19 December 2011

Carol Scinto: One of a Kind

by Mary E. Hunt

December 16, 2011

On the occasion of what would have been her 86th Birthday

Joe, Cathy, Blaise, Mia, and Tup, family and friends—good morning, and thank you for the rich remembrances already shared. My sympathy to each and all of you on the loss of Carol Blythe Murdock Scinto, one of a kind.

Several years ago, Carol asked me to speak at her memorial service. My response was an immediate ‘yes,’ qualified only by the fact that I was not prepared to do it any time soon. She honored her part of that bargain by living well beyond what medical science might have indicated—“What do they know,” she was heard to utter more than once—so I will honor mine. It is not easy to speak publicly about a person one loves as dearly as I loved my friend Carol. Nonetheless, knowing that you loved her as well makes it easier for all of us to accept her death and give abundant thanks for her many wonderful years among us.

We at WATER, the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual in Silver Spring, MD, think of Carol as our own because she was. In the 1980s, after some innings with the local Presbyterian church, an astute there, then Margee Adams, now Margee Iddings, suggested that Carol might want to explore a new place in town called WATER. It was run by women, Margee said, and featured programs and publications that Carol might find more compatible with her feminist theo-politics than the biblical fare offered in the congregation. Carol, ever one to explore and inquire, came by for a look.

It was love at first sight all around. Here was a smart woman whose brain and heart were deeply connected, a literate liberal with progressive tendencies, an editor looking for a manuscript, a volunteer in search of a place to invest her considerable talent. We at WATER were a fledgling feminist organization. We used to joke about changing our name to WINE: Women in Need of Everything. Then Carol came along as the answer to our prayers. She was one of a kind.

Year in and year out—at least 16 by my reckoning—Carol edited the WATERwheel, our newsletter, to a fare thee well. Once an innocent reader complained that, for the first time, she saw typos in our work—what was happening? I hastened to report that Carol and Joe were in New Zealand. Needless to say, it never happened on Carol’s watch. She was the deadline enforcer and even contributed some of her original artwork to WATER’s projects.

Carol busied herself with ordering copies of books we might consider for review. Publishers realized that ours was, as they call, a “hot list” in the field—our readers buy and read books—so they are always anxious to get books into our hands. Carol handled the whole enterprise. In so doing, she built what is now a 5000+-volume resource center in our modest office. We named it the Carol Blythe Murdock Scinto Library. With Cathy’s good suggestions, we even have it online where people all over the world can find an obscure title.

At the lunch table at WATER and over countless cups of tea that a proper Mrs. Scinto taught us to enjoy, we learned a great deal from and about Carol. As the biography read earlier makes clear, she came from the far west, went to college, and then to work as a journalist. Her time in England was perhaps the most formative of all—satisfying her yen for travel, her keen interest in the world, and indulging her passion for good literature. If the Queen had been astute, she would have invited Carol for tea.

Anyone who knew Carol even casually came to know the whole family. There were suitors along the way, but there was only one love in her life, an Italian Catholic guy from New York. By the time his mother and aunts got an up-close look at this WASP girl from the West Coast, what they thought was immaterial. Joe and Carol, AKA Loopy and Spud, began a partnership that endures well beyond death.

You, the daughters Scinto, were the pride of her life—each of you in your unique way. I’ve often thought that she should have written the screenplay for “The Lives and Loves of the Sisters Scinto”! She would have cast each of you in a delightful light—never forgetting the challenges you offered her, but always emphasizing your goodness. She loved you each, and your families, more than life itself.

Carol did not do Middle America very well. While she was as supportive a parent as ever lived, she was not one to let doctors, teachers, much less politicians get away with mediocrity. Those tough years of the 70s and 80s were challenging for her, which is why finding WATER must have seemed like an oasis of sorts.

Carol Scinto was smart beyond measure. Recall that perhaps apocryphal story of the Encyclopedia Britannica salesperson arriving at the door of her family home to sell a set. One of Carol’s brothers is alleged to have asked, “Why would we need an encyclopedia? We have Carol.” I have come to think of Carol Scinto as what we did before we Googled. We simply asked Carol. Ninety-nine times out of 100 she was correct, a comma here or a comma there. Those in her book club will agree that she was one of a kind.

She loved to travel. So when WATER organized a trip to Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, Carol was among the first to sign up. It was a rigorous adventure visiting poor women and learning about our sister groups there. But Carol was stalwart and enthusiastic to the end because she could see the value of such intercultural sharing, even if the schedule was exhausting.

Travel went in two directions. In subsequent years, Cristina Grela from Uruguay sent her daughter Marianna to live in Rockville for a while. Sandra Duarte from Brasil was a Scinto surrogate daughter when she wrote her dissertation at WATER. Carol also befriended WATER’s visiting scholar Solveig Boasdottir and, later, her husband Baldur Baldurson who visited Rockville. Those two friends recently met the Scintos for a visit in New Jersey. Mrs. Scinto edited both of their doctoral dissertations, Solveig’s on feminist theology and violence, and Baldur’s on some new ideas in dermatology. Her scope was amazing.

Carol met Gwen Benjamin from Australia through WATER. Thelma and Louise had nothing on them. When Carol and Joe were Down Under, they teamed up with Gwen and her late husband Marcus in what had to be one of the world’s most enjoyable foursomes. Stories of their travel adventures are the stuff of legend—someone got locked in a hotel bathroom and had to be rescued by a bellhop if I recall correctly! Their friendship gave new luster to our Alliance.

Carol was as committed to justice as she was smart. Before we knew her, she chained herself to the White House fence with colleagues who were seeking the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Memo to Amanda and your generation: the ERA remains to be ratified. Later she joined me in a ‘pumps and pearls’ arrest in front of the Vatican Embassy to draw attention to the Roman Catholic Church’s discrimination against women. Pope John Paul II was in this country for a visit. To get his attention, a dozen of us unfurled a banner that read “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” before we were hauled off in the paddy wagon for a cameo appearance in the DC court system. Charges were dropped because it was indeed legal to protest that close to an embassy. Carol was justifiably proud of her rap sheet.

When their mothers died, Joe and Carol gave WATER a gift to start “The Mothers’ Fund” in 1992. The founding papers read: “This fund, initiated with a gift to WATER from Joseph and Carol Murdock Scinto in honor of their mothers, is intended to provide small but strategically focused grants to women seeking, individually or through organizations, to effect social change by combatting want, ignorance, and injustice experienced in their homes and communities.” Over the past two decades, many women have received help to go to a conference, to buy books, to replace a computer damaged in the Chilean earthquake, to finish a dissertation—always small grants in the spirit of the widow’s mite but enough to know that someone cared that they succeed. Carol did. One woman recipient wrote last year: “I learned from you folks in the Mothers’ Fund to be attentive to helping other women.” Indeed that was part of Carol’s legacy.

In recent years, and especially after her devastating diagnosis, Carol was slowed but never stopped. She continued to grace the office on occasion, always eager to meet the new interns and keep up with our efforts. She delighted in the fact that we never capitulated to religious patriarchy because she didn’t either. She was a woman strong of spirit but honest enough to say she didn’t believe most religious tenets. I admired her and agreed with her.

Carol died as she lived—on her own terms, surrounded by her family members who knew her wishes to die peacefully and without a lot of medical intervention. So it was, and she showed a grace and strength even then which her family matched.

We don’t expect to find another Carol Scinto. She was truly one of a kind. But the impression she left on friends, neighbors, colleagues, and most especially on her family means that we will see hints and glimpses of her goodness wherever we are.

Thank you, Carol, and blessed be.