Growing up in the backwoods of Idaho, I came in contact with many colorful characters. Most of them related in on way or another to one or both of my parents, who were second cousins themselves. (Oh yeah, that’s a whole other blog post)
Earlier this week, late in the evening I received a text message from my youngest sister who had included a link to the obituary for one of my aunts. She died on January 1st, after, what I call, a long illness. It wasn’t terribly shocking, though she was still in her sixties and rather young to die. As I read the simple paragraphs, I was struck first by the realization that we shared a birthday month and at 64, she was not even twenty years older than me. The rest of the column read like any other small town tribute. It praised her work in the local church, meticulously listed her surviving family members, carefully counted her grandchildren, pointing out she attended more of her kids and grand kids sports activities “…than any other parent or grandparent.”
Since my own mother’s death two years ago, I often find myself wondering what any given person would think if they could read what their family wrote about them after they died. It strikes me oddly that the things most spoken are the lives left behind, the good works, the suffering done in silence. Are the things the living remember truly what the deceased were most proud of?
I only ask because I know some of the inside story of her family life. I know she was my favorite aunt, growing up. In the boisterous house that was my grandma’s, filled to the brim with loud laughing men, busy women shooing away herds of wild running children, she was soft and quiet. Never demanding hugs or kisses, just a soft touch on your shoulder or gently leaning against you to whisper it was good to see you. She smelled like flowers and seemed oddly out-of-place next to her braying, obnoxious husband. She always brought delicious food and I never heard her complain about living in a town with a population barely reaching into the triple digits. She always mentioned how pretty I was, how the color I wore made my eyes sparkle. She was jealous of my hair, told me so time and again. As the years went on I saw her less and less, she didn’t change a bit. There were many problems with her children, with her husband, with her health. I never heard about any of them from her. She was an accomplished masseuse and always offered me her services. She would say, “You should come out and let me give you a massage, I bet it would help and I’d love to do it.” I would smile and thank her, give her a big hug, but I would never drive the thirty-five miles out to the old homestead. For most, maybe all of her married life, she lived in my grandma’s old house. The house, on a dairy farm, was where my mother’s siblings were all raised. Grandma got to move to a new house but she got the old house because her husband wanted the farm.
I’m sitting here tonight, wondering again, about a woman I should have known so well, yet hardly knew at all. I’m bothered that she died and I never took the time to ask her what made her happy, what she dreamed about, where she got her phenomenal stamina. I’m sad that she spent her entire life in such a depressing little town with such spiteful people. I remember my mom telling me that my aunt wanted a divorce, mom was scandalized. Knowing whom she married and where she lived, I asked, “Only just now?” Mom laughed, but she could, she’d escaped.
I’ve come to know other of my aunts better in the intervening years, indeed, have a very close relationship with one who is my rock and another who keeps tabs on me, not letting me forget she loves me. I want to do better with these I have left, I want to know them better than just an aunt. When they die, my desire is to have no need of reading their obituary because I asked them while they were alive, because I knew them well enough that I don’t need to read a list of their descendants, or of their service. I’ll already know what their hopes were, what dreams were fulfilled and that they’re leaving this world more suffused with light and love than when they arrived.
Undoubtedly my Aunt Jewel is going to a better place, a place of less pain both physical and emotional. I wish her a blissful journey and the joy I think she deserved but got so little of here.