Today would have been my aunt’s 89th birthday. She was my father’s oldest sister…15 years older. Her name was Audrey Marie, having the same middle name as myself. I was not named for her, but I sometimes think I should have been. She was my favorite aunt, and of all my aunts, the one I miss the most.
She was born and raised in St Louis, along with her 2 older brothers, 2 younger sisters, and her youngest brother. She was baptized, schooled, and accepted all of her Catholic sacraments at the Most Holy Trinity Church in St Louis. She worked and as a young woman during World War II, she fell in love with Bob.
Bob was full blooded Chinese and from a distant territory known as Hawaii. Against her father’s advice, but with her mother’s blessing, she and Bob eloped. Her mother insisted on sending her oldest brother as a chaperone and as a witness to the wedding. They went to California, but the Justice of the Peace refused to marry them because it was a bi-racial marriage. Considering we had just ended a war with the Japanese, no one trusted any Oriental. Kind of ironic in view of what we see in California today.
So off to Oregon they went. Again they were refused on the same basis. Off they went onto Washington. It was there in the middle of the night that they found a Justice of the Peace that agreed to marry the happy couple. With her brother as the witness, they made their vows until death do us part.
They boarded a ship to their new home in Honolulu, Hawaii. Her brother returned to St Louis to tell the family that indeed, Audrey and Bob had married and had left for their new life.
Audrey had married the 3rd son of Chinese immigrants. His 2 older brothers had been forced to return to Hong Kong to find their wives, but being ‘number 3 son’ he was able to travel to the mainland of the United States to find a wife. Being the only Caucasian in a Chinese household was a new and sometimes frustrating situation. She had to learn the traditions and obligations required in a Chinese family. She had to learn and accept to live in a multi-generational home. Being a Catholic in a non-Catholic home also came with its own set of problems. But she held true to her faith and to her own traditions.
When she gave birth to her first child, whom she told me she named for her baby brother (my father), she was made to follow the Chinese tradition of walking to visit everyone that was to be invited to the child’s first birthday party. In Chinese tradition, this celebration is 3 months after the birth of the child, as they believe that life begins at conception and therefore 3 months after the birth is 1 year. She eventually had 2 sons and 3 daughters.
She worked in her husband’s family store, a type of department store in old Honolulu. She was like any other employee, she told me several times. At work she was like anyone else, at home she was wife and mother.
She came home several times to St Louis to visit her family, whoever was still living there. She brought her husband and children whenever it was possible to. She traveled to Michigan and New Jersey on occasion to visit her sisters in their homes. And it was during one of these visits when I was about 13-14 years old that a tradition was born between the she and me.
She was at our house and we started talking. The next thing we knew it was 2 or I3 o’clock in the morning. We talked about everything…religion, life, my cousins, school, our travels, etc. It was after this visit that I started writing to my aunt in Hawaii.
It was the mid-1970’s and I was just enamored with mail. The idea that you could put a letter in the mail and a few days later, it was delivered and read thousands of miles away just fascinated my young mind. And you can imagine my joy when she wrote back. This began a wonderful relationship that lasted almost 25 years. We wrote letters and shared all sorts of news. I told her of my family and what I heard of her siblings and their families. She told me of her life and family in Hawaii. And now and again, she would staple a $5 bill to her letter to me and write across it “For Pepsi” because she knew how much I loved that stuff.
When she came to visit, we had our late night chats. Even when I was a teen, my parents knew how special this aunt-niece relationship was and let me enjoy this special time with my aunt. Once I became 16 and able to drive, I loved that she would take a day out of her trip to take me to the Art Museum and treat us to lunch in their restaurant.
It was after I was an adult and working a full-time job and living in my first apartment, that we began to supplement our letters with phone calls. She would be surprised that I would call her and not worry about the money. That I just wanted to hear her voice.
And when my father died and she came to visit months later, I was the one that was honored to take her to visit his grave site. She lovingly laid an orchid lei on his grave and said her prayers for his soul. I will never forget that day.
Audrey developed cataracts and the time came to have them removed. She had the surgery and regained perfect eyesight….for 2 weeks. She awoke one morning sneezing and then realized she could see nothing. A visit to the doctor showed that her eyes had not completely healed and she had ‘blown’ the corneas. Laser treatments failed to give her her eyesight back. She was blind. She went to a School for the Blind to learn how to do things like understand money by touch and how to pour a cup of coffee. And she talked to me candidly about it. She said that there was a child there that lost her sight in a skiing accident; that there was a young man that lost his eyesight to a car accident; and that there was a man there that lost his eyesight to diabetes. And she was mad. Not that she was blind but that they were. I will never forget her words. She said, “I have seen the world and enjoyed life. These kids and young people haven’t!” She had no self-pity in her situation. She meant what she said. She had seen and done everything that she wanted to do. She embraced her life and all that it held for her.
It wasn’t until my 29th birthday that I was able to visit her in her home. For a few wonderful days, my mother and I enjoyed the sites and sounds of Hawaii. We dined with my aunt and her family. We went site-seeing with my cousins. And we payed our respects at the USS Arizona.
Four months later, on the day after her birthday, her husband Bob died after laying down with her for a nap. He went peaceably out of this world and into the next. He was able to see his his first 2 grandchildren before his death.
Before her death at the age of 73, dying in the same manner as her husband, in her sleep, she was able to know her 3 grandchildren. Having lived 50 years in Hawaii, thousands of miles from her birthplace, raising a family, and adopting a culture for the love of 1 man. She saw the territory of Hawaii become the 50th state of the United States of America. She saw the changes in America from a unique perspective. I miss her letters and calls. I miss our late night chats. And I miss her courage and encouragement that she showed me.
I admired my Aunt Audrey. I loved her. I respected her. She made time for a niece far away. Her youngest child being just 6 months younger than me, she knew what I was going through as her own daughter went through it. She told me stories of my father growing up. And more stories about her parents.
It was her example to me that challenged me to be a better aunt when I became one. I try to always make time for my nieces and nephews. I only wish that I had 1 that wanted to write or call as I did with Audrey.
So Happy Birthday Audrey….and thank you for teaching this niece what family and commitment and love is all about. I love you.