I just got a phone call from a family member. The worst kind. My beloved Great Aunt Nell has passed away. I have so many feelings about this. On the one hand, I know that at 86 years old she has had a good long life here on earth. One I suspect with very few, if any, regrets. My Aunt Nell was what one might call a pistol. In fact I have called her exactly that for years. Yet for all her spunk, I can tell you that she was a class act. She had great taste, spoke well, wrote well, and had a razor sharp mind. That woman could flay you alive in two sentences, and leave you blinking, not quite sure what had happened. And yet, rarely have I ever been greeted and treated so warmly, sure from the first moment to the last that I was treasured, that I belonged, and that she loved me. To my knowledge no one ever walked into her home without being greeted, fed, and cared for, and she could talk to anyone from a ditchdigger to a head of state. In addition to that, she served her country, got married, raised a family, and had a career in an era when women were told it was inappropriate. Like I said, she was a classy lady. And I loved her.
Which leads us to the other hand. She’s gone. The pain of that is just now, hours after hearing the news, beginning to sink in. I feel like I have lost something immeasurable, for feel no confusion about this, my grief is about my own loss. As grief always is I suppose. She taught me more about being a class act and a strong woman at the same time than she ever knew. More than I know, I suspect. And though there is the peace of knowing that she is no longer struggling, no longer sick, no longer old, I feel that there is so much more that I could have learned. So much of an amazing life just… lost in translation. I will never know what it meant to stand my own ground in a world before feminism. I will never know how it felt to be on that frontier. To raise a family and champion a cause before it was acceptable for women to do both at the same time. I’ll tell you, her daughters? They are some pretty amazing people. Not really shocking, is it.
So today I’m spending my time thinking about Aunt Nell, and thinking about all of my beloved friends and relatives of her generation. I’m thinking of our inconceivable loss as they pass away, one by one. I have written before of the hubris we as a culture, and as individuals, commit when we throw away our past, so convinced that the future is all that matters. On days like today it is at its most painfully clear. It is always hard to lose someone you loved, but for me, there is something ineffably tragic about losing an elder. So much knowledge, so much experience, so much life, not just her own, but of all of those she knew who are now gone. And who is left to tell their stories? We are. And that is why it is so important to treasure our elders, to listen when they speak, to listen, over and over, as they tell the stories of their lives. To take their hard earned knowledge, earned with blood, with sweat, and with tears, and carry it in our hearts, passing it on to our children, so that they in turn can do the same for their children. Without this sacred chain, we are forced with every generation to start anew, and we leave nothing of ourselves, departing this world as though we were never in it at all. Well I can tell you this. I refuse. I refuse to bring my children up believing that old people are anything less than the great and inestimable treasure that they are. And in that spirit, tonight’s storytime will be for Nell. I’m going to tell her stories to my children, every single one of them that I can remember. And in the days to come, I will tell my children the stories of their grandparents, their great grandparents, and their great great grandparents and so on. I will continue to tell them. I will tell them over and over, until my children carry their heritage in their hearts, until they carry Aunt Nell, Uncle Bill, Uncle Chum, Grammie Alderman, Bupa, Nanna, Grammie Bran, and everyone else inside them like a great foundation stone that says, “This. This is where I come from.” For even though they are now gone, these are some of the people who held me up to the world, who believed in me, and loved me. They gave me the courage to face my life, and the skills I needed to thrive. And you know what? That really means something.
So here’s to you Aunt Nell. Even on the way out, you’re still teaching me about myself, and that’s really quite amazing. I miss you already.