Saturday evening, 9/10/2016, Albuquerque lost a true citizen – an active, feisty, hilarious woman who was so incredibly engaged in her life, her family and her community that I struggle to imagine another like her: Toots (Virginia) Rideout Obenshain. I’ve thought for the last few months about why and how Toots lodged herself so deeply in my heart.
As an educator, she spent years working with APS students who required special attention, focus and patience, and from every tear-jerking and/or side-splitting story I’ve heard, did so with uncanny people-smarts, love and (sometimes scandalous) humor. I get the impression that she got called to the Principal’s office more often than her students did. Her work inspired her own children’s careers in innumerable ways, within and outside of the Albuquerque Public School system.
Speaking of her kids, she raised four of the finest people I know: smart, kind, funny and competent people who think far beyond themselves, always. They all married equally awesome people and now have a gaggle of sweet, bright, thoughtful kids of their own. No doubt in my mind they’ll all contribute to their communities.
But other people’s kids are where many of even the best parents stop short. Not so with Toots and family. There’s the young man who was turned out of his home after coming out. Toots and her husband Scott took him in and eventually saw him off to college, all the while encouraging him to reestablish communications with his family. There’s yours truly, who met Toots’ daughter Dair, Dair’s partner Mayr, and the rest of the Obenshains during one of the toughest times in my life. How they managed to make me laugh, even smile, in those days, I don’t know, but they did. It might’ve had to do with my first Easter Sunday at their house, when another daughter, Becky, cheerfully presented me with a dyed egg that said, “The Easter Bunny sucks.”
It’s hyperbole to say that they saved my life but… to be honest, not by much. That was 22 years ago. I’d never seen such a close-knit — and yet welcoming and ever-expanding — family; it was foreign to me and frankly pretty magical. To this day the Compound, expanded with homes for the grown kids and their families, has some sort of “everything’s going to be OK” fairy-dust dome over it for me and so many others.
As an advocate for underdogs, outcasts and overlooked people of all stripes, Toots was unstoppable. I’m fairly convinced that she became president of ABQ PFLAG within about 24 hours of her own daughter coming out. I watched her march with PFLAG and the Raging Grannies in ABQ’s Pride parade many a time. I just recently saw scanned images of a letter she wrote in 1966 to Pres. Lyndon Johnson (yep) regarding the casually dismissive treatment by the Fort Riley (Kansas) Officers’ Wives Club of their Jewish members. Dair refers to this as “How the Obenshains Joined the Fort Riley, Kansas Jewish Community and Scott’s Future in the Army Was Nipped in the Bud.” I tend to think Scott’s future was affected more by the time Toots tried using the clothes iron to defrost the freezer in their base housing but then fell asleep with her napping kids. So many stories!
I bought The Artist’s Way for her a while back and begged her to use it as motivation to write down some of these stories, but she demurred, citing a lack of confidence in her writing abilities; she passed the book to Scott. I was disappointed but not surprised. She supported and encouraged and loved and inspired everyone around her. I hope someday to receive a collection called “Toots’ Tales” or… (geez, you guys need to come up with a better title!) from a family member, for belly laughs and for lessons in how to live a life.