I wrote this piece two years ago today, just after my Aunt Dell died. This weekend, I edited it slightly to post here because the Strong girls live on in me, in each wild fern I notice, adventure I plan, day of honest work I contribute.
This morning my Aunt Dell passed away. She was the last of the three Strong sisters, and while it was a mercy for her to find peace at 97, her absence leaves a hole. We were already close, but when my grandmother died, she took me in as her own. I’d make the drive to Mansfield and zip up in one of her housecoats to have coffee with her or we’d paint our toenails or eat taco soup or tea cakes, and she would give me photos and old letters, knowing I didn’t have many family things. We’d laugh mainly – over old stories she’d relate or ones about my kids’ latest antics she’d prod me to tell. Always, she loved to laugh. I’m remembering her telling me, nearing her mid-80’s, that she was giving up her line-dancing troupe (they danced at nursing homes to cheer up “the old folks”). She laughed and said, “Hazel told me, ‘watch out, when you hit 85, you just start to feel a little bit old.’”
And always, she told me she loved me. On Sunday, I got to hold her hand and tell her goodbye. I sang her a lullaby from her mother, my great grandmother, that had come to me all the way down through my mother. Over in Killarney, many years ago, my mother sang a song to me, with accent sweet and low. Just a plain and simple ditty, in her sweet old fashioned way, and I’d give the world if she could sing that song for me today. I stroked her hand with her familiar fine and elegant oval fingernails, the same as my grandmother’s, my eyes filling as I sang these words my mother sang me, her mother sang her. I was telling her it was okay to go at that same time I sang a song about longing for your mother, at the same time as I strained against the inevitability of losing this beloved aunt, a precious link to my own mother, a thread so heartbreakingly tensile and fragile, all at once.
What else can we do in those moments?
Families have their own mythologies and ideologies, just like nations and cultures. In my family, the Strong sisters, in reality and in notion, formed the backbone to our family story. They are so much of how we envision ourselves, or at least aspire to be, collectively and individually. When we cousins see each other, we talk about their example, the way they lived for so long, each of them so fiercely independent, so inventively smart and creatively resourceful, so focused in their love. We retell their childhood and early adulthood stories, which have now become larger than life. And I can only speak for myself in saying that I have imprinted on me their code: Work hard, Keep learning, Respect the earth, Be of service, Dedicate yourself to friends and family.
Aunt Dell was 97. It didn’t feel shocking and untimely like so many deaths do, like my Mom’s did 24 years ago. But her passing, like the passing of Hazel and Lois, is still a great loss to me, and I think to this world. The strength of the Strong girls wasn’t in flashy jobs or published works or even notoriety that existed beyond these little north Louisiana towns. But each of them bravely found her own enrichment, stood up to bullies, raised her children to be kind, found a way to help people who needed help, and – critically, I believe – stayed open and curious to an unfolding life of their own making, full and rich, and above all — strong.