Whenever anyone she was close to died, Phyllis Maly would give their families a copy of “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf,” a simple story about the cycle of life and letting go.
After she died, her own family found eight copies of the book in her apartment at The Legacy, waiting to be shared with someone in mourning.
It was just like her mom, said her daughter, Tami Westmoreland.
“She loved books and she was always so kind about remembering people.”
Phyl taught art all of her life. On Saturday mornings at Calvert Elementary School. At the Malone Center. To her four children — Tami and Adriann, Courtney and Todd.
She taught art classes out of their garage on High Street with jazz playing as a backdrop. She hung her paintings on the cedar fence and sold them to art-loving passersby. After she moved to The Legacy, she staged an art show there.
She was a woman with big dreams who found a way to make them come true, Tami said.
“She was full of creative wonder. She was just always wondering about things, always looking at the world with an artist’s eye.”
She instilled that in her children. Growing up, Tami and her siblings created elaborate Valentine’s Day cards and the family turned all their wrapped Christmas presents into a village under the tree.
“She made a huge mobile for Calvert Elementary, and it hung from the ceiling in our living room until she got it done.”
Barb Johnson Frank, a friend and fellow teacher, wrote this about her in an online tribute: “Phyl was at home with herself. Her style was simple. She was approachable, kind, generous with compliments and quick to smile.”
A “self-described noticer,” she wrote.
Colors and light, twigs and stones, snowflakes and people and injustices. A woman before her time, who sought to right wrongs and make the world a better, more beautiful place.
Phyl and her Elliott Elementary School art students painted the side of Ideal Grocery on 27th Street, spelling out the name of the store with letter-shaped fruits and vegetables. She created a tree for the Enchanted Arboretum project in Nebraska City, and the city planted her fanciful tree on the courthouse lawn.
She shared that creative magic with her grandchildren and their children, too.
“What she really loved was her grandkids and her great-grandkids and their diversity,” Tami said. “She loved that about her family.”
Phyl was divorced and remarried and lost her second husband three years ago. She’d had a stroke and lived in the assisted-living unit at The Legacy.
“She would always say, ‘I can’t believe I’m 87 years old, I don’t feel like I’m 87,’” Tami said. “She still had all these great ideas for art projects, but physically she couldn’t do it anymore.”
The isolation of the pandemic was hard on the artist and her family. Despite her isolation, she fell sick with COVID-19 on Christmas Day. She died three weeks later, on a snowy Thursday.
Tami called her room and the nurse put the phone up to her ear. The daughter talked about the picture book that lovingly explained the life and death of a leaf.
It’s OK, she told her mom. You can just be like Freddie the Leaf; you can let go.
— Cindy Lange-Kubick