I have to say, I don’t know that I ever gave Roberta McCain a thought while she lived, but now that she has died, she seems to have been a rather extraordinary person. One of those people we can never really be like but wish we could.
Mrs. McCain, wife, daughter-in-law, mother and grandmother of John S. McCains, died the other day, perhaps without the notice she might otherwise have received in a less tumultuous year. She was halfway toward her 109th birthday, which is extraordinary enough right there.
Even at this advanced age, this death caught at least one of her friends off guard: her friend expected Mrs. McCain to live forever. Reading the obituaries and tributes, it seems as though if anyone was going to make this happen, it was Roberta McCain.
About a decade ago, my niece Ellie was into her American Girls, which seems to be an entire concept rather than just dolls, and that’s the extent of what I know about the franchise. But it certainly seems that Mrs. McCain’s life would exemplify that American Girls ethos of pluck and can-do-ism.
Roberta Wright arrived in this world in 1912 — think about that! — alongside an identical twin (who died a relative youngster at age 99) in Oklahoma. Just as you’d expect of an embodiment of America, her dad was a wildcatter in the oil fields, and one day up from the ground come a-bubblin’ crude. Like the Beverly Hillbillies, he heeded the advice to “move away from there” and took his family to Los Angeles, right next door to Beverly Hills and its “cee-ment ponds,” when his daughters were 12.
That’s where she met her first John S. McCain, the one who was II, when she was a college freshman and he an ensign aboard a battleship stationed out of Long Beach. They eloped when she was 20; both got in trouble. Her mother, not a John S. McCain fan, was livid; the captain of his ship was not happy with his AWOL sailor.
But the Tijuana marriage (over a bar, no less) lasted 48 years, until her husband died. And it produced three children, including John S. McCain III, who followed his namesakes into the military (as have most of his sons, including his namesake).
While we could, and will, say that Mrs. McCain became a military wife, she was a savvy one who actively worked to further her husband’s career, which ended as a four-star admiral. She was not above, for instance, making breakfast for the politicians who could grease the skids.
But here’s where that military structure really kicked into play: she and her husband were in London, preparing to go to a dinner party, when they were informed that their son John had been shot down in Vietnam. They went to the party as scheduled, telling no one of their situation.
Can you imagine? Smiling and chatting your way through some probably dreary diplomatic event while wanting to scream? Or even allow a stray sniffle or two to escape? It’s not very hard to see where John III came by the resolve that got him through the next 5 1/2 years as an abused prisoner of war.
That Senator McCain was tough was never in doubt (except by Captain Bonespurs, who suffered his own personal hell in the terrifying realm of sexually-transmitted diseases), but reading the stories about his mother made it very clear where this came from.
For instance, when he first ran for president, he wasn’t necessarily backed by his mother, who felt he lacked expertise and money. But she hopped on board the “Straight Talk Express” for his second campaign, where she was too straight talking for her son’s campaign managers. When she told reporters she didn’t think her son had any supporters from his party’s conservative base, the campaign decided her “help” wasn’t helping and kept her away from reporters for the remainder of the campaign, although she was quite popular at rallies.
But this is my favorite story about Mrs. McCain (remember, I had no stories about her at all during her lifetime): In their 80s, she and her sister were indulging their lifelong fondness for travel. They were in Germany and wanted to rent a car, but no one wanted to rent it to them. Two little old ladies traveling around on their own? Seemed like a bad idea, apparently.
So they bypassed the rentals and bought a Mercedes, taking it from Munich across Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan. “I wanted to see Samarkand,” she said, because of course that explained it all.
The Mercedes remained in Europe until 2006, when she had it shipped to her on the East Coast. Then she got back in her car, alone, and drove to San Francisco to give it to a great nephew. She must have taken the scenic route, because she was in northern Arizona when she got a ticket for speeding — 112 miles per hour.
Her friend Greta Van Susteren, who wrote a tribute, said, “Secretly, I think she was proud of being a speedster.”
Well-off, well-traveled, well-married . . . she could have gone an unpleasant, privileged way, but it appears she never did. Vogue magazine asked her once about the secret to her longevity, and this was her answer: “I don’t do anything I’m supposed to do. I don’t exercise and today, I’ve already eaten a half a box of caramel popcorn. Honey, I’ve had a dream life, and it was all luck.”
You can’t really ask much more than 108 1/2, but it does seem like the world lost a good one the other day, even if some of us didn’t know it until after the fact.