Today was a day of many different emotional levels.
As my daughter and her two little ones and I were just about to leave to go grocery shopping today, I received a phone call from my cousin Ken. I pretty much knew as soon as I realized who it was on the other end of the line what this call was about and my suppositions were, sadly, correct.
His mother, my dearest aunt, had died yesterday. She had cancer that had been untreated (either kidney or liver, not sure now which) and it had spread this summer into her lungs. For the past 5-6 weeks, since her last hospitalization, she had been with her younger daughter, Becky and her family, at their home about 45 miles south of Pittsburgh. Ken said the past week, she had mostly slept and the passing was relatively painfree as she had been in a coma for the past day or two.
Although I've know since his call to be 4 weeks earlier that this was inevitable, it is still the call you definitely don't want to receive. And that certainly was the case with my Aunt Mary. She was the one member of my extended family who most understood the inner workings of my sometimes very scrambled mind.
She and I, as she had pointed out to me over the past two decades, shared much more beyond the aunt-niece relationship as our lives ran very much parallel from the way we were raised to our feelings about family and ourselves - much of which stemmed from the way we both grew up.
Born in 1921, at a time when divorce was far from the norm, her mother divorced her father when she was about 2-3 years old and she never saw him again. I was born in 1944 but my Dad died when I was 2 1/2 weeks old, so you see, we both grew up wondering about who we were, why we were this or that way and such, basically because we really never knew which traits - good, bad or indifferent - came from our maternal or paternal side of our genetics. She understood those weird questions in my mind that no one could seem to answer for me.
She and her mother lived then with her mother's parents and the same held true for me as well since Mom and I lived with my maternal grandparents. Although I knew most of my Dad's siblings and a goodly number of those cousins, I grew up feeling more that I was a part of the "Eld" family, as opposed to the "Hill" side but yet, there were certain little quirky things I felt along my path to this age or stage of my life that just didn't seem to fit the mold of my Mom's family's actions or reactions at times. Aunt Mary understood that completely too!
Being raised as an only child, we each wanted to marry, have a family - more than one or two children, to say the least. She had four children; I had three. At the time of her death, she had twelve grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren. I have - so far - three grandchildren and three step-grandchildren.
She instilled an interest in me during my teenage years in sewing although I was often afraid to do that much sewing while my Mom was alive because my Mom was an excellent seamstress, as had been her Mother, and Mom was also very, very particular about her sewing work too. Each seam had to be perfect - whether it was one that would be seen on the exterior or just an interior seam, it had best not veer outside the lines! Aunt Mary was particular but not quite to the same extent as Mom was. Her workmanship was quality stuff but her interior seaming might not always have been exactly straight if it wasn't going to be a seam that really would be noticable to the overall affect on the product.
She also is the one who fueled my interest in knitting and my love of yarns! Over the years of my life, I had several beautiful sweaters she made for me along with each of my children often received hand-knit items as did each of my grandchildren too. These were all treasured items - beautifully done, artfully crafted and precious because she had made them with me, or this or that particular child in mind.
It was Aunt Mary who got me turned on to making nifty craft reversible vests about 8 years ago and I made them in such quantities that I was selling them to many co-workers and even took them to a crafts fair that year and sold a few there - along with the neat craft-apron I loved to sew. She had made four gorgeous furry boa scarves and sent them to me, my daughters and a smaller one for my little granddaughter along with telling me too, how to go about making these scarves. My girls and I love the scarves she made for us not just because they are so lovely, but also yes, because she had made them specifically for us! I've since made well over 50 of these type of scarves and given them to various friends, family members as little gifts too. And right now, I have a huge selection of the furry yarns with which to make upteen more of these pieces! I also have about 3 or 4 large storage bins stashed full of various types of yarns with ideas that someday I will use that to knit or crochet some other projects as well! Almost enough yarn, along with even more other storage bins filled with various fabrics that I probably could darn near open a fabric and yarn shop of my own!
Aunt Mary tried when I was a child and would spend at least a week, often two or three weeks, each summer with her and my uncle and their four children to give me a little bit of a taste of what life was like with siblings! Those were exhilarating days spent in the back yard of their home on the outskirts of Corry, PA spent running, playing, getting absolutely filthy, romping with my four younger cousins and the many various animals always present at their home too! Dogs, cats, ducks, rabbits, pigs and one year, even a lamb graced their homestead! One of my most favorite memories of spending summers in Corry would be being there when the tomato crop in my uncle's always huge garden would begin to produce its fruits and our suppers then would consist of a gallon of milk, a jar of mayonnaise, two loaves of bread and a huge plate full freshly sliced tomatoes fresh from the vine! Delicious memories of those meals for sure! All of us save my youngest cousin, Becky, would dive into the bread, mayo and tomatoes and felt like we were dining like kings and queens on this feast. Beck hated tomatoes so she got special privileges and usually had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Poor kid still refuses to believe that fresh tomato sandwiches are food from the gods!
Aunt Mary stood by me during my Mom's illness and death - a strong shoulder to lean on, to cry on at times and one who could show me the errors of my thinking process now and again too.
When, at the age of 46, I decided I wanted to tackle going to college fulltime for the first time in my life, she was there to listen to me yack about what classes I was taking, reports on how much I loved this class, hated this one and who got the first call at the end of each semester as I would report in to her what my grades were and my current GPA! She was, next to my kids, my strongest cheerleading section that kept me going even when things seemed their roughest.
It was her who cleared up some mental confusion I was experiencing after reading some stuff another member of the extended family had put in the initial family tree data sheets as she told me the background on a family member, long dead, and his family's contrived story of a marriage that never took place but an abortion that did happen back in the late 1930's when this was really a very unheard of entity! Her telling me that story opened my eyes and gave me the ability then to understand why my Mom held the views she had about Roe vs. Wade which had totally surprised me. Being very Victorian in most of her beliefs, when my Mom had mentioned to me she felt strongly in the need for legal and medically approved abortions, I was quite surprised because it was the last response I had expected from her. However, after hearing the story Aunt Mary told me, I then understood fully why Mom had that strong committment to a cause so liberal, very much on the feminist side. Wish I'd known that before she died as it would have opened a lot better communications between us -perhaps.
And so, today I think back on the years and knowledge and love I had for this wonderful woman - my Aunt Mary - and again, thank the Good Lord for having put her in as a part of my family, to be a guiding star beside my Mom and taking over in the North Star position after my Mom's death too! So much, so very, very much there to be ever so grateful for having had her as a part of my life.
This then is my eulogy to my aunt - Mary Ann Mauk Eld, born October 18, 1921, died October 6, 2006 - a beautiful, strong, intelligent, educated, wonderful seamstress, craftsperson, cook, baker, aunt, mentor and above all, FRIEND - in the truest sense of the word.
You will always be with me.