Debra Doyle, 1952 - 2020
For my mom
My mother, Debra Doyle, passed away on the evening of October 31st. It was very sudden, at home, and in the arms of my father, James D. Macdonald. It was Halloween and there was a blue moon in the sky. I think, later, I will appreciate all of that more. Right now, I’m just sad.
Mom didn’t talk about herself much. She let others be in the spotlight, and was always surprised when people turned their attention and compliments to her. Surprised, but still pleased. I don’t think she knew just how many lives she touched, how many of us thought the world of her.
There have been a few bits written about her online already, including her obituary put online by the funeral home, that are largely biographical in nature. I don’t think they’re enough. I want to take this space to talk about Mom’s life in as much detail as I’m able, from the point of view of someone who loves her.
Mom was born on November 30th, 1952, in Gainsville, Florida. When she was five, she walked into her family kitchen and declared that she was not “Deb” and she definitely wasn’t “Debbie”. She was Debra, thus showing her stubbernous and self-knowledge at a young age. She would gather other names and titles, but she would always be Debra Doyle.
Her family (her father Larry, her mother Mildred, and her younger brother John) moved away from Florida when she was around 12. The most she really told me about that part of her life involved hurricanes and alligators. Apparently while I grew up potentially having moose wander through my front lawn, Mom had the potential for alligators. Life not repeating, but rhyming, I suppose.
Mom identified, really, as being from Texas. Her family lived in Denison, a town outside of Dallas. There were pecan trees in the front yard. Growing up with fresh pecans, the store bought kind never tasted right to her. She graduated from Denison High School in 1970. When it came to going to college, she was determined to get out of Texas to do it. She got her Bachelor's Degree in English from the University of Arkansas (go Razorbacks!), which was closer to her hometown than some other places in Texas, but it made her happy.
After UofA, she went to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She absolutely loved Philly. She didn’t really want to live in a city, but if she had to pick a city to live in, Philly would absolutely have been her choice. It was there that she met my dad, her future husband of 42 year, James D. Macdonald. It was there that she joined the Society for Creative Anachronism. It was there she got her PhD in English, with a concentration in Icelandic. She had a lot of good times there.
As a member of the SCA, she was known as Malkin Grey. She was chronicaler for the Barony of BhaKail, and later Tir-y-Don, and as such claimed she needed to be unbiased in any feuds that may crop up, so she could properly report on them. Really, it was her way of staying out of their drama.
While in the SCA she wrote, with her best friend Peregrynne Windrider, “The Song of the Shield Wall.” Mom said it might have been the most wide reaching thing she ever wrote. Stanzas of it have ended up written on the walls of army outposts in Iraq. When my brother, Brendan, went to Pensic one year, when he told the bards his mom was Malkin Grey, it was as if he told them he was Mick Jagger’s kid. She earned numerous awards for her service to the SCA, including Mistress of the Pelican.
Perhaps the most important thing that happened to her in the SCA was that she met the love of her life. At a crown tourney, Ewan the Mad Wanderer got on stage and read out loud the poem he’d written in Middle English, “Syr Agricoli.” Mom was the one who laughed at all the jokes. Later that night, someone who herself met her future husband that night went up to Mom and said “Do you see that guy over there? He really wants to talk to you.” She also went up to Dad and said, “Do you see that girl over there? She really wants to talk to you.” They talked that night, and continued talking for the next 44 years. They got married in 1978, two years after meeting. The day was a bit rainy, but their wedding cake had a unicorn on it, and she was so happy.
Between her SCA activities and falling in love, Mom was neck deep in academia. She attended the University of Pennsylvania, working on a PhD in English with a concentration in Icelandic. It was there that she started teaching, covering freshman-year writing classes. She would say later that if given the choice between reading freshman comp. work or slush, she’d pick the slush. At least the writers in the slush pile liked writing.
Mom’s dissertation is Coordination, Subordination, and Sentence Structure In Old English Poetry: An Inquiry Into Aspects of the Interplay Between Syntax and Style. Dad bought her an Icelandic typewriter so she could type it out, and it was one of her favorite gifts she’d ever receive. It took her two tries to successfully defend, and she claimed that she could remember every mistake she made in it. It is, nonetheless, a crowning achievement of academic excellence. I’ve had people say to me “You’re Doctor Doyle’s daughter? Her dissertation is amazing!” She earned her doctorate in 1981.
After getting her degree and getting married, she moved around the country as my dad’s naval career required. While stationed in Virginia, my older sister Katherine was born. In California they welcomed my older brother Brendan. After California, they lived in Panama. Dad fought the war on drugs, and Mom tried to learn how to say “Do you have children’s Tylenol?” in Spanish. One of them succeeded in their mission. After a few years in Panama, Dad left the Navy and they moved as far from the tropics as they could handle. They went to New Hampshire and there added the last members of our family, me and my twin brother Alexander. When we were a year old, we all moved to the house in Northern New Hampshire that would be her home for the rest of her life.
Through all of this, she was writing. One of the first things Mom and Dad did in their relationship was share the short stories they’d written with each other. Over the next few years, they wrote each other scenes from novels they worked on together. Their love letters created worlds. These early letters would become The Circle of Magic and The Mageworlds series. By the time they left Panama, they had worked out their collaboration, and were determined to become working writers.
For the next three decades Mom proceeded to touch an incalculable number of lives. She raised me and my siblings. We’ve become amazing, accomplished adults (if I do say so myself) and she was proud of us every single day. It would take very little prompting to get her to tell people about us, and what we were doing, and what we had managed to pull off recently. She told me that she was so happy that we all turned into not just functional human beings, but people she liked and would want to talk to even if we weren’t related. Every day we’ll carry her with us. I’m a librarian because she taught me to love research.
She continued to teach writing and help other writers with their craft. For twenty years she taught at Viable Paradise, and her editorial services was one of my parents' main sources of income. She always talked about Dad’s impact on the Science Fiction and Fantasy community, but never her own. The ripples of her work go beyond what she could see.
And she wrote, and wrote, and wrote. There was The Circle of Magic and The Mageworlds. Knight’s Wyrd won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children's Literature. Land of Mist and Snow came to Dad in a dream, and Mom helped the world to see it. They wrote short stories as well, like the haunting story “Jenny Nettles”, and “Philalogos: Or, a Murder in Bistrita” which allowed her to fulfull her dream of publishing in F&SF Magazine. I heard her happy shout from across the house when that story got accepted. There was more that she was working on. She told me she wanted to write a story called “Rocky and the Thunder Boys.” She had an outline and research notes for another novel. I don’t know what will happen to those unfinished works, but I wish she could have seen them finished.
There were a lot of things we were going to do after the pandemic, when visiting became feasible again. All of that has changed to what to do without her and how to celebrate her. I wrote this to try to explain all that she was, though she was more than could ever be explained. In the After Times we plan to gather to mourn for her and celebrate her.
I love my mother more than anything, and I’ll miss her forever.
While it’s more than fully funded, if you want to contribute to the GoFundMe we set up, excess funds go to helping Dad. Not only is this a world-shattering tragedy for him that I will never be fully able to comprehend, but Mom’s editing work was a lot of their income.
If you have stories, or pictures, or anything similar about my mom, I’d love to have them. We set up a really basic Google Form for that. I’d appreciate anything you have to add.
Tell your people you love them. Thanks for reading.
Thank you for a beautiful post. She will be missed.
So sorry for your loss.