Auntie Anne — I owe her my life.
My Aunt Anne passed a way a few hours ago, 10,000 miles away. I owe my life to her.
My mom and Annie were only 14 months apart. They emigrated from the Netherlands at 15 and 17. They stuck close in the years they were figuring out how to live and adjust and thrive in this new place, in America. Life was hard at first. My grandfather never quite got his sea legs in the United States and Annie was put to work straightaway to help with family expenses.
But Annie always had a sense that she deserved better.
She found a way to go to college. She met Donald. I don’t remember how or where they met. He was bigger than life too, so I could understand how they were drawn to each other. Don became a doctor and was posted to a military hospital in Europe. Annie talked my mom into coming for a visit.
By then, Mom was done with college. She took what money she had and bought a one-way ticket to Germany. Anne could compel you to do things like that.
It was in Germany at a local theater that my mother met my father. My father was a trained actor drafted reluctantly into the army and his solace was this theater. My mom only came to audition because Annie wanted them to. Anne was the consummate extrovert. My mom was the opposite. Six-months later and after the only theatrical production to their shared credit, my parents eloped to Athens.
In that sense, Annie is literally responsible for my life.
When I was 23 and heading to Divinity School Annie gave me my first adult Bible. It is in a box at the moment, with the movers, or I’d quote her words directly. I know she wrote about living with the Spirit. Anne loved Scripture and her faith and the call to be religious. This part of her life, too, was lit by an ambition to be big.
But for some reason the sense of Annie’s spirit, for me, has always been caught up in something that happened when I was seven.
That year my dad directed a play that took him from Los Angeles to New York. My mom decided to join my dad for a while in New York and I went to live with Annie while Mom did so. When opening night of the play came around, Annie decided we should go. She bought me a dress and shoes. She booked us into the Hilton Hotel. Anne was 100% comfortable with big events. We were going to have a ball, she said.
Opening night was a flurry of activity. The after-party lingered until the New York Times review could be read aloud, ink still wet and warm on the paper (figuratively). I was exhausted and Anne was sympathetic so she promised me that, when we got back to the hotel, she’d call room service and order me a dish of raspberry sorbet to cap the night.
When we finally got back to the hotel Anne made good on the promise… or tried. She called room service, but they were shut down for the night. Annoyed and feeling badly she made them promise they would deliver our order first thing in the morning. “As soon as you open,” she told the person on the other end of the line.
Sure enough, at six in the morning we got a knock on the door. A man dressed in something like a tux showed up with a white napkin over his arm. He rolled in a tall silver stand at the top of which, nested in a bowl of ice, was the largest serving of raspberry sorbet I have ever seen.
No one was more delighted by its arrival than Annie. Let the festivities of life commence once more!
The Annie I knew, all these years ago, wanted life on her terms. She was grand and sweeping, adoring and indulgent, a bit changeable sometimes, but generous unfailingly. She had a big heart and the world almost seemed inadequate to hold it. I had never seen anyone like her. And I don’t think I have seen many like her since. And I owe my life to her.
Probably in more ways than one.
The recent decades were not as good to my aunt. Life got circumscribed which must have made her mad, like the spiritual equivalent of the bound feet, twisted, unnatural. But I missed much of those years. She and I mostly kept in touch through my mother.
The good part of that is that I am left with the Anne of my childhood and young adult years which were the good years, as far as I am concerned. So, I say goodbye to that woman, whom I loved.
May you rest in peace, Auntie Anne. May the Heaven you find yourself in be full grand displays of raspberry sorbet delivered at dawn, endlessly fascinating people to pass the eons of time with, and may it be big enough to hold your spirit, unfurled.