Under Santa Fe Skies

by Susan Tungate

Santa Feans: Viola Fisher

Saturday brought summer to the Northern Hemisphere and lured me back to the blog. My thanks to the nice people who asked whether I am alive and well. I am, thank you, and I hope you are, too.

At the moment I am thinking about my one year anniversary of  teaching writing at a local retirement community filled with physicists, architects, doctors, senior managers, artists, lawyers, published authors and would be writers picking up a pen in their 70s and beyond for the first time. I could write a book about the last year: Thursdays at The Castle.

Of the original group who walked in the door a year ago, two extraordinary women passed away. When I took the job, I had not factored in the probability of falling in love with my students and losing some of them.

I told you about ninety plus year old Susie. Remember her? On the first day of class, I asked what advice they would give their younger selves and Susie yelled, yelled since she had no idea how to control the volume on her hearing aid or her voice: “First, I would tell her I LOVE YOU. Then I would tell her, DON’T BE AFRAID! JUST GET OUT THERE AND LIVE YOUR LIFE FROM YOUR HEART. AND ONLY GET OLD WHEN YOU HAVE NO OTHER OPTION.” That was a show stopper.

And then there was Viola. Viola walked in the second week of class pushing her cart, stooped over with her head poking out like a turtle with a fluff of white hair and a big smile.  She always came a little early to class to park her cart and take her seat before the others arrived. So I started coming earlier, too, just to chat with her. You see, Viola, at 94, was just about the same age my Mother would have been had Mother not died at 46. I looked at Viola with curiosity and wonder. Curiosity because I envisioned my Mother’s face in hers, and wonder because Viola lived a bodacious  life in an era when that was not an option for women.

Over the weeks I learned from our talks and her writing that she was raised on an apple farm in Post Falls, Idaho, attended a two room school house, walked over three miles to high school and graduated from college with a major in dietetics. During World War II she became a Lieutenant in the Army. After the War, she earned a masters degree from Columbia in public health, and that made all the difference.

In the mid 1950s she went to work in Iran where she set up a dietary department in a hospital. She wrote of one midnight walk through ancient ruins by moonlight.

She worked in East Africa in the 1960s to bolster children’s health. Her next stop was India where she worked with UNICEF to save children from malnutrition. And on and on, until she fell in love with Santa Fe. settled down and worked for the NM Department of Health from 1971-1982. As it turns out, she lived a few  blocks from me at one point. I wish I had known. 

She skied well into her 80s, rafted in North and South America,  loved gardening, and rescued dogs.  And she traveled all over the world on her own. In her last story, Viola told us about the trip to the Himalayans she took with a small group of women. They hired sherpas and trekked the mountain, eating the same food as the sherpas with the exception of the granola they brought with them for breakfast. She wrote of the pure joy she felt when they gathered around the campfire each night, all bundled up in sheep skin coats, sipping Yak butter tea, telling stories.  When I think of her, and I think of her often, she is high in the Himalayans, holding a cup of hot tea, laughing with a toss of that white hair, eyes sparkling with the wonder of it all.

Viola at 77
©Joanne Rijmes 1997


  1. Jane Scott says:

    And I know Viola loved to see you walking into “the Castle” for a fresh look at life, Susan. Thank you for writing and sharing your talent with us. Viola looks so familiar; probably seen her around our little brown town. Jane

    • Susan Tungate says:

      Thank you Jane. She was a Santa Fe Treasure and has a bench in her name at the Santa Fe Botanical Gardens. Viola made her mark. Susan

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