Monday, August 8, 2016

Tribute to my Auntie on Her Ninety-First Birthday

When my auntie Vi read the Economist-style obit I wrote for bink's father, she asked me to write such an obituary for her too.
I said, no, I would write a tribute to her life in process.
I finally wrote this praise piece for her 91st birthday yesterday.
I knew she wouldn't want me to write about the hard, ugly stuff, so it's not Economist-style journalism, but an interesting bit of history nevertheless, I think.

A Celebration of an Ongoing Life 

Growing up in Milwaukee during the Great Depression, Vi asked a favor of God: “I can accept having hard life when I’m young, but please let me have a happy old age.” 

One of ten children born to hardworking Sicilian immigrants Sarah and James (their American names), Vi and her siblings shared clothing, beds, and chores (not always evenly). They usually had enough but rarely an overabundance of anything.

In later years, a doctor would credit their Mediterranean Diet with the lifelong good health of many of the family. Their low-cholesterol diet—olive oil, not butter—was not a fad, it was the lucky result of culture and necessity. Sometimes with no money for eggs, her mother made pasta out of flour and water, retrieving the fresh noodles quickly from the boiling water before they turned to paste. Her father, a proud man, was hit hard by the loss of his shoe-repair business in the Depression. Generous when he could be, if he brought home fruit, even only one orange or a pomegranate, he made sure all his children got a section. He made sure they got an education too, knowing his kids were smart kids.

Born under the self-confident sign of Leo, Vi had faith in her intelligence and her potential too. Further, she had a gift for joy. When she had a nickel for streetcar fare, she often chose to spend it on a handful of fresh potato chips from Woolworths instead. 
Mostly, she wanted to share the fun and to ease the burdens of others. One summer morning, she woke in the dark and packed a breakfast picnic. She and her youngest brothers, Gabe (12) and Jim (10), walked three miles to the lakefront in time to watch the sun come up over Lake Michigan. A police car stopped to investigate three young people alone on the beach with a beer cooler. She showed the officer the contents of the cooler: pancake-making supplies.

Vi got her first paying job at sixteen, delivering telegrams during World War II. (Some recipients tried to refuse her deliveries, knowing they “regretted to inform” them of their son’s death.) Most of her earnings went to the family. With her share, and her eye for flair, she bought her first clothes of choice: a red skirt and jacket. 

She taught herself to sew, and after she married Gil, she mastered tricky Vogue patterns. She and Gil, an accomplished musician, had played together in a quartet for several years before they married. Now in her own house, she taught herself to cook well too—no more glue noodles.

“Abundance” she would later reply without hesitation, when asked what she believed in. “Not for me, but to share.” 

When her young nieces and nephew came to visit, “Auntie Vi” always had more than enough of everything on hand, baking a supply of Sicilian tu-tus [recipe], an Arab-spice–inflected chocolate cookie and S-O-S–shaped biscotti [recipe] ahead of time. Gil always took them all to a meal a fancy restaurant.

Vi put everything on hold so she could spend time with her young relatives, and she gave the house over to their visits. Curtain rods were draped with handmade pasta (made with eggs), hung up to dry. The dining room, where she set up the sewing machine, was a snowstorm of fabric clippings and thread ends. She showed the girls how to walk like a model: pretend you’re holding a quarter with your bottom! A chair shoved up to the sink allowed the three-year-old to help wash dishes (or play with the spray hose). Outings included the nearby Botanical Domes, the sewing supply shop, and the garden store to choose plants for the backyard.

The kids, in their turn, adored their auntie. On her forty-seventh birthday, they dubbed her Queen for a Day. They shared her breakfast in bed, along with Freckles the Dalmatian, and cooked chicken croquettes and birthday cake for dinnertime.

Gil, a manager of office services at an accounting firm, was an early proponent of word processing, calling it a “revolution in the business office.” It “is changing the office structure of today,” Gil told the Milwaukee Journal in 1978, “a structure that hasn’t changed since the turn of the century.”

Vi had worked in offices too but found more meaning as a volunteer, visiting stroke patients and teaching ESL in the Hmong community, among other engaging work. Creative work was always underway too––college classes in design and psychology, and poetry writing. Vi reflected on her life in a series of poems, both amusing (“she knows her onions”) and poignant (a poem about her mother’s Sunday “drives” with the kids, in a car up on blocks in the yard).

And music. The house was always filled with music. An organ and a grand piano in the front room left little room for furniture. Vi had studied a variety of musical instruments, starting with the cello at ten. At fifty-five, she hired a young organist, Sheri, for early morning lessons. Vi cooked breakfast afterward to fortify Sheri for a day of teaching and organ playing. The two became lifelong friends. At 68, Vi learned to play the recorder and  joined a recorder group.

When Gil died at seventy-one, Vi thought her happy life might be over. Sheri suggested she rent a little house Sheri owned in the village of Xdale. Always looking forward, Vi began a new chapter of her life, on her own for the first time. Long visits from her sister Addie and short ones from the nieces livened up the house, as did Vi’s new dog, Nicky, who perched on a chair near the window, waiting for her whenever she went out. 

Vi brought a lifetime of curiosity and creativity to the village. A local bird house–making gig led to friendships. Always eager to learn new things, she studied Reiki healing. Part-time jobs in a cooking store and then Sheri’s home-decorations store, Seasons of the Heart, kept Vi busy until she retired at eighty. She wasn’t retired long. A few months later, Margo recruited her to work in her fashion boutique. A former dancer and choreographer, Margo invited Vi to model for fashion shows too. As always, Vi activated her life philosophy: “Say yes!”  

The death of Vi’s last family members in Milwaukee, her brother Tony and his partner of more than fifty years, Hal, brought sadness. But these and other losses did not dim her creative life force. Vi began to paint in acrylics and, at eighty-nine, she held her first art show, hosted and encouraged by Margo. 

The next year, Vi announced, “A ninety year old has no business driving.” She sold her car (she’d never liked driving), and retired from the boutique, but not from art making. Her visiting adopted niece, Lucinda, helped transport her artwork for a second show at Margo’s. Another niece, Roberta, convinced Vi to buy an iPhone, and with that, after a lifetime of letter writing, Vi has taken to e-communications like a digital native. Still a book reader though, Vi is well known by her local librarians.

Never one to get stuck in a rut, Vi took up knitting. The local yarn shop featured a photo of her on their website, wearing the snazzy gray and red sweater she’d knitted. On her ninety-first birthday, she attended the shop’s monthly drop-in group among new friends in the knitting world. They surprised her with a cake.

It seems God has granted what she’d asked for so long ago—a happy old age, and abundance to share.


The Crow said...

Oh, so beautiful! We all should have such a eulogy, while we still live.

Michael Leddy said...

Please tell Vi, “People on the Internet who have never met you read this piece with affection and admiration.”

Zhoen said...

A pointillist portrait of a potent personality.

gz said...

Great writing about a fascinating lady..definitely a story to be told now!

Fresca said...

Thanks, everybody!
I passed the praise along to my auntie.