Celebrating lives well lived; Deaths of elderly aunts prompt reflection on past and future

Posted: Sunday, July 11, 2004

In the past several weeks, one side of my extended family reached a poignant, if inevitable, milestone.

The remaining two of my father's seven siblings passed away. Aunts Dora and Lucy were 99 and 90 respectively, so one draws comfort that as far as longevity is concerned, they each enjoyed a fair share of life.

My dad died in an accident when I was a boy. He'd been the oldest, born in British Guiana (now Guyana), South America, in 1901. His youngest brother, Harold, for whom I am named, died in World War II. His brother Lenny died of illness in 1947, the year I was born.

What is remarkable, to me at least, is that there wasn't another death in that generation until 1984, when another brother, Wally, died of natural causes in his sleep at the age of 77.

Meanwhile, four sisters continued on, living well into their 80s and 90s before death began catching up with them starting in 1988. They clearly carried their mother's longevity gene.

She was Harriet Stokes Spence, an Arawak Indian despite her Anglo name. She died in the spring of 1981 at 100. A few months earlier, not one, but two letters arrived from the White House in the weeks before her 100th birthday, which was Feb. 4, congratulating her on reaching the century mark.

One came from outgoing President Jimmy Carter shortly before he left office and another from newly inaugurated President Ronald Reagan shortly after he'd begun his first term.

All of the siblings immigrated to the United States fairly early in the 20th century, becoming U.S. citizens. Grandmother arrived in 1973 after her children simply refused to allow her to continue living alone along the Demerara River in Guyana. She then lived in Florida in the care of her children until she died, at home in her own bed, in 1981.

While the passing of Dora and Lucy, the "old women," as we youngsters sometimes referred to them, has left unfillable holes in our hearts, deaths so late in life are not occasions for mourning a passing but celebrating lives well lived. Reflecting on that, I pondered the incredible scope of change they'd witnessed between 1901 when my dad was born and 2004 when Dora and Lucy succumbed.

When they were toddlers, men were only learning to fly in powered aircraft. They would live to see astronauts set foot on the moon and spacecraft leave the solar system.

World War I erupted during their youths engaging much of the world, including Britain and its commonwealth nations. They would live to see that "war to end all wars" be nothing of the sort.

Diseases that had no cure would become mere medical footnotes; posted letters that once took months to arrive would be replaced by messages transmitted around the globe in seconds; often violently conflicting political and economic ideologies would compete and resolve; and seemingly immutable national boundaries would appear and dissolve with distressing regularity.

Born into "The Proud Tower" world so ably described by historian Barbara Tuchman in the book by that name, they lived through the tumultuous century to come with grace, dignity and reserve.

It's a different world now, faster, somehow off balance, though to some living in the moment, the world's underpinnings in the gilded decade preceding World War I may arguably have appeared equally unstable.

For those of us left behind, the departure of the old women is felt in uncountable ways. We know they took with them unique insights to their first-person experiences, the kind of individual historical perspectives that no one generation can ever hope to fully convey to its offspring.

Dora tried. At the age of 85 she began compiling a book mostly about her generation, because she felt compelled. For three successive summers she flew from Florida to Alaska to work on the book here.

I had the privilege of editing "The Promise," a title she used because it fulfilled a commitment she'd made to her brother Wally that such a book would be written. To write it, she even learned to operate a computer.

The book was later distributed among family and friends. But it barely grazed the surface of her century of experience and those of her siblings.

The sense of loss is not overwhelming for me. Perhaps that's because they lived so long and I came to know them so well. Still, woven through this tapestry of sadness and joy over their remarkable lives is a nagging wonder. Will I leave my daughter with half as much?

Hal Spence is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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