There and back again

How courage and resolve brought Marilyn Delaney back to Big Timber
By: 
Chris Aiken, Pioneer Staff Writer

As Marilyn Delaney drove east toward Big Timber, a giant flame rose above town. It was Oct. 6, the night of the old high school fire, and Delaney was on the last leg of an 11,000-mile journey. She had driven from Big Timber to Vancouver, and back, four times; had lost her best friend, Ricky, and her stepfather, Richard; had lost 45 pounds and was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. A trip marked by death now ended with fire. 

A vivacious woman, Delaney is 70 but doesn’t believe it. Enacting the different characters in her memory’s retinue, one hears in her voice traces of a youth in melting pot Los Angeles: a mixture of Ebonics, Irish brogue and Puerto Rican street slang. 

Her hair is straight and silver, though she thinks about coloring it auburn, or maybe black, like it used to be. She is five feet tall and full of energy, almost bouncing on the sofa as she speaks. Her hands are androgynous, with the kind of long and sinuous fingers that El Greco might admire. 

The Hotdog

Delaney first moved to Montana in 1994. She underwent treatment for cancer that year, taking leave from her job as a high-level secretary at a big bank in Vancouver, WA. In the hospital, she recalled the cold steel of the operation table, and the slow burn of radiation. “They literally cooked me like a hot dog in a microwave,” she said.

Single since she was “cured of  marriage” in the 1970s, Delaney prided herself in driving to and from radiation and chemotherapy treatment. The doctor controlling the microwave told her her pain tolerance was unusual, and the nurses took bets on when she would cry for pain medication. 

After three months of treatment, she returned to the bank with new eyes. “It was wasn’t quite the same,” she recalled. Operations seemed to have centralized; customer service was being outsourced; the computers were taking over, and her colleagues seemed aloof. 

“They acted like I had gone on vacation,” she said. “I mean, my god, I had almost died.” 

There was no going back. She quit work on the Fourth of July and rode horseback to the base of Three Sisters – the volcanic peaks in Oregon – where she slept the night on her horse blanket. Back in Vancouver, she met a widow who was bound for central Montana. Delaney leased her house, bought a camper and followed the woman to Reed Point. 

Alone, in her mid-40’s, renting trailer space for $100 a month, Delaney was both free and bored. She played pinochle at the Waterhole, and was “taken in” by Anna Whitford, who lived across the road. Whitford, since deceased, introduced Delaney to the church folk in Reed Point, and her son Richard took Delaney on road trips across Montana, visiting ghost towns and watching high school basketball games.

Richard is retired from tree felling and highway construction, and still lives in Reed Point, where he recalled Delaney’s good-natured company years later. 

“She was a decent woman...was really sociable and everything. I liked to go look at old ghost towns and she’d drive with me.” 

Delaney moved to Big Timber in 1995 and “fell in love with the town.” The way people looked after one another. How they lifted their finger from the steering wheel. How bystanders helped unload her moving truck and offered her jobs —  first as a deli clerk at the Big T IGA, then as a dispatcher at the sheriff’s office under George Ames. She even broke her lifelong habit of locking doors. 

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