. . . Then comes a time of demarcation, where we
literally draw a line across our personal history timeline, step over
and go on. A lot of being able to step over that line involves
forgiveness. Of others and of ourselves. The latter is often far harder.
This brings me to tonight's story about a favorite relative in my life.
The one person who taught me about forgiving myself.
An old White Castle coffee mug sits on my desk filled
with pens and pencils. It holds great deal of meaning for me as it held
great meaning for my very favorite relative.
My Aunt Syl. Born in 1901 in Norway, the second of ten
children, she was named Solveig Victoria. She was nine when my father
was born, the 5th in the family, and she was presented with the task of
being responsible for him. This was the beginning of her life long
devotion to children in her family that extended into the great-grands
of future generations to come.
After immigrating in 1914 from Norway in hopes of a
better life, the family settled in Watertown, South Dakota. She was 13
and my father was 4. At 14 she was told she had enough school and it was
time to go to work to help support the family. She was struggling to
learn the language of her new country and loved school, but she was ever
the dutiful daughter and did as her parents wished. She went to work for
a small store, a five and dime, called Woolworth's. The remaining
children in the family were born in quick succession and soon it swelled
to ten children.
When she was in her mid twenties, her father decided to
uproot the family and move to Tulsa, OK. The early oil fields were
causing a demand for housing. He was a stone mason he felt there were
opportunities to be had. For some strange reason they asked my aunt to
remain behind while they went to get settled. This was a very traumatic
event for her. I imagine they still needed her meager income to get by.
It was about nearly a year before they sent for her and she said it was
the loneliest time in here life. As she had proven to be such a fine
worker, her boss had written ahead to secure her a new job with the
Woolworth's in downtown Tulsa. When she arrived she immediately went to
My father graduated from high school in 1928 and went
to work as a bookkeeper. He had wanted to go to college, but with so
many mouths to feed in the family there was no money for that luxury.
His two older brothers worked with my grandfather in the family
home-building business and for a time things were pretty good. There is
a little mystery as to what went wrong and exactly when, but grandfather
wasn't around the house very much for a time and grandmother was very
worn out from bearing and raising ten children, the youngest of which
My father married my mother in 1930, nearly a year into
the Great Depression. Aunt Syl was 29 at that point and still living at
home helping to care for the family and working full time. Grandmother
grew weaker and after a car accident, in which my grandfather was
driving under the influence, she never regained her strength and died in
1932. At this point work was so hard to find that my grandfather took
off for California and left my Aunt Syl in charge of the family. She
took her older sister who was considered 'simple' and the four youngest
school age children and moved them into a one-bedroom apartment. This
was the beginning of the Dust Bowl period and life was grim between that
and the Depression in that part of the country. Her hourly salary was
cut from fifteen cents an hour to five cents an hour. Grandfather
promised to send money to help care for the children, but somehow it
Now least you think Aunt Syl felt bitter or ill used
let me assure you she was neither. She had been a 'mother' since the age
of nine and this was simply something one did for the love of family.
The three older brothers helped as they could, but they also had young
families of their own to feed. The two youngest boys that were living
with her got jobs delivering papers and running errands. Aunt Gertie
(who you met in this
short vignette in a comment posted in another
diary) cooked and cleaned. The two younger sisters concentrated on
getting through school as that's what Aunt Syl wanted most for them to
do since she never had the opportunity to finished school.
World War II came and the boys enlisted as soon as they
graduated. The two younger sisters married and started families of their
own. Aunt Syl was left with an empty nest and Aunt Gertie to care for
when she entered her mid-forties. She picked up with her nieces and
nephews as they were born. I was at the tail end of that crop in those
days before the grands came along, so needless to say I was spoiled.
It was a huge treat to go spend the night at Aunt Syl's
when I was young. I remember climbing those stairs covered with an
oriental carpet to knock on her apartment door. Little did I realize the
amount of history that had taken place behind that dark wooden door. I
loved the smell of that foyer and of her apartment. Like my maternal
grandmother's home (link to that story), it was seared into my young
memory. It smelled of safety and love and the time spent there was a
peaceful part of my childhood.
She had a very old china doll with a fragile
hand-knitted wardrobe that she would let me play with while she watched
making sure that I was careful and gentle. It was a remnant from her
childhood and had belonged to her mother. It was a special kind of trust
to be allowed to handle that doll.
