As I received another message from a sibling about another of my aunts who left us, it hit me harder than I would’ve expected. I always thought it would become easier as I grew older, to say goodbye to loved ones who’ve left this world. But it’s not. It’s more like a sharp jab at a tender, bruised spot on my heart. You know, when someone hits you on a bruise that’s not quite healed? Like that, only deeper. Some people tell me they feel numb to that pain after a while, but I feel quite the opposite.
Perhaps the growing ache in my sentimental bones is due to the fact that I come from a large family, yet a close one. Mom is one of eleven, and Dad is one of six. These were prolific farm families who produced a multitude of cousins with whom we’ve shared our childhood, adolescence and even our young adulthood. We’ve always enjoyed each other’s company and rallied around one another in lighter times as well as in dark ones. Our aunts and uncles hold our past and history, but even more, they are part of the Greatest Generation. They’ve seen so much more than we have, endured more, worked through more, and guided us through more than we can fathom. To think that my own generation is next in line to lead our offspring is daunting at best. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like we’ve just started out in this world. I have silver hair and most of us have grandchildren already.
My Aunt Viola passed away at 90 years old. She will be missed, not only because she was the living matriarch of my mom’s family, but also because she represents the fortitude of the true American farmer’s wife. She was one of the quieter ones of her sisters, but she still had fun and enjoyed the silliness they shared. But I’d often see her watching and smiling from the side of the room more than jumping into the middle of their dance. She had a strength about her, and sometimes a stern look for anyone she thought was out of line.
Vi and Clarence owned and ran a dairy farm for more than 25 years, then they decided to become school bus drivers. I often wonder if it was more challenging to herd and milk cattle or to shepherd kids aboard a bus while driving down the highway in snowy weather. After two and a half decades of farming in central Wisconsin, battling cold winters, soggy springs, sweltering summers and dry falls, who wouldn’t think you’d retire and move somewhere balmy and quiet? No. Instead they drove children to and from school each day for 18 years. Their Lutheran upbringing and work ethic told them they weren’t finished.
Not that they didn’t relax in their “spare” time, but Aunt Vi was known for her gardening, cooking, canning and baking as well as volunteering at the local VFW and Community Club. You need only pick up a copy of an old Trinity Lutheran Ladies Cookbook to see contributions with Viola York listed numerous times. She, my mom, and their sisters, were members of the local organizations and took turns as the leaders. What good Norwegian Lutherans don’t do that, after all?
There were eight sisters in the beginning, and Vi was the second oldest. While others among them were more outgoing and spontaneous, Vi was the depth. While on a long drive just after learning of her death, I realized that Viola was like the viola in a string orchestra. She wasn’t like the violin always in the front rows, with the highest soprano notes who usually plays the melody. No, she’s always been like the somewhat stronger, deeper viola who plays the alto harmonies and occasionally hits the melody during a few strains of music. Viola music is written most often in an alto clef, so it’s not meant to be played in the same octaves as others. It’s an instrument that is a little sturdier, it’s strings are tougher and it takes them a second longer to produce sound when a bow is drawn across them. So too, was Aunt Vi. She was not quick to react, but when needed she spoke out clearly so all knew where she stood. As I said, lower, softer, mellower yet stronger.
Aunt Vi, we know you’re now reunited with Uncle Clarence and with Cousin Donnie in heaven. You’re being greeted with open arms by sisters Caroline, Ginny and Verna and brothers Norm and Roy. They’ve been waiting, and now you’ve joined them in awaiting the rest of us. Meanwhile, we sit here thinking about how much we miss you–all of you–and how much more shallow life feels because we’ve lost that alto voice that bolsters us. One of my favorite hymns sounds best in that alto range, and I’ll think of you whenever I sing it.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I’m found.
I was blind, but now I see.
Godspeed, Aunt Vi, ‘til we meet again.