Today, about nine months later, I pulled the card out from its not-so-forgettable hiding place. My Aunt Maryo died this morning.
The little card has its usual greeting of "Hi Lara Loopers!" her little nickname for me, but it's funny in that it clearly states “No Birth Dates!” at the top with a squiggly circle around it, yet I don’t remember her ever being sensitive about her age. She was always this neatly dressed, vivacious woman with perfect pink lipstick and big red hair. I’d believed it to be her real hair color all the way up into my teens, until she revealed one day that it was probably all white now underneath all the dye – red AND black dye, as she sported a pretty awesome black beehive in the 1970s – and probably the ‘60s, too. Nobody’s hair was naturally that color – not even close – but it suited her and I loved it.
Even when she got sick, the hair color faded to grey and the 24/7 oxygen feed in her nose produced a little “puff” sound every few minutes, the vivacious stayed…at least around me. My favorite thing was to hear her not just laugh, but crack up. A ridiculous story and a little chardonnay (with ice in a proper glass, of course) could usually make it happen and man it was the best sound – loud and contagious.
She was actually not well most of my life. I’ve seen her in a hospital gown along with the inside of the Intensive Care Unit at Olathe Medical Center more than I care to admit. We called her the bionic woman because with all the chest pains, open-heart surgeries, blockages, metal stints, medications and injuries, she was given life expectancies by doctors and this tiny little lady shattered them all to pieces. When her illnesses progressed and she qualified for hospice as she wanted to stay in her own home, we all prepared ourselves, yet time kept marching on.
“I’ve been in hospice for over a year and a half!” She told me over the phone once. “They’re going to kick me out!”
She was pretty old fashioned, but always quirky and a bit feisty. She minded her manners, but was quick to let you know sharply when she didn’t like something. Things that everybody now considers wrong and probably racist used to fly out of her mouth from time to time as they tend to do with the older generations, which made us cringe and change the subject, but then there were always the progressive moments. One time I was staying the night with her to keep her company right after Pete had died in 2010 and we were watching the show, “How I Met Your Mother.” She said, “I really like Neil Patrick Harris, but why did he have to come out and say he was gay?” I said, “Well, Maryo, you really just have to be who you are.” And she said, “You know Lara, you’re right.”
She spent a good part of her life bouncing around the country from military base to military base with her beloved husband Roger (Pete) as a Marine wife, but also spent several decades at the same company in the Kansas City area helping to support her family and becoming a part of the family at the company as well. She loved her family, wine, ice cream and her projects as she was incredibly creative. Throughout the years she dabbled in wreath making, ornaments, miniature magnetic saws, painted rock animals, china painting and knitting, most of which she showed and sold at art fairs. She’d make a fortune on Etsy these days.
One of my favorite stories that she probably told me 400 times usually around graduation or the start of a new school year was when she had given college a “try” and stuck with it for nine whole months. She said she was dissecting frogs in zoology class and had to identify whether the frog was male or female. When the professor got to her he said, “Miss Hastings, you have mangled the frog so badly that you can no longer determine whether it’s male or female.” She said she was pretty much done with college after that. But, even though she had never finished college, she always encouraged my decision to get an advanced education as well as any careers or projects I pursued. Plus, she never even once asked me, “When the hell are you getting married already?” In fact, several years ago she said, “I think one of the reasons you have it together is because you’ve decided NOT to get married yet.” She was divorced when she met Pete who was 10 years younger than her, which was pretty taboo for the times. “Everybody cared except for us and we didn’t care about everybody else,” she’d said in a matter-of -fact tone giving a subtle and polite as possible middle finger to the world. I always loved that about her.
Since she didn’t want me to reveal her birth date, I’ll just say she was in her early 80s and to me, considering everything, she lived a long, happy life. Yes, my aunt, not my great aunt was in her 80s. Her and my dad were born 15 years apart with the Great Depression and WWII in between them. I always thought it was because my grandparents had trouble in the reproduction department, but as it turns out, they waited until they could afford another child like a lot of people did before the end of the war in the mid 1940s, hence the Baby Boomer generation.