When I was seven, we moved to another state. The wrench
from my grandparents and my aunt was devastating to me. It was a huge
demarcation for me and I wanted it undone in the worst way. She kept in
touch by sending me the out-of-date comics from the store. It was an
amazing thrill to come home from school and see that fat manila envelope
sitting on my bed. Birthday cards carried little hankies and a fresh
We didn't get back to Tulsa too often in those days,
but when we did I usually spent at least one night sleeping on her
couch. I remember waking in the early morning light and memorizing all
the objects surrounding me in the dim room. There was an old-fashioned
gas fire place with a curved wrought-iron bench to one side. Two
knick-knack shelves held her ceramic lady-doll collection that was her
pride and joy. They fascinated me because the skirts were stiff and
One day I learned that she and Aunt Gertie had moved to
a small house. The brothers had got together and helped her buy the
house as the steep stairs were getting to be too much for Aunt Gertie to
navigate. That was hard for me as I couldn't see her in my mind anymore.
By this time my maternal grandmother had also died and my grandfather
had moved too. I had no visuals to help anchor me to my past. After my
grandmother died we did not travel to Tulsa as a family again. It was
years before I saw Aunt Syl again.
She retired from Woolworth's after 50 years of service
and here's the kicker: she never missed one day of work! Perfect
attendance for fifty years. She had an emergency appendectomy on the
first day of her two-week vacation one year, but she recovered in time
to be back at work right on schedule. She continued to work part-time
and fill in for others going on vacation after she retired up into her
She had a few rough years as Aunt Gertie health was
failing and she had what we now know was Alzheimer's. Aunt Syl took care
of her through it all and would not hear of sending her away to be cared
for by strangers. We all breathed a sigh of relief when it was over as
we thought we would lose Aunt Syl before Aunt Gertie. But she was made
of sturdy stock and bounced back. She was now able to travel a little
more and spent time with family and visited cousins that she hadn't seen
in decades. When she would come to visit I remember her wearing her
special bracelet with a charm for each niece, nephew, grands and
great-grands too. It was jammed and she got a work-out using that arm.
Fast forward and I am a married woman with three
children and Aunt Syl starts making trips to Denver to visit her
favorite baby brother after my mother died and he remarried. I reconnect
with her and realized what a huge part of my life had been missing. She
was never demanding in any way and thrilled with the attention she
received. She never lectured or judged, she just reassured that things
happened for a reason and most things in life would come right in time.
She showed kindness and understanding by example and love in countless
She had always been a very skilled and accomplished
knitter. For years she had added to her wardrobe by knitting beautiful
suits and sweater sets. As she grew older she wanted to make things that
she didn't have to pay so much attention to, so she decided to start
making afghans. She liked to use varigated yarn and knitted in a brick
pattern that consisted of knit and purl stitches. The effect was
colorful and pleasing. Her stitches were incredibly consistent and firm
with neat straight edges. As members of the family saw these afghans the
requests started pouring in. Over the years she made over eighty and I
once figured out that that amounted to 8 million stitches just for the
My sister and I drove to Tulsa to help her celebrate
her eightieth birthday. I had not been back since I was about nine years
old. We had a wonderful time driving the city with Aunt Syl and visiting
all the old family places. We had long talks and looked through stacks
of pictures. And she told us family history we had never heard. She told
us stories about herself, too. One set of pictures was of a family get
together with her cousins from Minnesota when she was in her twenties.
She had a broad smile and a playful posture in those pictures that
showed another side of her.
One morning when I got up early she was drinking a cup
of coffee while sitting on a stair of her back porch. That was when I
notice the mug. It was small, and heavy with an emblem of the White
Castle brand. I had not seen her drink out of that mug on the other
mornings we were there so I was curious. She said that she always drank
her first cup of coffee each day out of that mug and had since the
1930's when she 'snitched' while on a date. Oh, there was a story there,
but it was not going to be told directly. That evening after dinner when
we sat around the dinning room table drinking more coffee. More pictures
came out and she started to talk about a boyfriend she had all those
years ago. Sitting on the sideboard were her birthday cards all lined up
and one was from a man that we had never heard of before. Shyly, she
said he was an old flame that once had wanted to marry her. When we
asked why that didn't happen she said that she had made it clear to him
that she put her family first and if they married he would have to allow
her to continue to take care of them. That was a deal-breaker for him,
but they remained friends nonetheless. For her, drinking that first cup
of coffee each morning was her way of keeping a connection to a time in
her past when someone besides her family loved her.
That sweet visit was over all to fast and a few more
years slipped by. I had the very sad job of calling her one day to tell
her my father had died. She knew it might be coming, but it stunned her.
