HEATHSVILLE—Marion Mitchell passed away peacefully at home the morning of October 9, 2021. She had lived nearly 101 years and, despite her share of loss and hardships, she was a woman known throughout her life for her joyful disposition and her lovely and ready smile.
Marion was born to Lina and John Ortner, immigrants from Germany who had settled in Spokane, Wash., in the early 20th century. The Ortners owned a successful greenhouse where Marion’s lifelong love and knowledge of plants was cultivated. Her older brother Johnny went on to become a popular florist in Spokane.
Marion graduated cum laude from Washington State University in June 1942 with a bachelor’s in home economics, and in September she married her college sweetheart, Stan Mitchell, just hours after he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. The two spent their first year in Washington, D.C., and then were separated for nearly two years when Stan was deployed to the European theater. Marion returned to Spokane and helped her parents with the greenhouse business until Stan was mustered out of the service in 1946.
Stan’s training as a metallurgical engineer landed them in Climax, a small Colorado mining town high in the mountains where Michael, the first of their three children, was born in 1947. Their second son, John Christian, was born in 1949, by which time they had been transferred to the mining town of Holden, Wash. Daughter Lynne was born in 1957 in Salt Lake City, where Stan’s work had taken the family several years earlier and where Marion’s gifts as a baker had in 1955 won her a Pillsbury Bake-Off Best in Class Award for her orange tarts. Anyone who knew about what Marion described as this “brief fling with fame” probably heard it from someone other than the modest winner herself. With the exception of a brief recounting in her autobiography, the cum laude Home Economist did not toot her own horn.
In late 1958, the Mitchell family followed Stan to the Nicaro mining community in Cuba, where political unrest was deepening. At the end of 1959, the family left Cuba and over the course of the next 18 years followed Stan’s work to Carlsbad, N.M., Vicksburg, Miss., Golden, Colo., Paris, France, New Orleans and Greenwich, Conn. Partway through these years, Mike and Chris each graduated, married and served as Army officers in Vietnam.
Just months after Lynne began her undergraduate studies at University of Washington in 1975, profound grief found Marion when the family’s beloved Mike lost his life rescuing a coworker in a commercial diving accident. Before she was able to substantially recover from this stunning loss, Stan was diagnosed with a brain tumor and passed away after six months of treatments failed. Scarcely two years had passed since Mike’s death.
With Lynne’s help, Marion wrapped up her life in Greenwich, and she and Lynne drove across the country where Marion spent the summer in retreat on Ortner’s Island, a one acre bit of paradise off the shores of Diamond Lake in northeast Washington. Marion’s parents had bought the island on the recommendation of Marion’s brother, Johnny, who had spotted it advertised in the paper just as WWII was ending. The Ortners built a simple cottage there, and throughout the years the extended family enjoyed it as a welcoming summer haven. Even after Marion and Stan bought it from her parents in 1969, the island remained an enclave for the whole family and friends as well. Stan and Marion remodeled and enlarged the cabin to accommodate the large groups that gathered, and they had planned to enjoy retirement there in the fair weather months.
Now Marion returned alone, and in that summer of 1978, through prayer, contemplation and a rigorous daily schedule, she worked with her grief and had the first glimmerings that life and her spirit were calling her, at the age of 57, to reinvent herself. And reinvent herself she did, using and further developing every talent she had discovered and every skill she had acquired. She also began learning and discovering new ones.
She took Lynne’s advice to spend her winters in Seattle and bought a condo with a view of Lake Union and the rising sun. She joined a church and a fitness center, learned to use a computer and make wise investments, and decided to use her education and her years of cooking and baking experience to teach other seniors how to eat wisely, well and economically. As her cooking classes took off, she completed a writing course and, during her summers on the island, wrote a well-received weekly food and nutrition column for her local paper, the Newport Miner. One Seattle winter, with Mike’s widow, Donna, she made a four-part cooking video that aired on Viacom community television. She travelled, maintained her island home almost single-handedly, kept up with friends and family, walked 3 miles of Seattle’s hills daily, and offered an unforgettable smile and cheerful greeting to friend and stranger alike.
Throughout this time, and for the rest of her life, Marion’s spiritual life continually deepened and flowered. Her memoir, Ninety-five and Still Alive, is a moving testament to the significance of her relationship with God and is also a vivid and beautifully-written account of the felt experience of the whole of her life.
In 2006, during a difficult recovery from a broken wrist, Marion was invited to move to Heathsville to live with Lynne and her husband, the late Rev. Jeffrey Cerar. True to form, as soon as she recovered she was making meals and otherwise assisting the busy couple as well as making new friends and keeping up with her daily walking and yoga exercises. In time she became a well-known fixture at the Lower Northern Neck Family YMCA in Kilmarnock where she drove herself to workout and weightlifting classes twice a week rain or shine until August 16 of this year. Her 1984 Toyota Celica was a familiar sight on local roads, and she insisted that Lynne monitor her driving skills monthly to ensure the safety of others as well as herself.
Leaving the YMCA on August 16, Marion tripped and broke her hip. Despite surgery and a willful intention to recover, complications multiplied, and Marion began to prepare herself to meet the God in whom she had trusted for so long. With the loving care of Lynne and Donna as well as Lori and Brenda of Hospice of Virginia, she spent a peaceful final week grateful to be in her own bed and often breaking into her famous smile until deeply asleep.
Marion closed her memoir with these words from Psalm 16:
Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places. Surely I have a delightful inheritance. I have set the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore, my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices.
Marion is survived by her son, John Christian; and wife, Joyce; daughter, Lynne Cerar; daughter-in-law, Donna Mitchell; granddaughters, Bea, Meredith, Melissa, Heather and Merrill; and 10 great-grandchildren.
An in-person memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, October 23, at Light of Christ Anglican Church in Heathsville and live-streamed on lightofchristva.org
In lieu of flowers, please make a donation to the charity of your choice.
Currie Funeral Home LLC of Kilmarnock handled the arrangements.