Anyway, the age difference has always made for an interesting family dynamic. The first time Pat came to meet my family, I drew him a family tree on the plane to try to help him understand and he was still confused. My first cousins are in their 50s, while my second cousins are in their late 20s and 30s AND my third cousins are children. I never really had grandparents or at least the grandparent experience as they died before I was born or when I was very young or were just not very “grandparent-like.”
People take families for granted. They grow up a certain way and think it’s like that for everybody. Also, while I don’t usually talk about work, employer bereavement policies (and stingy vacation time) are absolutely archaic and maddening. Not everybody has the traditional definition of family. Bloodlines and labels don’t define relationships and those we hold closest to our hearts. Aunt Maryo and Uncle Pete filled that grandparent void as well as others in my life that most people don’t have to think about. Her and Uncle Pete never forgot a birthday or missed a milestone. They were always aware, present, available, encouraging and kind when so many others were not. They actually loved and CARED about me and me about them always and not only that, but they made sure I knew that with words and actions. And, it wasn’t because they felt like they had to or knew they were filling this void, but because that’s just they way they were and felt. The effort and connections elders make with you as a child and continue to foster into adulthood are something that shape you regardless of labels and blood. I may be sad about the relationships I didn’t get the chance to have and slightly bitter about the ones that could have been, but weren’t, but I’m so incredibly grateful and happy for the one really great one (or two) I got to have with my Aunt Maryo and Uncle Pete.
I’ll always remember the little things she did for me that made me smile. Every holiday and pretty much every time I came into town she made the “Sacred Sugar Cookies,” named after a particular incident when news that all the cookies were gone made my 3-year-old self burst into tears. She even made them when she was not exactly the most mobile person in the world with her oxygen tubes dangling dangerously near the open oven scaring any caretakers half to death. Instead of the typical check or cash, her and Pete took me shoe shopping for my college graduation. I’m not sure there’s a better way to satisfy a 22-year-old fashionista and they seemed to know that. I still have and wear all the shoes from that day.
Thankfully, I was actually in KC to wrap up some last minute wedding plans this past weekend and got to spend Thursday evening with Aunt Maryo. I always make it a point to visit her when I’m in town and I’ve spent the last couple of years knowing that it might be my last. Plus, it was really important to me for her to know Pat. Thursday was a great night in that Maryo was alert and talkative. My mom, dad, Maryo and I sat around her kitchen table eating pizza (with placemats because no placemats is caveman-like to Maryo) and talking about old memories of her job, her childhood and her parents. We also talked about my wedding that she so wanted to go to, but knew she couldn’t because she was too ill. I told her we would take videos and pictures of everything, then bring it over to show her the day after.
Later that weekend when she’d taken a turn for the worse and I made the decision not to go back over there because I wanted to remember her the way she was on Thursday, my dad said, “That might have been the last lucid conversation you just had with your aunt.” And, it was. I feel like she saved that night just for me.
Today I’m nursing my grief with a day off of work, a box of tissues, snuggling with Pat and my dogs, eating a greasy cheeseburger (the good, old fashioned kind cooked on a flat top with crusty edges and lots of onions, my favorite, reserved only for victories and bad days), maybe a shopping trip later and of course, writing. I’m also thinking about the changes I need to make in my life in order to live my best life. It’s funny how the death of someone close can make you realize certain things or light a fire under your ass as if they’re sending you a message. I made some really great decisions for myself after we lost Pete and now it’s time to reevaluate and continue on that path.
I’m honored to write my aunt’s obituary as those little blurbs are some of the most noteworthy pieces of writing I could ever create. Really capturing someone’s life that was so significant in your own in just a few sentences takes time, skill and a considerable understanding of who that person was and I’m even more honored that she actually chose me to write it specifically. I don’t believe in god and many of the things that go along with that, but I do believe she’s happier now with Pete and of course now they both get to go to my wedding together.
Thank you for your generosity and kindness, Auntie M. You were my family, my friend, my favorite, my fellow beauty, shoe and Coach bag loving buddy and you were so special to me. I’ll miss you so much.