By: Rebecca Frager
I lost my Aunt Audrey last week. She was almost 90. She was always exotic to me. She was a few years older than my dad, but like him, she was born in India. My grandparents were Lutheran missionaries in India for more than 30 years. Most of their 10 children – all except the youngest daughter –were born there. At around age 13, they were escorted to the states and enrolled in a boarding school.
As a young girl, I loved hearing the tales of their time in India and of my father’s boarding school days. I loved being in the kitchen when the family gathered for an evening of curry. The smells were incredible. The disagreements about it being too hot or not hot enough were hilarious. The chutney-eating contest was amusing. The men, mostly, would egg each other on to see how much of the hot pepper chutney they could eat. They’d act like it wasn’t a big deal, but the beads of sweat and red faces told the truth. Grandma always served her curry with bananas. I grew up being used to it, but it wasn’t until much later I learned it was so the bananas could cool your mouth due to the heat of the spices.
Then there was the arguing. Lots of it. Mostly religion. Some politics and world events. My grandfather was opinionated on all things religion. When it came to the Bible, he was a literalist. If the Bible said it, then that’s exactly how it was. My dad – though also a Lutheran – interpreted the Bible more symbolically. My uncles who were also missionaries had left the Lutheran church altogether. When the family gathered for a meal, my grandmother insisted there was to be no arguing at the dinner table. But while the women cleaned up, the men went at it. I would try to get out of dish duty by hiding behind the sofa so I could listen to the heated religious debates or the political arguments about Nixon and the war. My grandfather even tried to argue that the moon landing was a hoax. He was at our house on the day of the actual landing, and as we watched, he tried to block the television set while we yelled at him to move out of the way.
My Aunt Audrey was a product of this family. But she bucked the system. She was a nurse anesthetist who traveled the world. She worked in India and Africa – both in Nigeria and Biafra – for several years. When she came back to the states, she worked in Florida, and then she worked and eventually retired in Pasadena, California. When she would come to visit, I loved being around her. Her skin was bronzed and weathered. She smelled like a mix of perfume and whiskey or some other alcohol – it smelled good to me. She always sent us boxes of fruit like mangoes or huge oranges from Florida. When she lived in California, she sent my dad packages of dried bananas and nuts from Trader Joe’s before it was a nationwide chain.
My aunt never married, although I heard a story that there was a love interest, but as soon as he met my grandparents, he ran for the hills. I believe it, too! I once overheard someone talking about her. It wasn’t very nice. They were talking about how “loose” she was, or how she might be a lesbian or bisexual. Why would that matter? Because she was happy and independent, and didn’t need a man to feel fulfilled? Or was it because she had male friends who wined and dined her and gave her gifts? She was smart. She was witty. She was well-travelled. She was loving and kind – so kind that she gave my dad her kidney when he needed a new one. She lived for more than 40 years with just one kidney.
Through the years, we lost touch or only talked about once a year. But she kept active in her community and local politics. Up until just a few years ago, she worked at the polling locations as a registrar or polling clerk. A little over a year ago, I began calling my aunt every week. I felt a need to reconnect with her. I was curious about my dad’s side of the family. I know a lot about my mom’s side, hardly anything about my dad’s. Our conversations were short and sweet. I let her go on and on about how awful this world was getting and what are we going to do about Trump? She would talk about how he needs to be impeached and what a horrible person he is. She would start our conversations off with a dirty joke and then, at the end of our conversation, ask if I had ever heard of this joke, and she’d tell it again, not realizing she already told it. And though she never met my husband, at the end of our phone calls, she would always say, “Give my love to your sweet husband.”
My aunt has always inspired me. Her love of life inspires me
to embrace my life to the fullest. Her
kindness and independence inspire me to show love and compassion. Her carefree
attitude and willingness to be authentic inspire me to be true to myself no
matter what others may think. Her
strength of character inspires me to speak the truth even when it is difficult. The way she stood up to the men in the family
without losing her graciousness inspires me to be strong when I feel
discouraged. The way she handled
criticism about her lifestyle from the overly religious in my family inspires
me to be humble. She faced their criticism quietly and without a mean word and
then did what she wanted. When the end
came, it came fast. She was surrounded
by family members who loved and cared for her.
I was hoping to be able to visit her once again, but I am thankful for
our many phone conversations where we laughed and were able to talk about
things that mattered.
May her memory always be for a blessing.