“There’s never an end to dust
and dusting,” my aunt would say
as her rag, like a thunderhead,
scudded across the yellow oak
of her little house. There she lived
seventy years with a ball
of compulsion closed in her fist,
and an elbow that creaked and popped
like a branch in a storm. Now dust
is her hands and dust her heart.
There’s never an end to it.
~Ted Kooser “Carrie” from Flying at Night: Poems 1965-1985
My Great Aunt Marion was considered odd, no question about it. She usually dressed in somber woolens, smelling faintly of mothballs and incense. Her straight gray hair was bobbed with bangs, unfashionable for the wavy permanents of the fifties and the beehives of the sixties. Aunt Marion was a second grade teacher all her life, never marrying, and she lived for over 50 years in a spotless tiny apartment until the day she died in 1975. She bequeathed what little she had to the church she had faithfully attended a few blocks away and was buried in the family plot on a windswept hill overlooking Puget Sound.
I was overseas when she died, and to my knowledge, none of the extended family attended her funeral. In her retirement years she had become reclusive and remote. It was clear visitors weren’t welcome so visits to her became rare. In an effort to counteract that, I have annually visited her gravesite for the past 30+ years, paying homage to this aunt who remained an enigma in life and became even more mysterious in death.
She grew up in the early 20th century in an impoverished German immigrant family who relocated from Wisconsin to the northwest. Her father was gone most of the year running steamboats up the Yukon, leaving her mother to make do as a some time school teacher and full time mother. Her older brother dropped schooling early for the rough and ready life of the local logging camps but Marion finished teachers’ college at the Western Washington Normal School on the hill in Bellingham. She began her life’s work teaching 2nd grade a few miles away at Geneva Elementary School, and became the primary caretaker in her mother’s declining years.
Her shock over her brother’s marriage to a much younger teenage girl in 1917 created foment within an already fractious family that persisted down through the generations. As the offspring of that union, my father tried to prove his worth to his judgmental aunt. She was had a spiky and thorny personality, stern and unforgiving, but politely tolerated his existence though would never acknowledge his mother. Family gatherings weren’t possible due to the ongoing bitter conflict between the two strong-willed ladies.
Though Marion was childless, her heart belonged to her many students as well as a number of children she sponsored through relief organizations in developing countries around the world. Her most visible joy came from her annual summer trip to one of those exotic countries to meet first hand the child she was sponsoring. It seemed to fuel her until the next trip could be planned. She visited Asia and India numerous times, as well as Central and South America. It provided the purpose that was missing in the daily routine of her life at home.
I moved to my great aunt’s community over three decades ago, 10 years after she had died. I’d occasionally think of her as I drove past her old apartment building or the Methodist church she attended. Several years ago, I noticed a new wing on the old church, modern, spacious and airy. I commented on it to a co-worker who I knew attended that church.
He said the old church building had undergone significant remodeling over the years to update the wiring and plumbing, to create a more welcome sanctuary for worship and most recently to add a new educational wing for Sunday School and after school programs during the weekdays. As one of the council members in the church’s leadership, he commented that he was fortunate to attend a church equipped with financial resources to provide programs such as this in a struggling neighborhood that had more than its share of latch-key kids and single parents barely making do. He mentioned an endowment from a bequest given over 40 years ago by a spinster schoolteacher in her will. This lady had attended the church faithfully for years, and was somewhat legendary for her silent weekly presence in the same pew and that she rarely spoke to others in the church. She arrived, sat in the same spot, and left right after the service, barely interacting. Upon her death, she left her entire estate to the church, well over $1 million in addition to the deed to an oil well in Texas which has continued to flow and prosper over the past several decades. The new wing was dedicated to her memory as it represented her expressed desire for her neighborhood.
I asked if her name was Marion and he stared at me baffled. Yes, I knew her, I said. Yes, she was a remarkable woman. Yes, how proud she would be to see her legacy – what she had worked so hard for and then left behind — come to fruition.
There were times as I was growing up I wondered if my Great Aunt Marion had a secret lover somewhere, or if she led a double life as her life at home seemed so lonely and painful. I know now that she did have a secret life. She loved the children she had made her own and she lived plainly and simply in order to provide for others who had little. Her extended family is better off having never inherited that money or an oil well. It could have torn an already conflicted family apart and Marion knew, estranged from her only blood relatives, her money would hurt us more than it would help.
Her full story has died with her. Even so, I mourn her anew, marveling at what became of the dust of her, the legacy she chose to leave.
Of this, I am deeply proud.