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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.

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Beautiful night tonight and I’ve been cooped up inside for two whole days.  The old friend who used to always blew me off and with whom I was to reconnect tonight (golly gosh) blew me off so I hopped in Molly Moonroof, grabbed a Diane special at The Pizza Place (run by @Pam Witte and @Thea Johnson) and took a drive down Country Club Road.

 I have this great iPod player now in Molly the Subaru and it’s like I just discovered the ‘mix’ option on my iPod.  Very interesting listening to ‘my music’. Besides really getting that I mostly listen to stuff that’s really really old, I was also noticing some similarities in those songs that I listened to so much in my youth that they wore grooves in my brain.

 Joni Mitchell:  “Will you take me as I am?  Will you?  Will you take me as I am….?”

 Roy Orbison:  “to you I’m just a friend, that’s all I’ve ever been, no you don’t know me…”

 Joni again:  “They open and close you.  Then they talk like they know you.  They don’t know you….”

 I’m sure there’s more but those three played on my iPod tonight and I was thinking how they resonated with me so strongly in my 20s.  I don’t think my hunger to be known is as all-consuming now as it was when young, but I was reflecting on how we ALL want to be seen, want to be known regardless of our age or our acclaim (Joni was singing ‘will you take me as I am’ when she was a pretty hot commodity after all).

 I was so thrilled when my friend Sue B. sent me an email today telling me in detail why she liked my Lazarus poem.  Was it my “insatiable ego” as my former acquaintance charged?  I think more it was “ah! You saw me!” — that sense of being accepted – of “will you take me as I am?” – Simply, being seen.

 Maybe because that’s always been a big deal to me I try to make a point of seeing others and signaling that I see them.  Telling the clerk in the checkout line at the grocery “wow, your hair looks really nice”  or acknowledging to a co-worker, “Hey man, you really cranked today.”

 I’m realizing I need to do more of what Sue B. did.  Not just tell my friend @Melissa Ross, the SUPERB photographer that I loved her recent photos –but which ones I like best and why I liked them.

 John Prine:  “You’ve got gold.  Gold inside of you.  I’ve got some gold, gold inside me, too.”

 I guess that’s why ‘the cold shoulder’ or being ignored –having one’s communications unanswered, feels so hurtful.  We all make what John Gottman calls “bids for connection” – some of us overtly and in our arm-flailing, exclamation point using ways, some much more subtly. Some, no doubt, so subtly that they go unseen.  We’re trying to share our gold. Did you see it?  Did you see me?  “Mommy! Watch me!”

 But when one has made an explicit ‘bid for connection’ which has gone unanswered – ouch.  Feels like a double ouch in a way – I don’t matter enough for you to respond to me.  And my communication didn’t matter to you either. 

 John Prine:  “How the hell can a person. Go to work in the morning. Come home in the evening

And have nothing to say.”

 To quote Walt Whitman from another favorite of my youth (entire poem pasted in below for your reading pleasure): “I know I am restless and make others so.”  Yeah, I know I ‘over-communicate.’

 We all communicate though. Constantly.  One of the things I took away from “Freakonomics” was the concept of ‘signaling’.  I signal that I’m gay by how I dress.   You signal that you’re really an actor, not a corporate wonk by the analogies you use rather than corporate speak.  He signals that he’s interested in you by how he fidgets when you’re around.  We’re all signaling constantly. And communicating.  And saying  “Mommy! Look at me!”

 I just hope I do a better job of saying “Good job!” and “Yes, I see you!” when you turn my way.  Because I’m so aware of what it feels like when that doesn’t happen.  Part of a poem I wrote recently said

 “If words upon words are unspoken
would that have extinguished the flame?”

 Reflecting since I wrote those words a month or so ago – I think the answer is ultimately yes. We knock and knock and eventually pull our coat round us tight, sigh, look downward and skulk away.

 So if you “make a bid for connection” and I don’t respond in ways that make you feel seen, tell me.

 And if I’m just way off the mark and being seen or acknowledged is truly the LAST thing you’d like, tell me how that is for you (and I suspect you introverts like to be seen in different ways than us extroverts – so tell us how).

 What happens in YOUR life that makes you feel that the answer to Joni’s question is “Yup!” — “will you take me as I am?  Will you?”

 I’m interested in what you have to say. This has been much on my mind these past many months.  Speak your piece!

 And now, I’ll let Walt speak his.  If you get nothing else from me today, just soak in this beautiful poem that still cracks open my heart:

 As I Lay with My Head in Your Lap Camerado

by Walt Whitman
(1819-1892)


As I lay with my head in your lap camerado,
The confession I made I resume, what I said to you and the open air
I resume,
I know I am restless and make others so,
I know my words are weapons full of danger, full of death,
For I confront peace, security, and all the settled laws, to
unsettle them,
I am more resolute because all have denied me than I could ever have
been had all accepted me,
I heed not and have never heeded either experience, cautions,
majorities, nor ridicule,
And the threat of what is call’d hell is little or nothing to me,
And the lure of what is call’d heaven is little or nothing to me;
Dear camerado! I confess I have urged you onward with me, and still
urge you, without the least idea what is our destination,
Or whether we shall be victorious, or utterly quell’d and defeated.


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