Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Tribute to Aunt Esther

I grew up with two grandmothers: Grannie, my dad’s mom in Ceres, California; and Aunt Esther, my mom’s Aunt who was also her mother by proxy after her mother, Lois, died when my mom was only 16.

Mom called today with the news that Aunt Esther had passed away. She was 91 years old and her health had been declining, but she is immortalized in my memory as a relatively healthy beachcomber that was conscientious about her appearance, proud of her financial independence, and increasingly demonstrative in her affection for her “grandchildren” as the years passed.

Aunt Esther seemed to measure her life by financial independence and hard work, and upon visiting her and engaging in conversation for a while, it wasn’t long before she’d talk about her investments, the cost of various home-related projects, the nice financial advisor she’d hired, or someplace that she’d enjoyed visiting with Uncle Harold.

Aunt Esther was born in 1916, the same year as John F. Kennedy, and was two years older than Uncle Harold, born in 1918. I remember their phone number in Pismo Beach because it ended in 1917, right between their two birth years. By the way, Uncle Harold passed away in September 1998 and after that Aunt Esther was never quite the same.

Aunt Esther was a faithful letter-writer, sometimes handwritten but more often typewritten. She’d remember everyone’s birthdays, and as children we could usually look forward to “money from Aunt Esther,” maybe a five dollar bill or even ten. From time to time as a younger boy I’d receive a toy or a souvenir from one of the places she had visited with Uncle Harold, but I think it made Aunt Esther feel very good to give cash to her grandsons.

My earliest memories of Disneyland included a routine trip to Aunt Esther’s house in Torrance and later Redondo Beach, just mom and us three boys. Uncle Harold would stay home which he’d done every time since my mom was a little girl. Family legend says he never did go inside Disneyland even while working and living nearby, but Aunt Esther opened the door for the experience.

When I was thirteen we drove with Aunt Esther to Los Alamos, New Mexico, to visit Aunt Carolyn, Uncle Jim, and our cousins Jay, Keith and toddler Tonya. I remember on the return trip Aunt Esther was sited for speeding by an Arizona state police officer and I noticed a sign that said “Crazy Creek” on the bridge we crossed as she pulled over to the side on Highway 40. I thought it was funny at the time.

In 1986 Aunt Esther and Uncle Harold moved to Arroyo Grande while building their house in Pismo Beach, moving into the new house above the beach in 1987 when I left for college. I’m sure they came north to be near mom and cousin Cheryl, and they must have intended for the new house to be their final home together, which it was, although Aunt Esther herself spent her final couple years in an assisted living home in Grants Pass, Oregon, near Uncle Gene, her younger brother.

Melissa and I would always make sure we stopped to visit Aunt Esther on our way back home to San Diego, and one time I remember Aunt Esther seeing me on one of our visits, and saying, “You’re so chubby!” with a little chuckle which made it easier for me to laugh along and look for a way to segue into lighter conversation before withdrawing into private thoughts and promises to myself that I needed to get back into shape.

As she aged I learned to handle Aunt Esther with greater affection. For most of my life I don’t remember Aunt Esther as particularly demonstrative aside from making sure that we were well-fed, had some cash in our pockets, and received greeting cards on every occasion. But in her later years I’d hold her hand while talking to her and she’d grip mine tightly. She would cry as we said good-bye after a visit. She appeared to be embarrassed about her inability to fully care for herself, and yet would be as dignified and composed as she could be, always aware of how she was dressed and made-up.

Father, welcome Aunt Esther into your heavenly kingdom and thank you for her life on earth: A conduit of your love and grace and provision.