Family Friday: How My Aunts and Uncle Tether Me to My Father

Kristen Martin’s recent essay in The New York Times Magazine shared how her aunts kept her father from disappearing after his death by telling her all about him. That experience resonated for me.

My aunts and uncle also tether me back to my father, Robert C. Amerson. Next Thursday, it’ll be 15 years since he died in his sleep, barely a week after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I felt his sudden absence as a physical electric shock in my wrists, and the black hole where he had been seemed to expand across my entire existence. But the loving redemption of Dad’s siblings poured in to begin to restore some ground under my feet.

Dad was the eldest son in a family of six siblings. When he died first, their grief was mingled with stories of how much their big brother had meant to them.

He was always been there for us, since we were little kids skipping across the prairie to Plainview District #41 school. He went on to high school in the big town of Clear Lake [1950 population 1,105], paving the way for us girls to follow.

My Aunt Snooky, Mavis Voigt

But he was also a goofy teenager. Just yesterday, my Aunt Elaine read to me what 14-year old Bob wrote in her 1939 autograph book.

Young Bob and his accordion

When you get married and live in New York, be a lady and eat with a fork.

Bob Amerson

And there were more stories about the teenager.

Even then, he had the intellectual curiosity and artistic talent that marked the rest of his life. How many people do you know that would carve an eagle out of a bar of Ivory soap or draw wonderful pictures on the back of the oilcloth on the kitchen table? Or trade a cow for an accordion?

Mavis Voigt

Dad’s sense of adventure emerged early and carried through his life. Before leaving South Dakota, Snooky recalled, her brother learned how to fly an airplane. His youngest sister, my Aunt Jeanie, recalled trips she’d enjoyed with Dad.

And what fun I had with Bob on a West Coast trip, just the two of us, taking turns driving, talking about old times, singing as we drove.

Jeanie Brookins

Singing was part of every family reunion out on the South Dakota plains.

He knew all the words to the old songs that we learned from a clear-channel radio station in Texas, including Carter Family songs, cowboy songs, songs of loss and disasters. Family song-fests were heartfelt and spontaneous and helped sisters and brothers build strong ties.

Mavis Voigt
Snooky, Elaine, Dad, Terry, and Jeanie doing what they loved.

Perhaps the stories that continue to resonate the most have to do with Dad’s interest in his family.

He always had a way of making me feel special, even though I know he treated me just like he treated the other “kids.”

Jeanie Brookins

Bob was interested in us, asking about our accomplishments, our adventures, and our plans, and giving us support in all endeavors.

Mavis Voigt

I miss having your parents around the planet. Wonderful inspirational folks … the last few years we seemed to hit some sweet spots that makes me feel grateful.

Richard Terry Amerson

Dad never lost his love for the South Dakota of his youth, where his siblings gathered the summer after his death to merge his ashes with the waters of the Hidewood Creek, releasing him travel the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico and join the Gulf Stream in one last adventure.

Up until the pandemic, I’d never missed a year of returning to see my Amerson relatives. Sometimes, it was to mourn the loss of another sibling: Aunt Marie in 2009, Aunt Clarice in 2016. Aunt Jeanie passed just a month ago. I treasured them and am glad I was a good correspondent during their lives. With each loss, what Aunt Snooky wrote in 2006 still resonates.

Yes, he was the foundation of our family. Yes, that foundation is shaken by his death. But he left us a wonderful legacy. He taught us how to live with enthusiasm, then showed us how to die with dignity. He will be part of our lives forever.

Mavis Voigt
Marie, Elaine, Clarice, Jeanie, Snooky, and Bernice (Grandma) Amerson

Monet’s Gardens in Giverny

Photos, Giverny and Amsterdam, by author, May 2018.

My mother’s garden at my parents’ “terminal house” (a term coined by a couple who, like Mom and Dad, had called many places home) was plowed under and sodded over by the decidedly off-Cape people who bought the Brewster, MA place after Dad died unexpectedly.  Losing him broke her heart, and it broke again when she saw what had become of her garden.

