Tuesday, April 10, 2018

goodnight, gracie

The news was inevitable. But it was no less shocking because of that.

My mother sent an email last night that her eldest sister, Naomi, my last-surviving aunt, died yesterday. The news was inevitable because her granddaughter had contacted me last week to inform me that Aunt Naomi was receiving hospice care.

As it is so often, the news was hopefully ambiguous. Tired from tests. Simply needs rest. We will spend time with her while we can. And, as is so often the case, the latter message bore the weight of reality.

Trying to sum up a life in a few brief words is always a fool's mission. But, Naomi's life cannot pass without comment.

The statisticians would reduce all of our lives to a string of numbers. Born Naomi Ruth (after the two main characters in the Book of Ruth) Munro, the oldest daughter of three children, in 1924 in Hallock, Minnesota. In the fold where Minnesota, North Dakota, and Manitoba blend into featureless horizons.

She was the heir to wandering immigrant genes. From a Minnesota-born father whose heritage was Prince Edward Island and Scotland, and a Minnesota-born mother whose family had meandered through Quebec, and Vermont after arriving in Massachusetts Bay Colony.

But the wandering did not stop there. In the 1920s, her parents packed up their goods, along with her and her brother Wayne, to move to the more-promising delights of Powers, Oregon.

Being an intelligent young woman, upon graduating from high school, Naomi saw an opportunity to escape the gravitational pull of Powers that had little to offer the talented. What promise Powers held for her parents, it held none for her. So, she was off to nursing school. And never turned back.

She married Frank Roth (the last soldier) and raised her two sons (Dennis and Gary) during his military career while simultaneously working as a registered nurse. They lived in Long Beach and Seattle (where we visited them) and in Honolulu (where we did not).

When Frank retired, the Roths decided to settle one final time; they moved to the Portland area. My family had moved there from Powers in the late 1950s. Eventually, Berneice (their other sister), my grandmother, and Uncle Wayne moved there, as well, from southern Oregon, a region whose job opportunities were quickly eroding.

For one brief shining moment, our not-very-extended family lived within dining moments of one another. The most important event, of course, was Thanksgiving -- with all of the benefits of Christmas and none of its consumer mania.

It was a forum where Naomi shone. She was the perfect hostess. Solicitous. Generous with a meal. Charming.

Writing that made me ask just how often I truly thanked her for having us for dinner. Without doubt, I thanked her in that perfunctory way we all do when someone has just removed a bit of fluff from our dinner jackets.

If I had given her heart-felt thanks, I know what she would have said. "What is there to thank me for? You are family."

In an email exchange last night with her son Dennis, he said: "Mom was a very considerate, loving, and compassionate mother."

That insight has the additional advantage of being absolutely true.
 She was all that and more.

My cousin Dan and I always took great amusement in pulling Aunt Naomi into some of our droll banter. She would inevitably mistake the bit of humor we were congratulating ourselves on exhuming. And inevitably her response would be inadvertently hilarious.

Dan called her our own Gracie Allen. And she was. She proved it by good-naturedly bearing the label.

Not every individual can be an Auntie Mame -- the star who beams her light on you letting you share a moment of glory as if only you and she exist, and then leaves you in the Arctic when her glance turns elsewhere. Those are the relatives we tend to extol above others.

But they are not the people who keep the world running. Who empty bed pans to dress her children for school. Who open their homes as a place to live to nieces they barely know. Who sacrifice their time and love to create holiday meals that their families will cherish for their entire lives.

They are the mothers. The nurturers. And, yes, Dennis, the compassionate.

I looked through my photographs to see if I could find a photograph of Naomi in her natural element -- directing the production of Thanksgiving dinner. But I could only find a family photograph in my grandmother's sitting room from a Christmas in what I suppose to be the mid-1950s.

The Roths must have been changing assignments. At least, they are all there. Naomi. Frank. Dennis. Gary. That is Naomi on the right side of the couch. Sitting between her parents, my grandmother and grandfather. (My aunt Berneice must be the shutterbug.)

But the photograph perfectly sums up her life. The people in that room were the people she loved. Her family. Her relatives. The people for whom she sacrificed to see that their lives were just a little bit better.

And that is why I say, a bittersweet farewell: "Goodnight, Gracie."

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