My therapist, Marisa Tomei, has suggested I write this letter to you. She suggested it after you waxed nostalgic for Aunt Dolores. So let’s talk about her.
She was born in the 1920s to a dour German mother and a lively Irish father. Grandma didn’t like her, something which scarred Aunt Dolores for life. She was named Betty, which she later changed to Bettye in high school, I suspect to help her stand out a bit more. Like all the rest of her starving Depression-era family, she was a stick figure, but alas was not blessed with a very attractive face. But somehow she managed to rope a sailor man into asking her to marry him (he gave her that book Queens Die Proudly which you keep in the first bookcase). She turned him down. Because she heard a greater calling—God was calling her to be a nun.
She went into a Franciscan order in the 1940s when rules were very strict. She had virtually no contact with the family. I don’t know a lot about those early years, partly because Mom didn’t have any contact with her.
By the time you were born in 1967 she was called Aunt Sister. Why? No one knows. Her name, given to her by the bishop, was Sister Dolores Marie McLaughlin. I always wondered if the spelling (dolores instead of delores) was a curse of unhappiness on her because of its Spanish translation. She was stationed in Florida, in the heat and humidity she hated, teaching typing to high schoolers, which she hated. She had always wanted to be in office administration, something she got her Master’s for, but the stern Church forced her into the swamps.
Growing up, you hated her. She would visit for a couple weeks each summer. You and your sisters called her “Aunt Bitch.” She looked so much like her mother—the shape of her face, the thin set of her mouth, her limpid blue eyes—but she lacked any hint of kindness which Grandma had. She was a major control freak and very picky. An extremely unpleasant person. Once when you and your sisters were setting the table you were just tossing down plates, silverware, napkins, glasses—good enough. She walked right after you and straightened everything out so it was precisely correct. LOUDLY. Laura had enough and went back around the table, messing everything back up. Take that!
You didn’t give her much thought until you learned as an adult that she’d entered a therapy program run by the Church. She was in her 60s and deeply depressed. When she went to a priest for help, he told her to just try to get through the next minute. Just one minute. When that minute was over, get through the next one. That sounded familiar. The agony of existence.
Later in life you saw some of her art therapy projects from her time in therapy. She clearly adored her father and marked his death as the low point of her life. And she clearly loved the nuns she was surrounded by. She called out the names of those who were special to her.
During therapy she came to grips with the complicated relationship she had with Grandma McLaughlin. She had always felt disliked, never good enough, especially since Grandma fell all over pretty and bubbly Aunt Eileen. But Aunt Dolores came to grips with all of it, faced all her demons down, and came out of therapy a changed woman.
First things first: No more “Aunt Sister.” She’d always hated the name. It took a little getting used to, but then she was so different it seemed natural to call her by a new name. She smiled a lot now, sometimes in a slow way with a sideways glance, sometimes brightly in response to a joke. She finally got that administrative post in the convent mother house and loved it. She had a whole new life and she dove in.
She told me later that sometimes she would wake up at night, wrap herself in a shawl, then go down to the chapel and sing Canticle of the Sun while spinning around in a circle on her bare feet. How joyful she was. How close to God.
Now that you could stand her, you joined in the canasta games she played with Mom and Uncle Ralph and Aunt Barbara. And she was unbelievable. She was a true believer in picking up the discard pile rather than new cards. So she’d meld and meld with these crappy low-point cards and then suddenly lay down a wild card canasta. Where did that come from?? There were no wild cards in the discard pile!
She was the family historian and when she got to be too old to keep up with it she handed it off to you, knowing your interest. Remember how amazed you were at her circles of correspondence? She didn’t write long letters, but she did send notes to the most distant of cousins, sharing news and enjoying the contact of family.
The thing that turned her into your hera was her breaking the taboo around mental illness in the family. She spoke openly about great-Aunt Mary (institutionalized for 60 years) and great-Uncle Joe (suicide) and great-Grandpa Ruth (institutionalized for 13 years). Mom had never heard anything about her grandfather, but there Aunt Dolores was, blithely telling the story of how when the men in white came for great-Aunt Mary, he said, “You just watch, they’ll be coming for me next!” And he was right.
Aunt Dolores normalized mental illness. She made it possible to talk about as just any other illness you had to deal with. By bringing it out of the darkness, she made it possible for you to normalize it, and to research the biological inheritors of the Ruth genes, and see that much of your suffering was due to chemistry, not a character flaw. How you admired her for that. How grateful you were. How much you still owe her.
At one point, maybe in her 70s, she got sick with some illness, I don’t remember what. But she lost her mind. Remember going to see her? One of the most chilling experiences of your life. She would speak, almost forming words, but it was really just gibberish. She was gesturing in the air as if she were writing on a chalkboard. You took her for a ride in her wheelchair until she started yelling and hitting at things. It was shocking. You fled to the bathroom and sobbed.
But then you found out they’d put her on an anti-depressant. Thanks to her leads, you’d traced our problems with serotonin to the Ruth line and you demanded she be taken off whatever SSRI they’d put her on. And sure enough, she came back.
She got more frail as she aged but continued to look more and more like Grandma McLaughlin. And no matter what, Mom and Dad and Aunt Barbara and Uncle Ralph could brighten up her day by taking her out for ice cream and playing a little cards. She was in the retirement house by then and the other nuns all looked out for her. You wanted to have a closer relationship with her but it was hard, being so far away and poor. You exchanged letters, talking history and religion. She was true to her vocation, a beautiful thing.
Remember her Golden Jubilee? You went up with the fam to celebrate all the nuns’ anniversaries and were amazed at how liberal the lyrics were to the hymns. No wonder they didn’t wear habits after Vatican II—they were practically heretics!
When the end came, she was surrounded by her sisters and her family. And they prayed and they sang. Oh, how they sang. Mom and Dad were transported by the love and joy being expressed at this passage, seeing for the first time that a Christian should die happy in the hope of Heaven. You were down in Bloomington holding vigil of your own. Every day the news would come: not yet. And finally you remembered that in all the songs you’d sung for her, you’d never sung Poor Robin is Dead, a children’s song brought by Grandpa McLaughlin’s family from Ireland. You sang it and sang it, smiling and releasing her, and that night she died.
The wake was held at the retirement home. All the sisters were gathered in one corner and the family in the opposite. It made you realize how little you knew of her life among these women and you yearned to fill that deficit.
Once the nuns knew you were the family historian, they swarmed you with stories so thick you could hardly get your mp3 recorder out fast enough. They were so happy. It was a beautiful time.
You spoke at the wake, thanking her for breaking that taboo and for consequently saving your life, and the lives of all her great-neices and -nephews.
You stayed for the funeral, which was a very brief affair in a small chapel at the burial grounds. While everyone went ahead you searched out her grave, just one plot among a hundred, completely anonymous. You moved the board over the opening so you could see where she would be planted and bugs scurried away. But you weren’t startled—it all felt part of the great breathing biosphere that is Gaia.
Aunt Dolores, like you, was a spinster aunt. Hardly anyone in the family was interested in her as a person. This blog post you write may be the last story told of her. But she will always be a hera to you and you will always bless her name. You still talk to her sometimes, bringing her up to date on genealogy and whatnot. You miss her. She was someone to look up to.
But as a spinster she, like you, is just a short twig on the family tree. When you die, no one will sing her songs anymore. Just like your story will end when your nieces and goddessdaughters die. But let us seek to live courageously, as Aunt Dolores did, in the time we have left. Let us sing and dance in a circle and smile.