Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A great lady

I can think of no fitting tribute to my great aunt Marie, who died early in the morning of Aug. 13 after a terrible bout with stomach cancer.

She died with dignity and courage. She meant the world to me and to so many others.

I wrote the column below a few years ago, and it best sums up what a great role she played in my life.

Great-aunt's life is a lesson in kindness
By (Riot Kitty)
Apr 20, 2004

On the surface, we couldn't be more different.

My great aunt, Marie, who turns 78 this month, is a conservative woman. She lives in Ohio, loves gardening and the outdoors, and reads The Wall Street Journal each night.

I'm a suburban kid, don't think much about the stock market, and tend to view the outdoors as a place to drive through between cities.

But "Aunt Marie," as most people call her, is one of my dearest friends, someone who has been there in the happiest and most difficult moments of my life.

It was her generous financial help that got me through my last semester of college. It was her encouragement that helped me through a difficult few months after that, when I was living with family in Texas and unable to find a job.

When I got my first newspaper job, she sent me several cards addressed to "Michelle Madison, Reporter," as well as a slew of pens, pencils and notepads.

She taught me from the age of 10, when I went to spend a summer at her house, that how you look is as important as what you say. "If you interview for a job and you look like a mess, who do you think they're going to hire? The person who's dressed nicer than you," she said.

Marie reminded me of this when I went to work as a general assignment reporter in California five years ago.

"Don't forget to dress professionally," she said, "and above all, DON'T chew gum! It's very distracting." (Apparently, the local newspaper in her town of East Liverpool, Ohio, has no such standards for its reporters, which she frowns upon.)

As a child, I thought her proper and a bit uptight. As I get older, I realize how unconventional she was, especially when she was young.

After graduating from high school, she was expected to get married to the son of a neighboring farmer in rural Illinois. Instead, Marie bucked tradition and moved by herself to Chicago. She worked during the day and put herself through night school, often not having enough money for the bus fare home.

That would require bravery today. Imagine how unconventional it was in the 1940s.

She has never thought it strange that I didn't want to get married or have children, reminding me that she didn't get married until she was nearly 40.

Through work, she met my great Uncle John, a doctor who was widowed and 22 years her senior.

"You take your time," she tells me now. "A lot of people probably thought I would never get married. But I don't regret getting married at age 37 and a half one bit."

She nursed John through Parkinson's disease for the last eight years of their marriage. Not only was she selfless as a spouse, but she was also a volunteer for years in East Liverpool.

It was Marie who persuaded John to make a large contribution to keep the county's mental hospital open. Since his death, she has worked to improve the town's park, read to children and visited shut-ins. She doesn't talk about it, but I imagine that she helps keep many activities and groups afloat with her financial contributions.

When arthritis forced her to scale back her park activities, Marie decided, in her 70s, to train and become a hospice volunteer. Since then, she has sat up many a night with friends whose family members are dying.

"It's what friends are for," she says.

Aunt Marie probably spends more hours as a volunteer than most people do at paid jobs.

"My guiding principle in my life," she says, "is to help other people."

She has certainly accomplished that goal. And along the way, she has brightened many lives, including mine.


Darth Weasel said...

Allow me to express my condolences. She sounds like a wonderful person and your tribute was very nice, and gives a lot of insight into how you became who you are.

Jessica Foster said...

What a tribute--I am sure she was proud to count you as a niece and a friend.

leftcoastbob said...

I'm sorry for your loss. At least you had a chance to visit with her before she died--which was probably a comfort to both of you.