The value of aunts

Don't they look swell? My mom and Aunt Flippy, Chicago, early 1940s
Don’t they look swell? My mom and Aunt Flippy, Chicago, early 1940s

I’ve been thinking about my Aunt Flippy the past few days. She was the only surviving relative in my mother’s generation when she died at age 96 last week.

We in genealogy often hear exhortations (or exhort others) to talk to our older relatives about family history before it’s too late because all of their memories die with them. But this post is not about regret—it’s about gratitude.

Aunt Flippy, my mom’s sister, was in her early 30s when I was born. She was single and living in Chicago with their mother; we were living in a small town in Oregon. She and my mom had been able to stay close in spite of the distance and in spite of the limitations of letters, long distance telephone calls and cross country travel. My siblings and I made drawings for Mom to send to her. She made clown pajama bags for us (I still have mine).

When I was about 12, I became interested in my ancestors. I realized my grandmother had come from Norway—a foreign country!—and that seemed really exotic. I was one quarter Norwegian—what else was I? So began an obsession I’ve had all my life. (I believe that genealogy is at its roots a quest to learn about oneself.)

My mom told me all she could and was sure Aunt Flippy knew more, so I wrote to her. She sent me back lots of names and dates and a rough family tree. Over the years my tree has grown so large her contribution seems insignificant. However, her information was my starting point and I couldn’t have done anything without building on that.

Life intervened over the years, but we stayed in touch–even though we lived across the country from each other, even after I got married and had kids, even after my mom died, even after Aunt Flippy had to move into a nursing home in 2003. I continued to ask her questions about family history every time I talked to her—and I wrote down what she told me.

Aunt Flippy never married or had kids of her own, and over time she began to give me some of the family photos and mementos she had ended up with. I will always be grateful to her for that; I’ve had many relatives die leaving such things to those who have no idea what they mean and no interest in them. I have tried to share all of her items digitally with any of her nieces and nephews who are interested. (Sadly, few of them are.)

The last time I called her at the nursing home, a nurse informed me as sensitively as she could that Aunt Flippy’s mind wasn’t there any more. I talked to her for a while anyway, never sure how much of what I said was getting through. I had hoped she would be able to identify some of the people in some old photos I’d obtained recently, but I knew then that she would not be able to help me any more.

There will always be new questions to ask and no one to ask now. I do feel bad about that. However, I have no regrets about Aunt Flippy. I asked her all the questions I had while she was still alive, and I preserved what she told me. She seemed to appreciate my interest in the family, and I made sure I expressed my appreciation for all she did to help me with my research.

When one of my cousins was going through Aunt Flippy’s papers after she died last week, she found some old letters she had saved. One of them was a letter I wrote to her in 1960. I guess she liked me, too.

I’m still waiting for my nieces and nephews (not to mention our sons!) to start quizzing me about family history. Since I haven’t seen much interest yet, I’m doing what I can to digitize all my information and upload it to FamilySearch for later generations. That includes all the notes I’ve made during and after talking to Aunt Flippy, my parents, and many of my other aunts and uncles over the years, most of whom are gone now. No regrets. Just love and gratitude.

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