashley lightheartedly adds, “And we went to Newfoundland, Greenland and Iceland, then flew into North Korea and China.”
Excuse me? We went…who, please tell, is included in the pronoun we? It’s appropriate to now announce that Ashley — a widow for 27 years — is about to get married again. The we who began appearing in Ashley’s last columns is a new addition to her life — but not someone she only recently met. Let’s let her tell how she met Mr. Wonderful.
Ms. Ashley, the floor is yours. Mr. Wonderful? I met him in 1938 when I was 12 years old. I knew him for three summers at an old seaside resort in Maine, where his family and mine had vacation cottages. I had a wild crush on him, but don’t think he gave a hoot about me. Yet I followed him around, thinking he was adorable. Then, when I was 14, my family left for California and I never thought I’d see him again. I was absolutely devastated; I literally wept. No kissing though, it was just a crazy teenage crush.
Don’t stop now. In 2004, I wrote a reminiscent-type column about my time in Maine some 67 years earlier and I guess I mentioned his name, Rowland Fellows. By chance, a friend in Carmel read the online version of the column and called to say a Rowland Fellows lived nearby. We decided he probably was the same person I had had a crush on, but I never called because he was happily married and his wife, according to my friend, was unfortunately sick with cancer. About three years later, out of the blue, I get a call from Rowland. He said his wonderful wife had died recently and would I consider having lunch with him.
Where was the lunch? How did it go? It was about two years ago, at Boca in Novato. Out of the bar comes this white-haired person looking nothing like the darling boy I left when I was 14. He seemed an entirely different person. Turns out he always was very smart — and interested in a million different things — but all I saw were his dimples and curly brown hair. We got along fine and before long he was asking me to travel with him. I said, ‘Oh, I can’t travel with you, that’s not my style.’ However, Rowland insisted we go back to that little village in Maine where we met nearly 70 years ago. So we did and we had a great trip and the next year we went to Iceland and Greenland and, after that, we flew to North Korea and China. Now we are
Does this mean you’ll no longer be writing a column? Oh, I think I will always write. The I.J. has asked me to continue with my column and there is so much rich material in remarrying at age 83. I love to write. Some people find it painful, but after I’ve done an interview and I sit down to give it shape, it’s very exciting and it comes fairly easy. I go back over what I’ve written four or five times to make sure I’ve taken out parts a reader wouldn’t care about. About 15 years ago, I wrote a book titled Marin, which I still use as a reference because I don’t remember everything. As for another book, I’ve been told I should write about my travels. But I don’t get inspired by that; besides, everything has changed everywhere I went. What I’m excited about is my new life and seeing where it takes me.
You sound happy, contented. Where does this joie de vivre come from? Well, I think the foundation of my life has been a loving family—my mother and father, my sisters and brother. I’ve always had that foundation from which to grow and build. Also, I have always been incredibly curious about what’s out there and that certainly is a sustaining principle that keeps me reading and, well, going forward. I don’t ever want to stay home and just put my feet up; I want to see what’s out there. Also, I don’t know whether it was in the genes or what, but I’ve been fortunate in believing that life is good and that in my life there will always be possibilities. Looking back, it has been a life where when one door closes—and I have had hard times and down times—another one seems to open. I have to say, I’ve really been blessed.