Sunday, Aug. 23, 2009 | Marie “Peter” Ettlesen could befriend a goose. And she did. Two of them. They lived behind her Lakeside home and when friends visited, they endured the bruises from the geese’s nipping bills as they accompanied Ettlesen through the woods.

“They were very protective of her,” said her longtime friend, Terry Neist. “Peter’s the only person I knew who could befriend geese.” When a neighbor grew tired of their squawking, he scooped them up and took them to a local lake. Ettlesen was devastated.

She was a diminutive woman, standing at just under five feet, and weighing 90 pounds. Her eccentricity and youthfulness were infectious, and children loved her because of it.

In the 1960s, drawing on her experience as an actress during her youth, she founded the Open Door Theater at the Lakeside Community Presbyterian Church. There she encouraged budding actors to express themselves through drama, and as a volunteer-middle school teacher, nurtured her love of children, though she never had any of her own.

None of her friends know for sure why Marie Ettlesen went by Peter. It was a pet name her husband gave her.

“I think it was a reference to Peter Pan,” Neist said. “She had so much magic in her eyes, and she made magic all around her. And she refused to ever grow up.”

Ettlesen died July 7, a month shy of her 98th birthday, following complications from recent strokes. After nearly a century of enjoying the company of others, and being relished by those she knew, Ettlesen died at home, without friends by her side, Neist said.

Over the last two years, she had been under the care of a couple from the Presbyterian Church, who prepared her final arrangements. They said she wanted to die alone.

Her ashes were buried next to her husband at Glen Abbey Cemetery in Bonita. Though she loved parties, there was no ceremony. The caretakers said that was her wish. Neist, who met the recently widowed Ettlesen as a 7-year-old girl in the 1960s, and who “instantly adopted her,” said that didn’t sound like the Ettlesen she knew.

Neist is organizing a celebration to remember the woman who threw herself a birthday party in her eighties, where she tottered about in bright red high heels. Because of her size, she had trouble using her hands to pry the corks from champagne bottles. So she used a wrench. “Isn’t that lovely?” was her signature phrase.

Friends said she carried the demeanor of a sophisticate, but without concern for propriety. “Protocol was not necessarily of great importance to her,” Neist said. “This is someone who had Prada in her closet, but who would take a razor blade and cut the toe off of sneakers to make them more comfortable. She was wonderfully eccentric.”

Marie Sonne was born Aug. 16, 1911, in Montclair, N.J. She was adopted by her uncle and aunt, her friends said, though they don’t know why. As a young woman, she pursued acting, performing stage roles in plays in New Jersey and New York City.

It was during one of her performances that she caught the eye of Geoffrey Ettlesen, a military captain 25 years her senior, who had served overseas during World War I. He was a businessman from a prominent family, and accumulated wealth through investments. They married, and in 1937 moved to Lakeside, then a resort getaway for San Diego’s upper crust.

Her husband died in 1962, and Ettlesen never remarried. “She said he was the love of her life,” Neist said. “She said if she ever found someone like him she would remarry, but she said she never would.” She had no other family, except a cousin she visited annually in Arizona.

So she devoted herself to promoting arts and youth education at the Presbyterian Church, though she wasn’t a member herself.

“Her God was getting up in the morning at 4, looking out her picture window and looking at the mountains,” Neist said. She cooked broccoli, cauliflower, chicken and fish for breakfast. “She ate it all.”

She took daily walks down Old Highway 80, reaching a trucking yard several miles from her home. She would greet the owner, and turn around, headed for home.

It kept her healthy, Neist said. Even into her nineties, she didn’t keep a regular physician. “I don’t have anything against doctors,” she would say. “I think they do wonderful work. I’d see one myself if I ever got sick.”

She encouraged those around her to be themselves, but did it subtly, her friends said. As a child, Neist visited Ettlesen’s home with her brothers and mother, who was a strict matriarch. “She told my brothers to be on their best white-glove behavior, and pleaded with them not to embarrass her at dinner,” Neist said.

Ettlesen prepared a pot of spaghetti, and had set the table with her best china and silverware. At the place settings for the teenaged boys, though, she had set large meat dishes, not plates.

“She was saying that she knew they were growing boys, and that they were hungry, and that they should eat as much as they wanted,” Neist said.

“She always made people feel comfortable with who they were. She never drew attention to it, though. It was just there.”

When as an adult Neist took her own sons to visit Ettlesen, she pointed to the avocado tree in her backyard.

“You see those avocados there at the very top?” Ettlesen asked the boys. “I need those.”

She wanted to give the boys an excuse to climb trees.

She would host children and scatter couch cushions on the floor. “Who wants to sit on regular furniture?” she would say.

But she also loved literature, and surrounded herself with others who loved the arts.

At the Open Door Theater, she directed a performance of the Gilbert and Sullivan musical HMS Pinafore. “Can you believe we did this in old Lakeside?” she said, referring the city’s local reputation for breeding devotees of rodeo, not drama.

She enjoyed poetry, too.

“She decided that E.E. Cummings was kind of avant-garde,” Neist said. At an event featuring his poems, she turned the tables upside down and used the legs as candle holders.

“I asked her where people were going to sit,” Neist said. “She said they would sit where they normally do, just not at a table top. You’d think someone who was 97 would start acting her age.”

She had an eccentric love of animals. When a friend who had gone on vacation asked her to care for her donkey, she did. She fell in love with it, and kept it.

She adopted two cats, and not long after moving in they scratched through her wallpaper and upholstery.

“I suggested she re-paper her house with Astroturf,” Neist said.

“What a grand idea!” Ettlesen replied.

“And she would have gone with it, too.” Neist said. “I told her when I grew up I wanted to be just like her. She just saw the beauty in every single thing.”

(Friends of Ettlesen’s are asked to e-mail Terry Neist at cherishpeter@gmail.com.)

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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