HADLEY - Rita Ellen Sibbison, 90, died in peace on May 1, 2013 in Hadley.
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She was born on Feb. 8, 1923 in New Orleans, Louisiana, and raised by her beloved grandmother, Elenora Gueldner, and then, when her grandmother died, by her Aunt Mamie. Rita grew up in a boisterous extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins whose roots began in the city and spread across Lake Ponchartrain to the then-sleepy beach town of Mandeville, where her Uncle Charlie had a house built on stilts. From her earliest days she was admired for her kindness, beauty, wit and charm.
Forced by the Great Depression to leave Sophie Newcomb College and help with family finances, she met her future husband, Jim Sibbison, at a dance for servicemen when Jim's Navy destroyer was doing maneuvers in the Gulf to prepare for the Mediterranean front. They married in New York City in April, 1945, when Jim was on leave, and their only child, Wendy, was born the following year.
Jim and Rita lived in Virginia and Washington, D.C., until 1982, when Jim - a journalist for the Associated Press and then a press officer for the Environmental Protection Agency - retired. They then moved to Amherst to be near their daughter, who had settled in Western Massachusetts.
Rita soon joined the Amherst Woman's Club, which she served as president from 1990 to 1992 and of which she was an active member until her death. For the past six years she also volunteered her time and considerable energy to the Hospice Shop of the Fisher Home in Amherst.
Rita, like most women of her generation, spent much of her married life caring for her family. She excelled at everything domestic. Her legendary cocktail and dinner parties always included a tower of shrimp surrounded by men with toothpicks. She could smock a dress, repair small machinery, make a tailored suit, force a tulip, whip up a mousse, slipcover a chair, needlepoint a pillow, and make stains vanish. But most of all she could love. Motherless, she drew people to her like a fragrant gardenia. She was kind, generous, enthusiastic, and compassionate. Everyone who met her soon fell under her gentle, cheerful, and slightly sardonic spell. There was not a mean bone in her body. The happiest days of her life were the births of her daughter and granddaughter, the grateful recipients of her lifelong, openhearted devotion.
Rita's sole regret was that she did not have a better education; she taught herself everything she knew through reading. She read the New York Times daily from cover to cover, looking forward each week to the Science section, and spent additional hours with her nose in a book. While she mainly enjoyed history and biography, she said that reading Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex and Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique changed her world view forever.
When living in Washington, D.C., she eagerly volunteered at the Women's Political Caucus, but left after several months, discouraged by the patronizing attitude of the paid staff toward the unpaid housewife volunteers. A staunch feminist and progressive Democrat, she nonetheless viewed the moral evolution of both genders as a whole with the same skepticism.
Rita had a powerful affinity for art, trees, birds and the moon. In 2012, she adopted a stray chicken that appeared in her yard, naming her Clara and eventually moving her to a friend's farm. She also enjoyed travel and, with Jim, roamed around Europe several times. In 2007, she and Wendy took a long trip to Italy and began annual vacations together on the Cape. Last year, Rita successfully ventured forth on her own to visit her nephew and his wife in southwestern Virginia.
In 2006, after 61 years of marriage, Jim died. They had lived in their house on Blue Hills Road for 24 years, longer than they had lived anywhere else. In Amherst they made many affectionate and intellectually compatible friends. They were happy there, and Rita continued to live independently in their home until shortly before her death.
She is survived by her daughter, Wendy Sibbison of Greenfield; her granddaughter, Maisie Sibbison-Alves, and her nephew, Jim Allen and his wife Ursula of Stuart, Virginia.
A celebration of Rita's life will be held at the Amherst Woman's Club on Sunday, May 19, from 4 to 6 p.m.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Amherst Survival Center, 138 Sunderland Road, P.O. Box 9269, N. Amherst, MA 01059.
Obituary and memorial register at: www.douglassfuneral.com.
Published in The Recorder on May 3, 2013