I heard the other day that my “aunt” in Norway is dying of cancer. I say “aunt” because she’s not my blood relative, but rather my mother’s childhood friend. Aunt Dory is 87 and she and Mom became friends when they were 3. Growing up, especially in my teenage and young adult years, she was very much the epitome of “auntliness” to me – a strong role model whom I looked up to. someone who seemed to “get me” (and may my Mother’s soul rest in peace forever, especially on this Mother’s Day eve, but I must say I never felt she ‘got me’ at all).
Aunt Dory was a University professor (the career I likely SHOULD have followed), smart, urbane. She went to Radcliffe in the 40s (smart! ahead of her time) and met Uncle Olaf, fell in love and moved to Norway (exotic! worldly!). She wrote books (what I wanted to do!) and went hiking in the mountains. That last astonished me – my agoraphobic mom wouldn’t even leave the house and was one of the most decidedly unathletic people I’ve ever met in life no doubt in large part due to lifelong poor health (or maybe it was the other way around – lack of activity/exercise exacerbating her genetic health challenges). When she would visit us, Aunt Dory would do calisthenics. She didn’t drink alcohol or coffee (at least when visiting us), which seemed to me to be delightfully radical for an adult.
When I had my fancy-schmancy corporate job I got sent to Oslo for work and got to visit Aunt Dory & Uncle Olaf at their lovely apartment in Oslo. Aunt Dory took me all over Oslo – to art museums, to where the olympics had been (and I have to say – the luge looked terrifying to me!), and to the quite amazing Vigeland Sculpture park. Uncle Olaf made moose stew for dinner – they invited me and my Arthur Andersen colleague Ann McAndrew. Uncle Olaf shyly flirted with the very pretty Ann a bit. It was a lovely time.
When I was a teenager she sent me a Norwegian sweater that I cherished for ages (and I wish I knew what happened to it!). She sent me some books on Norwegian culture that I think I still have.
But more importantly, she encouraged me to be my best self. To use my brain. To learn and to grow.
We started corresponding more when I was in my 40s. My relationship with my own mother was quite strained at that time. I had told my parents that I’m gay after my former partner left – I needed their support badly. My mom was challenged by that. Not long after that Aunt Dory was coming to Chicago on business. By that time I had a new partner. I hadn’t ever told Aunt Dory that I’m gay but she was going to be visiting and I really wanted to see her, to have her to my home, to have her meet Sue. I was so incredibly touched by her openness and acceptance. Knowing she had grown up in the same era as my mom and while Omaha was bigger than Chadron, it was hardly New York! She seemed at ease with me, at ease with Sue.
She later sent me a newspaper clipping about a lesbian couple marrying in Oslo, even taking the time to translate what the article said (my only Norwegian is “tak”!).
For the last 5 or 6 years I’ve kept in touch via email with Dory’s younger daughter Randi and her husband Rolf. Rolf has kindly provided me with a lot of email news about my beloved “Aunt” as her yearly Christmas missives have stopped and I hadn’t heard from her in ages.
Then very recently I looked on Facebook to see if either Randi or her older sister Tone were there – and sure enough, there was Tone! So now I am getting to know someone I’ve thought of as a cousin of sorts whom I never really knew. It’s been a delight. And now, maybe a month into this new friendship, comes first an email from Randi & Rolf and then a Facebook email from Tone with this very sad news about my Aunt Dory.
Somehow I feel apologetic that I am grieving and distressed over this news. It’s THEIR mom and I probably saw Aunt Dory maybe 4 or 5 times in my whole life and probably exchanged, what? maybe 20 or 30 letters over many decades.
I think it’s so many things that have pushed me into a deeper sense of grieving than I would have ever predicted. How strong and smart and independent and alive she always seemed to me. How she consciously “aunted” me and encouraged me. How accepting she was of me in all ways (but it was especially helpful that she could accept that I’m gay in a way that my mother never was able to).
And then there is her tie to my Mama. When I was in Oslo she showed me pictures she had from the Omaha Herald of herself & my mom as really little kids – 4? 5 at the most? at a circus that she & her brother and my mom and some of her siblings had organized. She had some other pictures too of mom when she was tiny and I thought of how much my niece Mary looked like mom when she was a kid – if you took mom’s little kid picture and Mary’s they’d look like twins. My mama has been gone for 12 1/2 years now and here’s a close connection of hers seemingly likely to join her in “the summerlands” as the Celts say – and it sounds like it may be soon.
She’s been a constant in my life -her annual Christmas letters were a great occasion in our home growing up – all the way from Norway, don’t you know! And Aunt Dory wrote about world events as well as family events – I loved that!
Her daughter joked in the email she sent that “finally she’ll be right – this has been her last winter!” – because for a long time now she’s been saying that in her Christmas letters. I think she missed Olaf and I’m happy for her that (in my belief system, at least) she’ll see him and my mama soon.
Sometimes I feel like I’m a mediocre aunt and grand-aunt. I wish I had gotten the kids more presents when they were little. I wish I had seem them more than once or twice a year (they all live out of state). I wish, in the here and now, that the St. Patrick’s Day stickers I carefully picked out for each family (my grandnieces/grandnephews) had been sent out on time for that holiday – with my mom gone I feel I have a duty to remind the next generation that though it may be watered down to 1/16th, they’re still Irish, gosh darn it!
I feel sad for Tone & Randi, each having her own reactions to their mom’s health challenges.
This morning I was talking to another mom – my friend Donna, whose son Jimmy recently took his own life. She said that Mother’s Day had never been that much of a big deal to her – she would joke about it with Jimmy “You’d better get me a card, now because it’s MOTHER’S DAY” (making fun of it all). I told her that if you took Christmas, mom’s birthday, all of our birthdays and wrapped them all together it still wouldn’t equal Mother’s Day to my mom – it was her primo day of the year.
So I’m missing The World’s Tallest Elf tonight. And I’m grieving my Norwegian aunt (who is really Swedish and not my aunt, though I am 25% Norwegian thanks to Dad). I’m grieving for Donna and Tone and Randi and all the many friends who have recently lost people they love very much (here’s to you Maribeth, Jeanne, Kathie).
And tomorrow I’ll be my father’s daughter, and my grandma’s granddaughter and “pick up my broom” – get into action, look at the sunny side, remember all the fabulous things about my mama and Aunt Dory and celebrate those. Thank God that I was lucky enough to have two wonderful (not perfect, but wonderful) women in my life to help guide the way.
But tonight I’m sad. And grateful that I have been loved enough – and love enough – to recognize grief and sadness when they gallop into my life and not try to shoo them out to pasture too soon.
So Aunt Dory:
Thanks for the blueberry jam, made from wild blueberries that grew near your remote mountain cabin
The sweater you sent, books lovingly packed
The example you set – I still haven’t followed it all yet
The letters each year – world news dire and family cheer
A look at many worlds i’d never otherwise know
Taking me to Vigeland, the museum, Oslo in the snow
The letters, the visits, the you that you shared
Two daughters – feel like cousins – and your pride in your clan
The love that you gave me
Acceptance and ease
A link to my mama
~~ for all of these
There’s no way to say thanks
No way to let you know
How you changed one girl’s life
How your love helped me grow
You taught me what it means to be an aunt
and my thank you to YOU
will be to do a better job
loving, accepting, encouraging
and sharing who I am
for it was in watching you that I learned more about being strong, brave, good and true
Aunt Dory: Thank you.