PALMER — Julie Hungiville LeMay died at her home March 30 at the age of 64, leaving an irreplaceable yet unforgettable void in the community, particularly around her hometown, Palmer.
She was a passionate poet, loving mother and grandmother, brave battler of cancer, lover of nature and outdoor adventures, and longtime volunteer. These are some of the things people remember when her name comes up.
“It’s a pretty big void that she leaves behind,” her daughter, Eowyn Ivey, said.
Ivey said that she keeps hearing positive things about her mother as she bumps into people around town.
“I can’t even really count how many times people come up and say how much of a light she brought into people’s lives, even people that didn’t interact with her a lot. She was a very smiling, welcoming person, I think maybe even more than my mom realized at times… She was just being herself,” Ivey said.
Like most people, LeMay had days where she felt more social than others. She certainly enjoyed her alone time where she could quietly read her books, according to Ivey.
“She could be a very social person in ways and I think that’s how people perceived her but at the same time she also really valued her privacy and at times didn’t really want to interact with people and would just want to be at home reading and writing and doing her own thing,” Ivey said with a laugh.
LeMay was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer in 2012, not long after she retired from MEA. It of course, brought overwhelming feelings across the board. Ivy said that it devastated everyone her mother shared the news with.
“It was pretty hard for her and everyone who cared about her,” Ivey said.
LeMay also just started her MFA for poetry at the Antioch University in Los Angeles. The program was mostly online with occasional trips down to California. Ivey said that LeMay was initially concerned how she would hold up through her courses, but she pushed through the two year program no matter how many doses of chemo she had to endure.
“She kept it up and finished that degree program even as she was going through treatment,” Ivey said.
B Bella Hair Studio owner Betty Pierce got to know LeMay over the years. She starting cutting LeMay’s hair when she was first diagnosed.
“She was such a wonderful person,” Pierce said.
Pierce was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 and the two bonded over the many challenges and emotional roller-coasters that ensue after diagnosis.
“We became really good friends,” Pierce said.
Pierce said the two were in the “cancer club,” a club she jokes that no one wanted to join but found themselves in regardless. She said that people around town were supportive to each of their struggles.
“Palmer was really wonderful for me just like they did Julie. Palmer really rallies for people who are struggling, it’s just wonderful town,” Pierce said.
Pierce said that losing one’s hair is very personal and they would often schedule late night hair appointments when no one else was around. They confided in each other.
“She told me she felt better when she left,” Pierce said.
Pierce said that LeMay was a strong person that remained hopeful no matter the qualms. She said that she was just a small facet in LeMay’s life and mostly saw her in the studio but she was very important to her and many other people in the community. She said that she was a talented writer and poet and a very inspiring individual overall.
“I remember her smile, that beautiful smile. She was determined. She had a world view that was all encompassing,” Pierce said. “It’s a huge loss — a huge, huge loss to our community and the world. And of course she will be missed.”
The remissions got shorter and shorter until LeMay’s final days arrived.
“I think she was fortunate that she got so much more time… I don’t think she was expected to live as long as she did,” Ivey said.
LeMay has always been a lover of words. She read often as a child, frequenting her local library and carried that habit into adulthood. Ivey said that one of her mother’s favorite things to do was going to the Palmer Library’s book sales and she often brought her to the library throughout the year.
“It was a place that I spent a lot of time as a kid,” Ivey said.
In February of 2017, LeMay achieved one of her longtime dreams, publishing her own book of poetry. Her book, “The Echo of Ice Letting Go” is collection of poems that draws heavily from Alaska’s stunning yet unforgiving landscape. Ivey said that a lot of the poems dealt with LeMay’s bouts with cancer and facing her mortality.
“I think it was sort of a dream for her to publish a book of poetry,” Ivey said.
Ivey said that her mother worked very hard on her book. She said that her style was very modern, while still being influenced by some of her favorite classic writers such as Emily Dickenson. She said her poems are free verse frequently dealt with nature and felt “meditative” and “contemplative.”
“She was very attentive to the sound of words,” Ivey said.
Ivey said that she thinks her mother’s words will help other people going through similar struggles. After LeMay died, Ivey said that she’s talked to several family members and friends who’ve told her that they’ve picked up her book of poetry and started reading it again.
“People tell me how soothing it was to hear her voice again in a way. It’s a bit of immortality, I think, to have a book published. It’s a way that her voice continues on. I think that would mean a lot to her, to know that people can kind of find comfort and still feel like she’s with us in some way,” Ivey said.
Ivey is the author of “Snow Child” which was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Her second book is called, “To the Bright Edge of the World: A Novel.”
She said that LeMay was not just her mother. She was her best friend and constant writing partner.
“We were a very strong influence on each other,” Ivey said.
The two called each other all the time. More often than not, Ivey said they were talking about writing, giving notes on each other’s projects.
“To be honest, it’s been pretty tough for me to read her stuff, yet. As I’m getting ready writing her eulogy, I want to pick out a couple poems to read but it’s a little bit hard for me,” Ivey said.
Ivey said that right when her mother died, she read the last poem in her book of poetry. The poem refers to the Talkeetna Mountains and coming to grips with death. It’s called “Sky Burial” and reads:
“What better place to write; a death poem than here; at the top of the world? Here, where mountains hold; the child-blue sky with; its whisper of clouds. Here, where the trail weaves through; a rejoicing of alpine wildflowers— saxifrage, cinquefoil, moss heather. Bury me to the sky. Let me bones be alms for the birds.”
Ivey said that it felt like a fitting way to say goodbye to her mother. She said that she hasn’t been able to read her words since then, but she will be able to in time for the service.
Ivey said that her mother was already person on a constant mission for self-improvement. LeMay felt a sense of urgency after her diagnosis and wanted to accomplish as much as she could with her remaining time.
“I think she was a very driven person, someone who always kind of had her eye on what it was she wanted to get done. I think that was a really hard aspect of her knowing that her life was coming to an end, is that there was so much that she wanted to do,” Ivey said.
LeMay volunteered in Tibet several times and helped create a nonprofit with other volunteers for the Jatson Chumig School and Orphanage. The money raised has provided a variety of resources and helped build new classrooms.
Ivey said that LeMay also volunteered locally and would often read poetry at underserved places like drug rehabilitation centers.
“I don’t think she was necessarily interested in being a teacher but I think she really loved sharing writing with people who had maybe never been exposed to it,” Ivey said.
Ivey said that as she got older, her relationship evolved from beyond a mother/daughter dynamic and that’s made her loss all the more difficult.
“I just loved talking with her. She was someone who was really interested in ideas and thinking how we could make the world a better place… She really was one of my best friends. It’s a different kind of loss,” Ivey said.
Ivey listed off a few adjectives to help describe her late mother: intelligent, brave, kind, curious, and inquisitive.
LeMay’s service is June 24 at the United Protestant Church in Palmer (also known as The Church of a Thousand Trees). The service begins at 4 p.m. and is open to the public.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to your local library or to the Jatson Chumig School at http://www.jatsontibet.org/
LeMay’s book was published by the University of Alaska Press. It’s available at stores such as Fireside Books in Palmer and online at amazon.com
Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reporter Jacob Mann at email@example.com