Volume XI, Issue 44 ~ October 30 - November 5, 2003

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Neighbors by Sonia Linebaugh

Lois Burton

Readers of Bay Weekly know Lois Burton as Bill Burton-on-the-Bay’s wife. Along with fishing lore, politics, squirrel, bird, rabbit and cat stories, readers catch a glimpse or two of Lois. There’s the story of Bill giving Lois a yellow low-cut dress from Mexico for Christmas — and when she failed to be properly appreciative, he searched it out, wrapped it up and gave it to her for a second Christmas.

Once Bill told us Lois spent New Year’s Eve in the “shadow of the Eiffel Tower” while he shared milk from a saucer with his beloved Frieda Lawrence, the cat. We read that neither Lois nor Frieda Lawrence wanted a bunny in the house. And that Lois drove the car on Frieda Lawrence’s final trip to the vet.

Life with Bill
Despite Bill’s frequent use of Lois as his literary foil, Lois says there’s something special about this relationship.

The most interesting thing in my life is my marriage to Bill.

When we met, he lived in an apartment two floors down. He told me he was 35, which he denies. I lied and told him I was 25. It turns out there’s a 20-year age difference. I was in this strict Catholic family. Here’s this twice-divorced man with four children. It’s amazing. My parents were very accepting of Bill. They may have had conversations, but I never heard about it.

I married Bill at 21. We’re the city kid and country kid coming together. There were 777 graduates in my class at Baltimore’s Eastern High School. I think he had 14 in his class.

Bill is much more the intellect, though I’m not dumb. I can escape with a novel and a glass of water. He only reads history. If he reads a novel, it’s a classic and he reads everything he can find about its background. Our approaches are so different. Politically we have great battles. And sometimes, it’s fun to play devil’s advocate. Still, I would just as soon have skipped some of the battles.

It’s an independent marriage. It’s a long-term trusting kind of marriage. There’s always trust and recognition that the other one has interests, too. We’re not glued, but it’s a nice marriage.

I go off to Mexico without Bill. He hates Mexico: too hot, too touristy. A man once asked Bill, “Do you allow Lois to go off on trips by herself?”

Bill said, “It’s not about allowing.” For Bill’s age group, that’s pretty progressive. I can’t imagine being in a relationship that required “allowing.”

We both like fishing. When my parents rented a cottage on Stoney Creek, we rented a rowboat and went out fishing, throwing a line in. Bill introduced me to ocean fishing. We have joint interests and separate interests. The similarities and the differences make things a lot more sane. It’s been an education.

Two Experts in the Family
Bill Burton is the expert on the outdoors, making a living writing about his adventures hunting and fishing. Lois Burton is an expert on human memory and personality and a name as Anne Arundel Community College’s director of testing and tutoring. She loves the teaching part of her job, speaking to students or conducting community workshops. Starting college at the tender age of 15 that set her up for her career.

One problem with being so young was that I didn’t get serious about college right away. College was a rude awakening. You really did have to study. I wasn’t ready. There’s a great irony in that: Now I’m teaching students how to study. I do workshops on study skills and time management and memory, not cramming, but taking things a step at a time. I tell students that I was in the books two hours before a test. But I don’t want them to do that.

I do memory workshops for tiny groups and up to 200. My biggest fear is that I’ll forget my place in front of two hundred people. It happens. We all forget most of everything that happens. I say to them, “I’m proving to you that I’m normal.”

At the college, we administer 35,000 tests a year. I’ve been here 22 years; I don’t even want to do the numbers. That’s over 700,000 tests. So we have an overview of people’s memories and fears.

The college has a range of ages. That’s one of the things I like. The average is about 28. We have a big clump of 17- to 18-year-olds, but we also have over 300 students who are over 70. Aging has very little effect on memory if you’re healthy. Mostly, there’s just a little longer lag with age. If you have a two-day lag, that’s a problem.

We do personality tests too. By far our biggest group is extroverted, reality based, detail oriented. Feelings come next. On this scale, too, Bill and I are as far apart as you can get.

Living with a Collector
Bill is an obsessive collector, a self-confessed pack-rat. In compensation, Lois collects nothing.

I’m interested in a million things, but not collecting. Bill — he likes pipes, so he has 200 of them. When he bought his first computer, he bought a second and then a third in case anything went wrong. We were up to six at one point. Me, I’m ready for my Japanese stage, a black lacquer table with nothing on it. I don’t want all this stuff. But whatever it is you need, it’s probably in my house. If I ever decide to drive Bill crazy, I’ll add a room with nothing in it but a chair.

Despite all the fishing, Bill’s never had a boat other than a dory to row around in or an inflatable. One week he’d be at Deep Creek, another on the Eastern Shore. Thank God he never was interested in boats. Who knows how many we’d have?

Memories of Life Before Bill
Lois has lived in Baltimore City or Anne Arundel County all her life. The library and the summer weeks on Stoney Creek helped to mold her future.

When I was a child we used to “rent a shore.” That was the Baltimore way of saying rent a cottage on the Bay. Usually we stayed a week, but one year we stayed a month. Dad did some work fixing the place up, and he drove all the way from Stoney Creek into the city to go to work every day. I remember thinking this was phenomenal. It was all of 15 minutes, but it seemed like a hundred miles away. When you got out to the shore, it was a different world. Now we live here all the time, and on our street in Riviera Beach, everyone is a transplant from Baltimore.

I liked Baltimore. There were always things to do in the city, like walk three blocks to the market.

Dad was a voracious reader. In the summers, there was no television, and our family went to the library. I don’t know if I got interested in books because I went to the library, or if I went because I was interested. I practically grew up in the library. I had a job there when I was 14. I put the books back on the shelf. If someone wanted an old magazine, I went down into the dungeon, looked through the piles and found it.

I had truly wonderful parents. I still believe my father would have killed us if we acted up, but I don’t remember ever being punished by my parents. I don’t know what Dad would have done, but I’d never try it. I was 30 before I found out he was a marshmallow. We just knew the rules and the boundaries.

I grew up thinking we were wealthy. But Dad was a body and fender man, so we couldn’t have had much. Mom was at home. But each year around Christmas, she would work in a local department store. I thought she worked for fun, but it was to buy gifts. Our parents didn’t talk about money, but I remember overhearing once that Dad had gotten a raise to $100 a week. I thought how rich we were. I thought we were comparable to the Rockefellers.

Everything was secure. When I wanted a bike for Christmas, my dad bought a used bike and spent a month repainting and re-chroming it. I had the snazziest bike on the block. I never knew how they compensated until much later.

I started school a year early, at age five. I was a people-pleaser. I was a perfect child. I loved school. I didn’t talk to get into trouble but, given the chance, I probably talked too much. I still talk too much — I’m mouthier than I was in first grade.

I’m not perfect any more; that’s changed. But I still love school; in fact I never left. I taught special-ed students right out of college. Then the children were born, and I started part-time at the community college. I was with the children, but I stayed involved in my field. I’m still at the college. I still attempt to be a people-pleaser.

Final Words
Generosity is the most valuable lesson I have learned and would want to pass on. I see it in my kids in different ways. It sounds trite — and my staff might not agree — but I think learning to be generous with my money, with my time and with my feelings has been the most valuable thing.

Next time Burton writes about Lois, remember that it’s not because she “allows it” but because Bill knows he can count on her generosity and her sense of

With this new occasional column, we visit awhile in the life of a neighbor. We get to picture another way of living; glimpse scenes of childhood; understand what brought this person into the neighborhood; celebrate the rich fabric of our community.

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Last updated October 30, 2003 @ 1:57am