August 28, 2010

She Was One Tough Bird

In the movie version of Oklahoma, the legendary dancer Charlotte Greenwood plays Aunt Eller. Aunt Eller talks tough to her niece Laurie Williams just as her new husband Curley is about to be tried for the murder of Poor Judd ("Poor Judd is dead, a candle lights his head, he's layin' in a coffin made of wood. He looks like he's asleep, it's a shame that he won't keep, but it's summer and we're runnin' out of ice.")

Laurie doesn't want to face the responsibilities that come with being an adult, and Aunt Eller gives her "what-for" and reminds her that is what women do. It struck me as the "stand behind your man" approach.

As anti-feminist as that may sound, I think it's just a different version of "stand by your man."

Being a strong woman and supporting others is being the ultimate feminist.

I come from a family of very strong women, like iron forged into steel by lives of poverty, low-paying work, tragedy, and selflessness.

My Aunt Laureen was cut from the Aunt Eller mold. She lost her father when she was a pre-teen and helped her single mother raise her two younger brothers. She emotionally supported a husband who was a soldier during World War II by working in a factory.

They had two children. Their youngest, a beautiful daughter with hazel eyes and curly black locks, died suddenly of meningitis at age two. Like many of her generation, my Aunt did not publicly display her grief. Instead she became a favorite Aunt to many nieces and nephews, including a niece with curly blonde locks who was born just a few months apart from her own daughter.

She was the "go to" person in the family. She was always first in line to make the funeral dinner, stay with the child with Down Syndrome, clean a house when someone was in the hospital. Along with her two sisters, she cared for her mother while caring for her own sick husband. They died two months apart.

As a new widow, she was not going to curl up and die. When her oldest sister got cancer, she stood at her bedside. She honored her sister's last wishes by burning sixty-years worth of diaries. We wanted to know, did she read them? She said, no, only the last entry. Her sister had been opened up in surgery, found to be full of cancer, and closed back up to die a month later. My younger aunt wanted to know if her sister made any reference to feeling ill in her diaries. She checked the last entry only, and there was no reference to it. What a temptation that must have been to have all those diaries in front of you and not read them?

A few months later, my younger aunt startled everyone by marrying her older sister's husband, the new widower. I was not shocked by this. I was happy for them -- they had known each other for sixty-five years. Not much of a courtship was needed.

Unfortunately, my double uncle dropped dead of a heart attack a few weeks later, and she was a widow again.

She, nor any of my aunts and uncles, had much education beyond high school, if that. They all worked hard, but never quite made it out of the working poor.

Despite all these things, Aunt Laureen just like Aunt Eller, had a stoic attitude about life, and just went on.

I think of her often, because she was my godmother, and I was very close to her.

She died a terrible death. Aunt Laureen always took care of all the family cemeteries. On Memorial Day she visited them to put out flower sprays as well as check to see if the Legion put out the flags on those family members who served.

Ten years ago she was miffed because the Legion had not put a flag on her husband's grave. She went to the dollar store and bought one, and hurried back to the graveyard to place the flag.

As she drove her late model car out into the highway, she pulled directly into the path of a car flying over a little ridge. At eighty-three, who knows what her vision or driving ability was? She was always so capable, no one ever questioned her.

She did not die instantly. The worst tragedy is that she was life-flighted to a suburban hospital that did not have her living will or health care POA on file. She was put on a ventilator and her family had to make the difficult choice to take her off a week later.

I feel certain that if there is a heaven, Laureen is there, providing moral support and comfort to angels with sore wings.