Thursday, July 28, 2011

My Aunt Ethel

I tried to write a blog last night that was silly or irreverent or hopefully somewhat amusing…but I couldn’t. I didn’t get farther than keying in the date, which is my first step in writing a blog. It’s easier that way because I’m not staring at a completely white screen and a blinking cursor that seems to mock me for not being able to come up with a title, let alone an entire blog.

So why couldn’t I write a blog last night? Well, because I was sad. And I still am. You see, my Aunt Ethel died the other day. It wasn’t unexpected, but that doesn’t seem to make it any easier.

When I first heard the news, I didn’t cry or react much, which is hard to believe given that I’m this overly sensitive and emotional-type person. (A cringe-worthy statement to hear if you’re a guy. Thank goodness Vince can deal. Either that – or he didn’t know that side of me until it was too late!)

Anyway, I think I didn’t cry right away because Aunt Ethel had been in the end-stages of Alzheimer’s. She didn’t speak and didn’t recognize us when we saw her in June. So it’s easy to say it was a blessing that the Lord took her. Her suffering is over.

But then the realization hit that this woman – who graced our lives for about 84 years – is gone forever. My mom lost her only sister. And I know how much she mourns her loss.

As one of my cousins said when she heard the news, “It’s like the end of an era.” And that is true. On that side of the family, my mom is about the only one of her generation left.

In fact, my parents’ generation is quickly losing members of a special fraternity and, with their passing, we’re losing an incredible group of people. Or, as Tom Brokaw called them in his book: “The Greatest Generation.”

Coincidentally, I’m reading Brokaw’s book with that very title at this very moment. Well, not this very moment, since I’m writing at this very moment. But, you know what I mean.

Another cousin recommended the book to me, so I borrowed it from the library. And I’m finding it very enlightening. I always thought my parents were unique in their views about life and money and patriotism and family. But reading the stories in the book about the men and women who lived through the Great Depression and World War II, I discovered that my parents’ behaviors, attributes and values were intrinsic to their generation.

When I was a kid, I thought we were poor. I mean, I knew we weren’t destitute, but I didn’t think we had a lot of money either. In truth, my dad had a pretty good job as a metallurgical engineer. And my mom was fortunate not to have to work while we were younger. Sure, she could have. She’d worked as a registered nurse before she had children. But people of their generation thought it was important to have a parent stay home and raise their children, which is a whole other blog for a whole other day.

But I digress.

See, I thought we didn’t have a lot of money because we were not allowed to waste anything. If an apple or a banana had a bruise or a black spot, we either had to eat around it or cut off the bad part. Vince would laugh at this statement – because now I crinkle my noise and make a frowny face if he offers me an overripe banana. “Yuck,” I’ll say. “It’s mushy!”

Back when I was a kid, my mom would simply respond, “It’s fine. Eat it.”

Blecch. But I ate it. Back when I was a kid. You know what I say now? I say that it’s good to be an adult and not have to eat mushy bananas.

When I was a kid, I hardly ever saw my mother tear a new piece of aluminum foil from the roll because she reused every single scrap. She’d take a sponge and wipe off any food particles, and then would carefully fold that by-now soft piece of foil and place it in the drawer. And woe to the child who used a piece of foil and then balled it up and tossed it in the trash! After we received the obligatory lecture, Mom would likely pull it out of the trash, smooth it out, and fold it up neatly and put it back in the drawer.

And if I ever walked out of a room to, say, go to the bathroom, I’d come back to find the room dark. Apparently, we had an Energy Fairy in our home who magically turned off lights that weren’t in use for approximately 45 seconds. The funny thing is, I never EVER saw that Energy Fairy. What did my parents do? Did they have some weird Spidey-sense that someone had left a light on somewhere in the house and they’d spring into action? They’d climb the walls to our bedroom on the second floor, flick the switch to the “off” position and then fly back downstairs – all before I had time to flush the toilet? It was weird.

But my parents – and others of their generation – knew what it was like to go without. When they were young, they saw people who had lost their jobs and their homes and didn’t have welfare or unemployment to live on while they found another job so they could pay the bills. Even if their parents hadn’t lost their jobs and their homes, the time in which they were raised left a huge impression on them.

So they didn’t waste money on new rolls of aluminum foil and they didn’t want to send a single penny more to the electric company than they absolutely had to. And in our family of six (four of whom were not paying the electric bill), they had to be extra diligent.

When I grew up and was living on my own, I’d leave every light on in the place – just because I could. And I’d ball up a piece of foil after one use – just because I could.

And then I got a little older and a little wiser and realized that my parents weren’t total flakes. Why waste the electricity? I didn’t, after all, enjoy sending my hard-earned cash to AEP. And why fill up our landfills with balled up pieces of aluminum foil and all the other stuff that our generation started tossing out without much thought?

Now we have recycling bins and energy conservation and composts in our backyards. And the funny thing is, my generations and subsequent generations all think they discovered recycling.

So the Greatest Generation lost another member the other day. I know how hard that is going to be on my mom. I know my uncle is missing his wife of 60 years. And I know how sad my cousins must be because they’ve lost their mom. I pray for strength for them as they mourn her passing.

As for me, well, I’m going to have my moments of sadness, too. But I’m going to remember all the fun times we’d spend with my aunt and uncle and cousins on our way back from Cape Cod through my growing-up years. I’ll laugh when I recall the time my Aunt Mary got my mom, Aunt Ethel and Nanna a little tipsy on Southern Comfort. I will be grateful that Vince was able to meet Aunt Ethel before her illness rendered her incapable of communication.

And I will be grateful for all the life lessons that she – and other members of her generation – taught us. May her soul and the souls of all the saints rest in God's peace, and may light perpetual shine upon them.


  1. Cindy GilliganJuly 28, 2011

    Well written Jane! I couldn't help but think of my own Aunt Kate who passed away two years ago at the age of 92. She was the last of my mom's seven siblings to leave us. Now we have one aunt left on that side of the family--the wife of one of my mom's brothers. Aunt Kate had dementia for years and did not recognize family for the last 4 years of her life. I prefer to remember the vibrant lady of years past who enjoyed living and who loved God with all her heart. As you said in your blog- it truly is an end of an era.
    P.S. In her sixties Aunt Kate was voted the youngest looking grandmother at Myrtle Beach!!!

  2. Cindy, what nice memories you have of your Aunt Kate! And you're right - it's best to remember them as the vibrant people they were...just the way we'll hope our loved ones will remember us someday.