He was her baby, the one she had been responsible for all those years
ago. By that point in her life she had out-lived nearly half of her
The year she was to turn 85 I sent her a poem for
mother's day that I wrote trying to express all the love and respect I
had for her and all that I had learn from her quiet ways. I'm glad I
did, I'm glad she had some time to enjoy it. That fall as she was
walking to the store, she had to cross a six-lane street. She was caught
part way across with the traffic coming towards her. A truck stopped to
let her continue, but another truck on the right side did not see why
the other truck was stopped and slammed into her. She lingered for a few
hours, but they knew it was hopeless and let her slip away as soon as
her body could take no more.
This gentle, kind, protective, spiritual woman who
deserved a peaceful passing in her sleep some day was taken out by a
speeding truck. Oh, did that play havoc with my mind for a long time. I
flew to Tulsa for her funeral and the church was packed. It was of
little consolation, but it was nice to see how well loved and respected
she was. My poem was read as an eulogy and signed as well for a deaf
cousin. I didn't much pay attention to my own words being read as I
watched the signer's hands and face interpret my poem. My words have
never looked so graceful and watching them signed helped heal my heart a
little that day, for how could I ignore the things that she had taught
me in my own words.
My cousins asked if there was anything in particular
that I wanted from her house. I said yes, I did want a couple of things.
I wanted her white mug, which they knew nothing about, her knitting
needles, as I wanted something that she had held and worked with, and I
wanted a few pictures. Walking into her little house that day was a sad
experience. Her smell still lingered, but the house seemed to know that
the person that had lived there all those years wasn't coming back. I
really just wanted to sit quietly in her chair alone in her house for
awhile to try to absorb one last little bit of her and say goodbye, but
the cousins were flitting about wanting to get things done and leave.
I went to the kitchen to look for the mug in the
cupboard and it wasn't there. I checked through the house and went
through the kitchen again. I was beginning to get frantic when all of a
sudden I remembered it was her habit to rinse her dishes throughout the
day and put them in a drainer under the kitchen sink until she did them
after dinner each night. I opened the door and there it was. I was
nearly in tears by then and the cousins thought I was a little strange
for making such a fuss over an old coffee mug. I didn't bother to tell
them the story as she had never confided in them, then I wasn't going to
either. They thought my choices rather pitiful and pressed me to take a
few more things, so I chose her sewing basket and another afghan; the
one that was on her bed. I packed my precious bundles and took my
fractured heart home to heal.
Every family seems to have a 'hub' - the one person everyone talks to
when they can't or don't want to talk to each other. Aunt Syl was the
hub that kept us all informed as to the major highlights in each others
lives. Her reach crossed generational lines and extended back into
numerous cousins that none of us had ever met. She never gossiped and
only gave information when asked. She was the oracle of family history
and when she died, much of that history was gone for we were foolish in
never recording her stories. I knew before she died that no one else
would be taking over that role in our family. With the hub gone the
spokes broke away from the rim and little contact was ever made again
after a few fitful starts. It was our love of her that kept us together
all those years.
For quite awhile after I brought my choices home, I kept the objects
from Aunt Syl's life grouped together; very nearly a shrine. But then as
I healed they began to migrate to other areas and be combined with other
possessions of mine. I knew I could never drink anything from that mug,
for to do so would violate her past. So it sits on my desk holding my
pens and pencils. Her knitting needles were eventually mixed in with
mine and I used hers when I knitted the same afghan pattern for my first
grandchild. Her sewing basket has been passed on to my daughter and the
pictures are in an album that I made with all the pictures I have of her
over the years. Just as I blended her lessons into my life so to did the
objects become part of mine. But I still pick up her mug and hold it in
my hands from time to time and think about that wonderful woman who
taught me so much with so very few words.
This is the Mother's Day poem I wrote to her all those years ago:
My Aunt Syl
Knit every stitch of a blanket that I have wrapped
oh so tightly
around my aching soul.
Every stitch speaks of her in a thousand gentle
tells me stories, gives me strength, makes me keep on going.
Every stitch rocks me from a great distance,
soothes my fears,
absorbs my tears, teaches me about courage.
Every stitch expresses
patience, communicates hope,
whispers to be as kind to myself as I am to
Every stitch was knit with a prayer and declares
that I am loved and
Every stitch recounts to me roots, traditions loving and
reminds me of our happy times together, sharing.
Every stitch shows me that the hard lessons of life
need not break my
spirit and sacrifices do not destroy my choices.
Every stitch is a
precious gift that warms my soul
and reveals to me the real meaning of
is believing the best in others.