Never an End to What’s Left Behind

“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.

An Inheritance Bereft of Poetry

All day we packed boxes.
We read birth and death certificates.
The yellowed telegrams that announced
our births, the cards of congratulations
and condolences, the deeds and debts,
love letters, valentines with a heart
ripped out, the obituaries.

We opened the divorce decree,
a terrible document of division and subtraction.
We leafed through scrapbooks:
corsages, matchbooks, programs to the ballet,
racetrack, theatre—joy and frivolity
parceled in one volume—
painstakingly arranged, preserved
and pasted with crusted glue.

We sat together side by side
on the empty floor and did not speak.
There were no words
between us other than the essence
of the words from the correspondences,
our inheritance—plain speak,
bereft of poetry.
~Jill Bialosky from The Players

The box of over 700 letters, exchanged between my parents from late 1941 to mid-1945, sat unopened for decades. The time had come.

My parents barely knew each other before marrying quickly on Christmas Eve 1942 – the haste due to the uncertain future for a newly trained Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps. They only had a few weeks together before she returned home to her rural teaching position and he readied himself for the island battles to come.

I’m now half-way through reading them in chronological order. I’m up to March 1943 when my father received orders that he would be shipped out to the South Pacific within days. They had no idea they would not see each other for another 30+ months or see each other again at all. They had no idea their marriage would fall apart 35 years later and they would reunite a decade after the divorce.

The letters do contain the long-gone but still-familiar voices of my parents, but they are the words and worries of youngsters of 20 and 21, barely prepared for the horrors to come from war and interminable waiting. Much of the time they wrote each other daily, though with minimal news to share and military censors at work, but they speak mostly of their desire for a normal life together rather than a routine centered on mailbox, pen and paper.

I’m not sure what I hoped to find in these letters. Perhaps I hoped for flowery romantic whisperings and the poetry of longing and loneliness. Instead I am reading plain spoken words from two people who somehow made it through those awful years to make my sister and brother and myself possible.

Our inheritance is contained in this musty box of words bereft of poetry. But decades later my heart is moved by these letters – I carefully refold them back into their envelopes and replace them gently back in order. A six cent airmail stamp – in fact hundreds and hundreds of them – was a worthwhile investment in their future and ultimately mine.