It’s been a month since she passed.
When I was two my mother died, leaving my father with 4 children under five. We left my mother’s family, as well as my mother, behind in the firs, coastal mountains and crystal waters of Maine to join my Father’s family in Iowa. There we were split and my brothers were raised in our Grandfather’s house by his common-law wife while I was sent down the street to live with our Aunt Sue, her husband and their son. Two more boys soon joined us in that little house for a family of 6. I was a proud ‘sister’. I had love. I had attention. I had structure. I had food. I belonged. We were family.
Torn loyalties between my father and my Aunt, between my brothers and my cousins, my families pulling me in two directions was routine. It is a blessing to have family but as a child I found that whatever family I was with, a small part missed the family left behind. My Aunt and Uncle were the rock at the center of my life. An anchor in a storm of abuse, confusion and neglect. Ah but how absence made time with my brothers all the more special and Aunt Sue made sure I had time with my brothers. She claims on one such sibling sleepover my middle brother and I, in separate bunks, fell asleep holding hands and stayed that way til morning.
In ’66 my uncle pursued the dreams he and ‘Mama’ had laid out while courting and moved us all to Colorado. Suddenly, with 672 miles between us, my father went in search of a new mother for his children. He found one in a bar and in ’67 moved in with her. It was only after Aunt Sue insisted she wasn’t letting me go unless he was married, they wed in ’68. Just like that, after being mother and daughter for 10 years, we were Aunt and Niece. I moved into a dark chapter of my own life but she is the heart of this post.
My Aunt was an ornery pistol. She was drop dead, movie star gorgeous with a body of perfect proportions, lovely legs, an impish wit, and piercing green eyes. She was the oldest girl of seven and when her mother died she had to drop out of school at 14 to raise her younger siblings, two still in diapers. She was born in the depression and learned the ways of life in a harsh time. At an age her peers were obsessing about movie stars and Elvis she was raising 4 sisters and a brother while holding a part time job to help support the family.
She was 14 in the photos below. She looks her age in the left but on the right one you see the reason why men pursued her throughout her life.
She was brilliant. In her middle age she worked as a supervisor in quality control at an international durable medical goods company. Heart stents was just one of the products she oversaw in quality control. Her brains and attention to detail saved many lives. She was a liaison among the floor workers, the scientists, the lawyers and the business wonks, moving easily among them. All other staff who worked at her level had a masters or doctorates.
She never graduated high school.
She was the loving center of every community she lived in. Wherever we lived neighbors turned to her; people brought her feverish babies and children with broken arms. They brought her their problems, their loves, their petty setbacks and the joys of their lives. They were drawn to her beauty and her warmth. They brought gifts, tributes for a sovereign, little things they saw and thought she’d like. They wanted to do for her as she had done for them. In the nursing home where she lived the final years she was a favorite. When the call came, I drove straight from Michigan to Denver, through storms, gales and ice to be by my mama and the nurses cried. They cried when they saw her hold me tight. It was a testament to her, that in that place, in those last days there was a stream of volunteers and staff who came, even on their day off, to spend time with her and say goodbye.
I am grateful I was able to spend her last days and final night by her side, doing for her as she had done for me. I sang her favorite gospel tunes, I found and played music from the Carter Family to Tennessee Ernie Ford to Elvis, for her house was full of music. I even teased her for the mess she had left under her bed, soooo many candy wrappers. No mystery where I got that sweet tooth.
I read old love letters from my Uncle to her. Above, there is a photo of them in their first home. He came from a family of 9 kids just up the street from her family of 7 kids. The families played together. He was a bit older but knew from boyhood she was the one. He courted her by mail, sending letters while he was in basics and as a Marine deployed in the Korean War. He chased her passionately and persistently with sweet words of optimism for a future together. She was so very young, a child really, but with adult responsibilities. She was hesitant at first but they came to know each other through their letters. She had a family to care for at her father’s house but he was extremely handsome, charming, and offered to move close to her father and family, and so he won her over. She met him near base in California and they were married. Tragically he passed 31 years ago. She was a beautiful middle aged woman and many men came calling but she said she ‘had known love’ and wanted no other.
As she aged her two pack a day smoking habit caught up with her. She hid her COPD at first but three years ago my cousin, Bannon, her ‘premie miracle baby’, passed and she never recovered. She went downhill quickly and her illness became evident to all.
Thank you, Lord, for letting me hold her and love her and thank her. We shared our lives’ stories in those final days. It was a gift. It was horrible. It is was a horrible gift to see a declining parent through agony towards the ultimate freedom from pain.
The Three Bells Part?
This photo below was taken in 1964. My Aunt set aside the income tax return that year because she decided every family should have at least one ‘Great American Road Trip’. Ours was from Iowa to California. Below we are at our final destination, Disneyland, the ocean and the couch of California friends whose children had made the trip with us.
Three Bells was recorded in 1959 but was getting a lot of air play that summer of 1964. It followed us across the dial from Iowa to California. Fifty years later, I hear it and I’m safe, secure, and loved in the back end of a borrowed station wagon. Life was an adventure and when this song would come around in the rotation of the various local gospel stations I would call up front “Turn it up!!” and scramble over the seats to sit on her lap and she and I sang along.
Of the six of us in that photo there are only three left. Life is difficult. Life is wonderful. Life is a wonderfully difficult gift. I’m thankful to have spent much of my journey with her.