The Strong Sisters

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.

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There were 3 Strong sisters: Hazel, Delta and Lois – and in addition to living up to their name, they were many things: independent, loving, resourceful, giving, intrepid, curious. Each lived longer and more actively than many of us either choose to or have opportunity to. And while they always demurred when I asked them what the secret was, I was around each long enough to know it was in the way they embraced life and change. Few women in the 1930’s went to college — paying for it with their own work, I might add — and did so boldly, without apology, without fear. But they did.
They also made many of their own clothes, grew their own vegetables, taught hundreds of school children, raised families, started businesses, and traveled the globe. So many people growing up in poor, rural communities today, nevermind in the 1920s and 1930s, are not able to think of the world and all its opportunities as their own. I’m not sure how these daughters of a small-time and largely itinerant farmer in rural East Texas tapped that so long ago — I know they had solid, hard working god-fearing parents who taught them the importance of bettering themselves and giving back. But I think there must have been a little magic of uniquely good genes involved too (did I mention that two of them didn’t see their jet black hair go grey until their 80’s, and the other sported killer gams her whole life?). It was the hope to tap those magic genes that inspired me to name my daughter Charlotte Strong.
But they were different, too. Hazel, the oldest and my grandmother, the businesswoman, the civic leader, frugal, hard working, insisting on Latin names for plants, constantly teaching – from adult literacy to immigrants, to Bible verses to school children, to teaching me how to sew a quilt, how to find the forest fern that curls up when you touch it, how to take care of myself on my own. Her lips were usually narrowed in a tight and thin straight line — as much due to her natural expression as to the row of straight pins she was forever holding there while she custom-hemmed Wranglers at Cooper’s Cowboy Store.  She also fiercely believed that adventure and fun were worth anything – so long as it was educational.  She took me on long college hunting trips around the country and made sure I found a way to study abroad and travel in my early 20’s, changing the course of my life for the better. Sweet Dell, the middle sister, so doting and kind, devoted to her family, to educating mentally handicapped children for generations, to the well being and regular nurturing of her friends and loved ones through frequent note cards with Audubon prints on the front, her spidery handwriting inquiring inside. Dell, herself an entrepreneur in antiques, gentle but strong, positive and bubbly and chatty, eager to refill your iced tea and remember to ask after those terrible allergies you had last season. Lois, the youngest, the basketball coach who told me when she was 82 that what she’d really wanted to be all along was a geologist. Lois with her wry humor, voracious appetite for LSU football (“If the Tigers don’t complete this play, I’m going to need a nerve pill!”), her frank and straightforward manner, her love of travel and curiosity for new people, places, adventure.  Lois who never seemed like an old lady – who once, towards the end, when I was worried about her driving and hemmed and hawed, “oh, just hop in with me. I love to drive!” narrowed her eyes and said, “How about we say what we mean, dear.”

 

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.

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9 thoughts on “The Strong Sisters

  1. I remember your mother telling us about the Cooper Western Store. I knew then that she was strong but did not know the Strong name was her mother’s name. How completely fitting. I love the stories of your family as I get a little more glimpse of the young woman who taught me so much that had nothing to do with American History.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Im so glad I got to meet Aunt Dell, her husband and family. This really made me think of my grandmother, MeMa, and made me tear up. I spoke to my Aunt Doris today and promised I would visit soon, reading this made me definitely decide I have to, real soon.

    Liked by 1 person

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