In a defining moment during a childhood that didn’t lack for portent, adulthood was thrust upon Ida Lange in the form of her sister Janice — born premature and a mere 4 pounds when their mother deposited the baby in Ida’s arms and snapped: “Here, if you want her to live, you’d better take care of her!”
Those were no idle words. Though only 9, Ida was the oldest child and had already assumed a parental role in a home punctuated by violence. Her father hit her mother often, and when Ida intervened, he hit her, too. If a teacher noticed her bruises, Mrs. Lange later recalled, she “bore the family secret” and claimed she “was just clumsy and had fallen.” One such “fall” occurred when her father threw her down a flight of stairs and she ended up in a hospital with a concussion.
She emerged from that childhood with compassion for all — even her father, whose raging she traced to a traumatic head injury from his high school football days. Through the years, Mrs. Lange became a de facto parent to her younger sisters, a mother to her own three children, a designer of kitchens and houses, a rescuer of her family’s finances, and a leader in every group she joined, including many at the Episcopal churches that nurtured her faith.
Mrs. Lange was 78 when she died April 12 in Barre Gardens, a nursing and rehabilitation center not far from where she had lived for more than a decade in East Montpelier, Vt.
For many years before that her home was in the Hanover, N.H., area, where for two decades she ran a kitchen design business and, in 1991, was named Rotarian of the year. She also made regular cameo appearances, identified simply as “Mother,” in the newspaper columns, books, and public radio commentaries penned by her husband, Willem Lange.
“She called herself my muse,” Willem said in an interview, and he often relied on her imagination.
A few days after she died, he published a tribute in the Valley News, their local paper when they lived in Hanover. Willem recalled that he had dedicated “one of my books to ‘Ida, the never-ending source of a million bright ideas.’ If ever I was stuck for a topic the day of a deadline, and mentioned it, half a dozen came piling at me.”
That Mrs. Lange always had ideas ready and waiting would come as no surprise to those who knew her as supremely organized. “Now that I am looking through her stuff, she had everything in its place, and there’s a lesson in that,” said her youngest child, Martha of Calais, Vt.
Mrs. Lange’s childhood was not nearly as tidy. A daughter of Winfield Capron and the former Doris Simmons, Ida Louise Capron attended 16 schools en route to graduating from Blue Ridge, an Episcopal boarding school in Virginia. After a severe beating when she was 16, social workers took her away from home for good.
By then she was used to upheaval. When she was a girl, the family often moved abruptly to avoid paying rent. Her father told everyone “to grab what they could for a hasty exit, stiffing the landlord,” Mrs. Lange said in a memoir she dictated as a third-person narrative, when she was first in a nursing home in 2016.
White matter disease, along with complications from a series of strokes, led to her death, but not before she added her own brief, unpublished memoir to her household’s literary legacy.
Her husband had already recounted their life together in his 2003 book “Intermittent Bliss: Reflections on a Long Love Affair.” It opens with Willem digging a ditch in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1959 as he expanded a manhole on a hot summer day. Looking up, he whistled when he saw Ida walking past. “She turned for one heartbeat, looked, and then continued on her entrancing way with her chin just a little higher in the air than before,” he wrote.
Spotting her again a couple of days later, he climbed from the ditch to apologize for whistling, and to ask for a date. She soon decided not to return to her studies at Madison College in Harrisonburg, Va., and in a dozen weeks they married on Halloween. Willem then learned he had been enchanted by her beauty before they met. When Mrs. Lange was 18, a mutual friend had shot a photograph, which accompanies this obit. Smitten, Willem asked their friend for a copy, and realized the photo was of Ida — only after they became a couple.
She was “the purest of adventure-seekers,” he wrote in the Valley News tribute. Early on, they lived in Keene Valley, N.Y., and then Wooster, Ohio, where he finished college. At one point, Mrs. Lange cleaned houses while carrying her first infant child on her back. Later, she taught business law and typing, even though she herself could barely type.
After the family settled in New England, she took an Outward Bound course when she was a 31-year-old mother of three, and she climbed Maine’s Mount Katahdin. When the family lost their home in the mid-1980s as part of a business bankruptcy, Mrs. Lange took over managing finances. While getting their affairs in order, she lived for more than a year first in camper, then in a shack, with her husband and youngest daughter.
As with earlier challenges Mrs. Lange had faced, the Episcopal Church offered sustenance. In her memoir, she said that “Jesus loves me, this I know,” the first line to a hymn she learned in Sunday school as a child, was “etched in her heart.” At various points in life, people she came to consider “caregivers” appeared to offer her assistance in a variety of ways.
“Shaped by all she has weathered, she likes who she is,” Mrs. Lange said of herself in her memoir. “She has learned that people are good, as evidenced in the many caregivers along the way who helped. She appreciates and recognizes the power of small kindnesses.”
A service has been held for Mrs. Lange, who in addition to her husband, Willem, and daughter Martha leaves another daughter, Virginia of Olympia, Wash.; a son, Willem IV of Fort Smith, Ark.; four sisters, Patricia Souza of Marietta, Ga., Janice Kadlub of Cleburne, Texas, Susan Staudinger of Gibsonville, N.C., and Barbara Buffington of Canton, Ga.; and five grandchildren.
Though at age 9 she had testified against her father in court, which led to him serving three months in jail, Mrs. Lange returned to New York State when he was dying, after having not seen him for more than three decades. She made his funeral arrangements and was the only family member to attend the service, Martha and Willem said.
That scene was also recounted in her husband’s writings, which Mrs. Lange accepted, even though she was more private than he. Before publishing anything, “I always ran it by her first and said, ‘What do you think of this?’ I don’t recall that she ever vetoed anything,” Willem said.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do without her,” he added. “She called herself my muse, and I will miss that. I already do.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.