Yesterday, my mother’s sister, Gloria died unexpectedly from a heart attack. Gloria and her three daughters are remarkable women and I wanted to share a bit about them as an expression of my love and admiration. One of the things that I tell families is that death is one of the really hard parts of normal life. But some deaths are so much harder than others because they occur outside of the typical life cycle of dying in old age. Gloria and her daughters, Catherine, Portia, and Beth have lost more than their fair share of loved ones over the years and a number of them passed at young ages from horrible diseases. As a group, they have lost two husbands, two fathers, two mothers, a son, and a brother.

Gloria grew up during the end of the Great Depression and throughout World War II. She was the first of six children born to my grandparents. There was only a five year gap between Gloria’s birth and the birth of my mother, Martha who was the 4th born. Gloria relished being the first born and strove to be a leader among her siblings. Like her sisters would after her, she showed a great deal of performing arts talent, especially singing. As a young girl and for a number of years afterward, she performed on local KJR radio as part of Uncle Frank’s Kiddie Hour. I have a copy of a publicity picture of Frank and all of the kid performers. Gloria looks about 5 or 6, is saluting the camera,decked out in the finest Shirley Temple regalia including tap shoes. We have a recording of one of her performances. She was about 12 years old at the time and sang, Brazil. Gloria had quite the voice, clear, poised, and mature. It really is remarkable and a treasured record of the many talents in my family.

Gloria, her husband Norm, and their four children lived in Nevada for most of my childhood. They had lived in Seattle, but I don’t remember that time. So I didn’t see her often. But she had the charismatic force of personality that marked her prominently in my mind so it seemed like we saw her more than we did. Gloria was really funny and could be great fun. She was a great storyteller and was always ready to sing an impromptu song or do some of her Shirley Temple tap moves. She sang her whole life, at home, at church, on Uncle Frank’s, in college, with the Gilbert and Sullivan Society, and most recently, with the St. James Cathedral Choir after she moved back to the Seattle area. Gloria was also very educated. She had a Bachelor’s Degree in teaching. Her grandfathers had both been coal miners and her mother had ended school after grade 8 . A deeply emotional person with an oft wounded heart, Gloria could also be feisty and stubborn. I remember hearing about the time she was asked to leave the audience at one of the big Seattle theaters (the 5th Avenue I think) because she wouldn’t stop taking pictures of the performers. Any assumptions that security may have had about “little old ladies” would have been promptly dispelled.  Aunt Gloria called me recently to offer her support regarding my cancer. She told a story of her own cancer (skin) doctor and how wonderful he was, which I have l learned from my mom is code for “young and handsome.” Gloria told me that after hearing that he was married she told him that she was disappointed because she had a number of young single women friends that she wanted him to meet. (I also have learned from my mom that this is a sly way of flirting with men who are too young for you and you are married anyway. Believe me on this. When I was a young unmarried woman, my mom used to tell young men, “You are so good-looking and nice. You should date my daughter.” Did she ever get one phone number? No. I rest my case.)

Catherine is the oldest of Gloria’s children. When we were growing up, she was the studious, serious, and responsible kid. She still is though her serious demeanor belies a fabulous sense of humor. Catherine has also surprised me with her love of performance and music. She has sung with a band and plays the guitar, which she took up as a full fledged grown up. Catherine has a successful public relations business. She is a highly involved and devoted mother to her teen son, Christian. When there’s work to be done, Catherine tends to take on the lion’s share of responsibility. Several years ago, Catherine, Christian, and her then husband, Rich joined one of our extended family camping trips. We were hiking and my mom noticed that Catherine was carrying a full backpack and Rich was lightly bounding down the trail, burden free. My mom said, “Catherine, do you always have to carry the back pack?” My mom’s question was based on years of observation. Catherine is a smart cookie so I’m sure she got the layers of meaning in my mom’s question. But Catherine has a great deal of restraint, which is somewhat rare in our extended family’s love of overt complaining and gossiping. So she said, “It’s okay, I like to carry the back pack.” Catherine also did a large amount of care taking of her brother, when he was dying of AIDS. Greg was in his early 30’s when he died. Greg was married at the time and I didn’t know his wife. Perhaps it was all too much for her or she couldn’t leave her job, I don’t know the context. But what I do know is that Catherine dropped everything to care for her brother in his last days.

Portia is the “middle daughter.” Unlike her sisters, she did not return to living in the Northwest. I rarely see her. What I do see is her art. Catherine has Portia’s artwork displayed in her home. It is gorgeous. My favorite painting for both artistic and sentimental reasons is “Aunt Blanche’s Garden”. Our Great Aunt Blanche may have only had an 8th grade education but she knew the botanical names of scores of plants and her garden was out of this world. Portia used abstract technique and a wonderful color sense to show the dynamic interplay of lush flowers and foliage, perfectly capturing Aunt Blanche’s garden as well as her personality. Another way I’ve kept in touch with Portia is through her lovely daughter, Alyssa. Alyssa is a young woman now and she has a degree of poise, independence, and maturity that inspires optimism about our young generation. The fact that as a young mother, Portia cared for her terminally ill husband while raising a daughter and went on to raise this lovely, intelligent, and talented young lady, is beyond impressive. Finally, Portia went back to school and is now working as a nurse. Her shift toward the healing arts is just beautiful.

Beth is the “baby” of the family. She and I are also peers since we are only 7 months apart in age. When we were kids, Beth had a heart full of gold and a head full of mischief. She was incredibly generous. I remember that she got into a small bit of trouble in he first job in an ice cream parlor because she made the scoops too big. She was always surprised that I was such a goodie goodie. She regaled me with tales of egging houses on Halloween and playing practical jokes on the sisters who taught her at the Little Flower School. I also learned from her that nuns sometimes keep Coors beer in their refrigerator. Scandal! Despite my nerdiness, we always had a good time together and she even visited me in the dorms when I was in college at U.W. Besides being really smart and funny like her sisters, Beth is someone to have around when there is a crisis. Like my husband, she possesses detailed knowledge of what to do in emergency situations. Beth is also very brave. Yesterday, while driving her family for a fun day to celebrating her three year old’s birthday, she saw that her mother was gravely ill, drove to a parking lot, pulled her mother out of her car to give her CPR, asked for help from strangers, while her kids were screaming in the car. That’s strength and heroism. That’s Beth.

I know I’ve left important facts out of this post. I know that all my cousins took care of their brother. I know that they were all wonderful daughters. They are all wonderful mothers. My cousins will be reuniting this weekend to plan Gloria’s funeral. I know that this is a hard time for them. The grief for their mom may bring back grief for their other loses, their dad, their brother, marriages, Portia’s husband.  I’m so glad they have each other. They are intelligent, strong, and deeply loving women. I am also glad that they are so strong but I wish they didn’t have to be.