December 16, 2008 - Eulogy for Aunt Carol

So many opportunities for a knife edged blog this last week – million dollar bonuses for CEOs who can’t manage a business, people behaving badly at the state capitol CHRISTMAS display, political corruption aka business as usual in Chicago - but I let them slip by. My week was overshadowed by the passing of our very own globe-trotting, eccentric, and stubbornly independent Aunt Carol.

Aunt Carol was almost a mythic figure to me as a child. She lived in New York City, traveled around the world, went to Broadway plays and the Metropolitan Opera. She never married, and I admired her exciting single life. Somehow she never managed to travel to eastern Washington until I was a teenager, but she made quite an impression with her sophisticated gifts for her two nieces at Christmas – woven bags from Greece, real gold jewelry from Portugal, and our very own matched luggage for my sister and I. She was our role model of an independent career woman, and my love of travel is at least partly due to her postcards and photographs of exotic places. In addition to the usual European tour, Aunt Carol traveled (always alone) to India, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Iceland, the Middle East and much more. She said traveling with a companion would slow her down.

A few years after her own parents retired and moved west to be closer to my dad (her little brother) and our family in Spokane, Carol left NYC and followed. Spokane couldn’t hold her (I think it was the lack of an opera company that was the last straw), and she moved on to Seattle. There she found the opera she craved, and a job at the University of Washington. She was a capable and efficient executive secretary and office administrator, and had always been able to find a job wherever she landed. I remember hearing one story about how she ran out of money in Australia, and had to get a job and stay for awhile before she could come back to the United States.

When she retired from the UW, Aunt Carol decided to take advantage of the hot real estate market in Seattle, sold her bungalow and moved to Kingston to try small town life. The Kingston-Edmonds ferry connects to the end of the Seattle bus line and an Amtrak station, both essential since Carol never had a driver’s license. By this time she was having a hard time walking and was legally blind, so naturally she bought a 2nd floor walk-up condo a few blocks from the ferry terminal to make sure she got enough exercise. She traveled, solo as always, to Finland for a special operatic extravaganza performance of Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle,” returning by way of Germany and leaving England by ship on the QE2. As recently as three years ago she took a cruise around South America.

I first got the news a week ago in a phone call from one of her friends, who had been trying to contact Carol to offer a ride from Seattle to her Kingston condo to meet her new tenants. Carol moved back to the city just over a year ago so she would have better access to the opera she dearly loved, without having to leave early to catch the last ferry. She hadn’t really settled in to the senior apartments and met the neighbors, said it was full of too many old people. Carol would have turned 84 in January. For the last two years she’s been talking about a trip to Machu Picchu as soon as the condo sells. I knew she was slowing down when she actually asked me to me accompany her on the trip, not because she was getting old but because she needed a driver.

My sister and I spent last weekend reliving Aunt Carol’s life as we sorted through stacks of clippings, correspondence from friends across the globe, and boxes of photographs and postcards. While her vocation had been office administration, her avocational interests were focused on the arts, philosophy and architecture. She lost her fiancé to cancer when she was a college girl, had a couple of other opportunities to marry, but preferred to keep her independence to the end. There will be more sorting and reminiscing this weekend. Maybe when the estate settles, we’ll plan a memorial trip to Machu Picchu in Aunt Carol’s honor. I think she’d like that.