Last Monday night my Great Aunt Ethel passed away at the age of 101. More incredible than her age was what she did during those 101 years so I was very interested to read her obituary. I haven’t seen my great aunt in a number of years but I can tell you we have lost one of the last remaining greats of the Greatest Generation.
According to her obituary, she lived in Albany for many years. Reading that brought me back at least 35 years to her beautiful Albany brownstone and how cool I thought it was. I remember my little legs walking up what seemed like a thousand steps to get up to the main living area which overlooked Washington Park, close to downtown. For someone like me who grew up on the edge of the middle of nowhere, the prospect of going to the city was always very exciting. I suppose my city envy never wore off. After all I ended up in New York and Chicago. Usually I was there for family gatherings. She had super fancy china with a silver dinner bell and I think I got yelled at once for thinking it was a toy. We didn’t blow out candles there, she had a candle snuffer, just like at church.
She was married for 70 years, until my great uncle died a handful of years ago. That is well-covered territory in the obituary of course and it’s an amazing milestone but so was their 50-year anniversary, how they renewed their vows at their church in Albany. It was close to my 8th grade graduation and as busy as a 13-year old’s social calendar was, it was important to the family that we went, so my sister and I got all dressed up and went with my dad to watch them say “I do” once again. After the reception he took us around the corner to Quintessence. They made the best chicken teriyaki, ever. Now Quintessence is gone. So is my great aunt.
She was ahead of her time in so many ways. Her obituary will tell you she graduated medical school in 1938 and that she ultimately became a pediatrician and pioneer in psychosomatic disorders in children. Back in those days statistics such as a breakdown of male and female students were not published in glossy admissions brochures but I am willing to bet there were far fewer women in her graduating med school class in 1938 than even the paltry 25% women in my graduating MBA class in 2001.
Speaking of being ahead of her time, in the mid 1970s, long before drunk driving awareness, SADD, MADD or any other organization rhyming with “ad”, she rented a bus to take the entire family safely out to Ithaca and back when her daughter got married at Cornell. She had the foresight to realize that my dad, his siblings and their cousins would be seriously partying and in no shape to drive. I was my daughter’s age at the time but one of my earliest memories is being all dressed up, in those white little girl leotards that slid all over the vinyl seats of the bus as I tried to curl up to go to sleep. I am not sure which impeded my toddler sleep more, the slippery seats or the thunderous laughter erupting from the cloud of cigarette smoke in the back where my parents, aunts and uncles congregated, plenty of Finger Lakes wine and beer accompanying them.
In addition to her academic achievements, her obituary mentions her artistic talents, that she was an accomplished pianist and singer. The obituary won’t tell you that the family gatherings she hosted, the ones with the fancy china, were filled with music, and not the kind coming from stereo speakers. Sometimes she would play piano, sometimes it was one of my dad’s cousins, but they all sang, in multi-part harmonies. My tone-deaf self was always impressed by that.
Her obituary mentions she is survived by many nieces and nephews, but she never met my son, her great-great nephew, in person that is, but she knew him through his piano recitals. After she turned 100 last year, she thanked me for sending her the video of his version of “Spring” from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”. She wrote back, telling me he played “…unusually well and was at ease at the piano. I liked that.” I liked that too, because she commended him for this talent, not just because he was family. And she certainly knew piano talent.
There is a summary of some of the organizations she worked with, serving on the board of her undergraduate alma mater, assisting her medical school in a few different capacities, among others but as generous as she was with her time, talent and treasure, her philanthropy started at home. When I was little, my dad opened a tavern but like many small businesses in the recession-plagued early 1980s it failed, despite the money she gave him. Some time later after the bar closed, he tried to pay her back. Notice I used the word “tried”. She refused to take the money, but instead told my dad to open two bank accounts, one for me, one for my sister, and put the money in there for us. The money became mine when I turned 18 and went to college. I remember going to the bank with my dad to sign over the paperwork. It ended up being about a couple of thousand dollars which was quite a bit of money to a scholarship student in 1992. I still have that account all these years later.
Now she is gone but while I am left with these words from her obituary, I am also left with her own words. Somewhere in a box packed away with my college newspaper articles and term papers, I have a copy of the family history she wrote. I read all 10 pages or so at a family party when I was in 9th grade and wanted my own copy, so there she was in her mid-70s at the time, typing away and printing out another copy from her computer. I am pretty sure it was an Apple Macintosh Classic. I could recognize that Arial font anywhere. Because of her writing, I know about my dad’s side of the family from the time they came here from what is now the Czech Republic through her generation. Thanks to her, I know about my grandfather, her brother, who I never knew since he died 4 years before I was born. My mother never even met him so all I have are a few stories from my father plus Ethel’s writing.
She paid attention to my interest in writing and encouraged me to do the same. In a way, I felt like I let her down since I never kept up the family history she started during her lifetime. But you know, by writing this post, by sharing my stories of her with my sister and cousins and all of our collective children, this next generation in the family, I would like to believe I am doing the same thing now keeping our family members vibrant and alive through my words, just as she did for me with her words. So maybe, just maybe, she is smiling at me now from somewhere.
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