Dedicated to my aunt, Doris Emil English
August 31, 1922-February 13, 2017
My mother’s baby sister slipped earth’s bonds last week. She was 94. My father’s sister died in October at 98. There remains my mother (100.7) and my father’s older brother (106.5). He isn’t doing well.
My aunt Doris had a challenging life. In contrast to my mother’s of privilege and good luck, she just seemed to be a person bad things happened to. And she was one of the most cheerful and resilient people I have ever known.
That is not to say she wasn’t crazy-making! She was. And for all my mother’s complaining—when she has little to complain of by comparison—I have been glad she was the sister I drew in the random assignment of babies to parents. I could not have been daughter on duty had it been otherwise.
Aunt Doris (I never really called her that, just Doris) worked—in administration—outside her home until retirement, the only one of my aunts to do so beyond the war/marriage/children. I was always in awe of that, even knowing it was because she had no choice. I didn’t know many women who went to a job in those days.
I knew Doris’s children Judy, Deana, and Jack better than any of my cousins. Sisters bond, and spend more time together than brothers or brothers and sisters. Also, except for a sojourn in California, they were the only cousins who lived in the same state I did. Judy was just six months older than I, and we were “blessed” by our seamstress grandmother’s gifts of matching dresses from time to time.
Probably from the day Doris was born, Mama was her self-appointed guardian angel and advisor. Or maybe it was a parental command she never let go of. It clearly annoyed Doris in recent years, but Mama wouldn’t stop worrying over her when we visited, or when they talked on the phone. “You need to put your feet up while you talk on the phone, Dahrse,” she screamed to be heard, her pronunciation of her sister’s name one of the only bits of southern twang my mother retained. I was well grown before I understood her name was Doris. (On the other hand, she called me Gretchie right up to the last times I talked to her.) When we visited we took food (what Mama liked) and cast-off clothes and hats, especially if they were pink. All of which Doris stubbornly and proudly declined. She could—and did—take care of herself.
Listening to the two of them talk on the phone was hilarious. Doris wouldn’t stop talking, and my mom couldn’t understand a word she said. “Doris! Doris! Doris!” she would yell. But Doris wouldn’t hear her because she was talking a mile a minute, and because she couldn’t understand my mother when she did let her get a word in. So my mom would just wait, until she finally hung up on her. I wondered how long Doris talked on before she realized no one was listening.
Conversation at our visits to Doris in Portland (which neither Rebecca nor I would undertake alone) was never about times gone by or what interesting things they were doing. My mother led the talking points. “Have you had your eyes checked? The macular degeneration might have changed from dry to wet.”
Doris loved to roller skate. They say you can’t get to heaven on roller skates, but I imagine she skated right through those pearly gates to open arms, including those of her middle child.
Doris never forgot a holiday and celebrated it with Hallmark: birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day (her personal favorite). The USPS will be a little bit poorer with her passing.
When Rebecca and I told Mama Doris had died, she sobbed. “Oh, poor Doris, poor Doris. She had such a hard, sad life.” “And she made the most of it,” Rebecca said. I honestly don’t think she thought of her life as hard or sad. It was just her life, and she showed up for it. We could all take a lesson from her. “And now she is set free,” I said.
“I wish I had talked to her again,” my mother said through her gasping tears. Rebecca gently reminded her it hadn’t been too long since she did. “All I could understand,” Mama said, “was that she loved me. And all she could understand was that I loved her.” “And that’s all that’s important,” Rebecca said.
The wife of another of my father’s work colleagues died the day before my aunt did. I haven’t told Mama yet. Sue baked all the bread for her family of nine. When I married she gave me a bread bowl and her favorite recipe. I used them often back in the day. I hope Mama feels well enough to go to the memorial at week’s end, if she wants to.
We have been to several memorial services in these years I’ve been here. It’s been odd for me to watch the passing of the generation I knew as a child. I wonder how it feels to Mama to be the last woman standing, watching family and friends leave. I’m pretty sure she would very much like to be among them. I can’t imagine how it strikes heart and soul to be left behind.
Aunt Doris will be buried here in town, next to her mother at the feet of my father and eventually my mother. We will keep an eye on them all.
In other news: A stomach bug hit Mama Monday, maybe she got it from me before I knew I had it last week. At least I know how she feels. And Rebecca is on the other coast; I’ve been on my own. I sat with Mama in her room most of Monday, temporarily back on active duty. I “slept” in the recliner Monday night and spent most of Tuesday with her. Brings back memories of the fall (both the season and the calamity) before she moved. I’m grateful she’s not at home for this one, or the next or the next. Compassion and patience come easier now that I can separate caregiving from the oasis of home. Today, Wednesday, she is back to normal, wondering if I can figure out what to do with the three things on her bed if I strip it to wash the sheets.
Postscript: Next week I will be on vacation. After this week, I would say, I have earned it. I will be absent from this page for the next two weeks. See you on the other side of Whidbey Island.