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Soaring into the sky at 90

Posted by Meena Ramakrishnan  August 25, 2011 02:06 PM

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A funny thing happened to Barbara Malley on the way to her ninth decade, as she states so frankly in her new blog, “Tears and Laughter at 90.’’

“I discovered that life was as enjoyable as ever,’’ wrote the author and mother of four, who turned 90 last Wednesday.

Proof came a day later at Norwood Memorial Airport when Malley, a former resident of Cohasset who now lives in Weymouth, soared into the clouds in a twin-engine Comanche, piloting her first plane in four decades as a present to herself. A lot of people at the airport couldn’t believe it. But that’s just how she is.

The daughter of opera singer and children’s poet Ernestine Cobern Beyer and David Stewart Beyer, a safety engineer who died in 1937, Malley has treasured freedom in all its incarnations, whether by gaining her pilot’s license in the early 1960s, or publishing her tongue-in-cheek 1991 memoir with Little Brown and Co., “Take my Ex-Husband Please . . . But Not Too Far.’’

In the book, on her blog, and in everyday life, Malley exudes a joie de vivre that is a hallmark of a life well lived. Common in her writings, some unpublished, are hilarious accounts of her on-again, off-again relationship with former husband Ed Malley, a lifelong friend she divorced twice, whose penchant for falling off his boat and crashing his plane is the fodder for many smiles.

There has been tragedy, too - the loss of one daughter in an accident, the near loss of another, who is paralyzed, and a stroke incurred by one of her two sons - also documented in Malley’s writings.

“I never expected to live to this ripe old age,’’ she said. “I guess I still have a lot to do.’’

In the 1950s and 1960s Malley, who also lived in Westwood during that time, published articles about boating and flying adventures, encouraged by Darrell McClure, a cartoonist for Yachting magazine and the comic strip, “Little Annie Rooney.’’

How did she get into flying?

“Our son Ted got a job handling freight at Boston’s Logan Airport,’’ Malley said. “Someone took him for an airplane ride, and the next thing we knew, we had a pilot in the family. My husband was darned if he’d let the kid get ahead of him, and naturally I couldn’t let either of them get ahead of me.

“But actually my metamorphosis from housewife to bird-woman was a slow process. Very slow.’’

Last week she bubbled with excitement as she worked out the final details with Horizon Aviation president Zeke Valtz, who would accompany her on her one-hour flight. Valtz flew in his 1966 twin Comanche from Providence for Malley’s special day.

“We get a lot of calls to celebrate a special occasion,’’ Valtz said in the moments before take-off. “But this one is unique. To have someone celebrate a 90th birthday is amazing.’’

Technology has changed over the decades since Malley last worked a plane’s controls, but the human yearning to be in the air hasn’t, he said.

Bill Wennerberg, who runs the Cohasset duplicate bridge club where Malley plays weekly, drove her to Norwood for her flight.

“She sees the good in everybody and always looks to the bright side,’’ Wennerberg said. “She’s quite a person.’’

Out on the tarmac, Malley’s daughter, Kathie Malley-Morrison of Westwood, watched expectantly as her mother boarded the plane, cutting a sharp figure in white sunglasses and matching suit, with a red shirt and red-white-and-blue necklace with little baseball bats, balls, and gloves.

Earlier in the week she shared feelings about her mother.

“My principal early childhood memory of her is simply how beautiful she was,’’ Malley-Morrison said. “Another involves my mom’s tolerance for the hobbies of the five children in her life - me, my two brothers, my sister, and my dad.’’

Malley was all smiles, though, as zero hour approached.

“Are you ready to fly?’’ Valtz asked, shaking her hand.

“Sure,’’ Malley said, smiling broadly as she turned to the plane.

Pausing briefly at the wing, she perhaps unwittingly recreated a moment from a 1972 photo that ran with an article she wrote for Plane and Pilot titled, “Taming a Baby Airliner, When Housewife meets Skyknight, a Myth is as Good as a Smile.’’

Malley said her motivation to fly is part curiosity “and partly a desire to remind myself - and others - that there’s more to this little old lady than meets the eye.’’

“Sometimes,’’ she said, “when a kind person offers me an arm when I’m clearly nervous about icy patches on a sidewalk, I want to say, ‘Would you believe I used to fly a very big airplane all by myself?’ ’’

Maybe it’s about feeling vital. Malley has a bridge friend who said recently that as a woman pushing 60 with grown children, she felt perceived as having no obvious accomplishments in a competitive world.

“She said, ‘I want to tell people about the time I ran in the Marathon when I was 40,’ ’’ Malley said of the friend, who did finish all 26 miles.

Horizon manager David Lebudzinski described Malley’s venture as an “introduction flight’’ but said anyone who can fly a Comanche is impressive.

So was her mother’s tolerance, Malley-Morrison said, for a family menagerie that ran from countless dogs and cats to hamsters that frequently escaped, to more than 100 rabbits at one point, ducks, parakeets, a goat, horse, and various wounded wild birds.

And for Ed Malley’s other hobbies. Malley-Morrison said her mother was his stalwart companion during escapades with “an ever-expanding, ever-escalating set of toys,’’ including boats that sank or cruised directly into piers, motorbikes that careened off the road, and planes that crash-landed.

“Really, we kids could hardly trust them to go off on their own - we never knew what kinds of trouble they would get themselves into,’’ she said. “But it was a great life for all of us.’’

Malley began writing early, and the blog posts, based on diary entries, go back to the 1930s chronicling her courtship, her divorces, her escapades with friends, the care of a sister with Alzheimer’s, and her years in the sky.

“It took a special husband to encourage me,’’ she said.

Last week she said she felt right at home as she returned to the town where she had launched so many flights at the former Wiggins Airport. As they gained altitude, Malley and Valtz flew over the Blue Hills and then down the coast of the South Shore to see her old haunts and fly over the homes of her bridge friends.

Back on land, she joyfully wrapped her arms around her daughter and squeezed.

“Oh, it made me so happy,’’ Malley said, eyes alight. “I wasn’t nervous at all.’’

To read more about Malley, go to her blog at www.tearsand laughterat90.blogspot.com. Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at michelebolton@live.com.

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