Thursday, December 5, 2013

Aunt Kay

Friday is my Aunt Kay’s birthday. She would have been 73. Kay died on October 9th from metastatic breast cancer, just a few weeks after we moved to Nairobi. We missed the memorial service ~ that was really hard. This is the first time I have grieved at a distance from my family and friends, but I am so grateful to my dad, my  mom, and my sister, along with Kay's incredible friends, who were with Kay in those final weeks. Below are some rambling thoughts on Kay ~ some came from the obituary that friends and family wrote. Thanks for reading and honouring my aunt’s memory with me.

‘It reflects on your other commitments as well. Will you be able to stay married? What kind of a friend are you?’ My aunt Kay said this to me when I was 20 and contemplating taking a year off from college. That summer I was working in DC for my congressman (does anyone else in South Carolina miss John Spratt?) and it seemed like I had some growing up to do. So I told Kay that: maybe I should take a year off and grow up some. Her reply was something like, ‘Learning how to stick to something when it’s really hard is part of growing up.’

I was reared by wonderful parents who were active church members, with morals and values grounded in Biblical stories and their faith. Our home was a small town in South Carolina where a huge Air Force base was an influential part of our community. Kay, my dad’s older sister, was quite different from almost all of the other women I knew as a child. Although she only lived 45 miles away in Columbia, at times her world seemed radically different than mine.

Kay was a feminist and a committed and vocal member of the Democratic Party and League of Women Voters. She was a sophisticated conversationalist, particularly about South Carolina politics. No matter how frustrated she could get with our state, she remained fiercely loyal to South Carolina, and to its University, where she worked for so many years. She wasn’t always easy to deal with. She was opinionated, well read, and could be sarcastic and unkind toward others’ opinions that differed substantially from hers.  Kay never married, sometimes she lived alone; for a while she had a long-time roommate (as an adult! how cool!), she always had a cat, great art hung on her walls, and had lived and travelled all over the world. She was deeply committed to the local art scene in Columbia. Many of these characteristics made her the kind of woman who was not only unusual in small towns of the Deep South in the 1970’s and 80’s; to me she was almost exotic.

Kay valued intellectual curiosity and perseverance ~ hence her strong reservations about my wanting to quit college for a year. The value she placed on those two things could often make it difficult for us to get along. I always loved to read (one of the characteristics we had in common), but I wasn’t classically smart ~ I didn’t have good grades, and I had a hard time dedicating the kind of time good grades required. However, we both shared a love of theatre, and because of her I was able to see some of South Carolina’s best live theatre. She loved that I was active in the Sumter Little Theatre, and it was important to me that we shared that passion.

Kay was a serious lover of cats, and spent much of her energy caring for a long line of quirky and insistent animals. She loved and appreciated classical music, theatre, opera; she shared this love with all of us.  She generously and consistently supported the arts in Columbia and Charleston. Kay’s sense of style was to be envied, and it was demonstrated in her clothes, the art on her walls, and in her home. Kay was a mean card player, and spent much of her time around a Bridge table with a loyal group of players. She made sure each of us had a sixpence on our wedding day. Kay was a willing playmate with little ones; she could be silly and tease playfully and make up funny nicknames. Kay hated to be woken up early, especially on Christmas mornings by over-eager nieces.

Kay was private about dealing with her cancer. I’m pretty sure she told my sister and parents a bit more, but with me it was pretty much on a need-to-know-basis. We talked about it over the years, but I think she kept a lot of the pain to herself. She had a dedicated circle of friends, made up of old and new, male and female, conservatives and liberal thinkers….really quite amazing to me. They supported her during her various bouts with cancer, and then supported my dad and Mandy when they were in Columbia during her final weeks.

We miss Kay and I know with Christmas approaching (a holiday we usually spent with her), it will be more acute. My kids and I will miss her silly and unique presents, the English crackers, delicious German wine, good bread, and pimiento cheese from The Gourmet Shop in Columbia.

For many people Christmas and the holidays can be really hard. I love the Quaker way of saying they remember one another in prayer: "I will hold you in the Light." I hope each of us has someone who holds us in the Light this season ~ it is a bitter and sweet time for many.   

Kay wearing one of the crowns from the English crackers that she brought us every Christmas. 


  1. Thanks for sharing about your aunt. She sounds really great.

  2. Such sweet memories you have, Selena. Thank you so much for sharing. My heart is heavy for you, but I am wishing you and your family peace and strength and love.

  3. Thanks for sharing such an interesting life. Your blog is inspirational.