Mom lingered another two years at the assisted living place a couple of towns away before a merciful stroke took her to Dad’s side. We didn’t visit the old house during that time, and I’ve now moved 1,500 miles down the coast to Florida.

But I’d like to think that Mom’s daffodils and tulips pushed their way through the carpet of grass the following spring, and that the hollyhock seeds sown by the wind clambered skyward nonetheless. I hope that the rhododendron still spews its riot of lavender by the front door, and that azaleas continue roaring their blaze of fuschia through the dead oak leaves along the back woods. The money plants surely shake their shimmering parchment coins where last year’s crop held forth, and the wild roses are compelled to bloom along the split-rail fence that borders the road leading toward the shore. It’s impossible to smother nature.

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I wished that Mom could have been with my husband and me during our visit to Amsterdam (too late to see tulips in bloom, but found some in a vase) and Paris in May, and especially when we visited Claude Monet’s home and gardens . IMG_6930

She would have delighted in the familiar nodding fistfuls of purple flox,

 

 

 

 

the blasts of outrageous red poppies, IMG_5905

 

the faded blooms of the azeleas as tender as old tissue paper.

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Mom would have stood with us on the Japanese bridge over Monet’s water garden, peering through the cascading wisteria.

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And we’d have sat in the shade of the weeping willow looking at the water lillies.  IMG_5914

Mom’s gardening blossomed when Dad retired after 20 years in the Foreign Service and they moved to Cape Cod, where she created a perennial garden that lit up the cul-de-sac: zinnias, poppies, hollyhocks, black-eyed susans in the summer; and chrysanthemums and asters in the fall.

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Nancy and Bob Amerson

She had the space and the passion and no claim on her time that wasn’t her choice. She found kindred souls in the Garden Club of Brewster, and even took her turn leading the Club. Mom, a President after being the woman behind the Embassy man for all those years!

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Nancy and Bob Amerson

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The nomadic life, and the role and responsibilities, of the diplomat didn’t lend itself to digging in the dirt and watching things grow. Although the weather was eternally spring in Caracas (1955-59) she was a new Foreign Service wife, learning the trade and how to be the señora to our maid Fina and Mommy to my little sister and me. Then, we were in an apartment and barely into the growing season in Milan (1959-60 ) when orders came that we were to go to Bologna (1960-61), where the landlord maintained a dismal rose garden. In Rome (1961-63), the balconies were shaded and narrow, and the Embassy requirements were demanding.  The position in Bogota  (1963-66)  came with a house and garden, but they were maintained by designated staff.

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We all changed gears when Dad was assigned to the State Department (1966-71). Mom and Dad bought their first house, and the split level in Potomac Woods was soon ablaze in spring azeleas to match the flower dogwoods and fall chrysanthemums. We had no staff for Mom to work around, although I imagine that she would have appreciated some weeding help.  My sister and I were up to our necks being genuine American teenagers and way too self-concerned to have noticed.

We were back overseas in 1971, this time in Madrid. Again, a house and garden came with the job, but the señora de la casa couldn’t garden: that was the gardener’s job, just as the housework and the cooking and the washing and ironing were jobs our live-in maids depended on for their families’ income.

In 1973, after a brief home leave, I stayed in the United States for college while my sister and parents flew off to the next post. Amazingly, it was Rome (1973-77), again, and this fullsizeoutput_696time the apartment that came with the job had an enormous terrace where potted plants could thrive.

Dad’s last Foreign Service assignment was serving as the Edward R. Murrow Fellow at Tuft’s University’s Fletcher School. Mom and Dad sold the house in Potomac Woods that they’d rented out when we went back overseas and bought a place in Boston overlooking Storrow Drive. Amazing spot, zero outdoors, but the Commons Garden around the corner was a great consolation prize. She got her gardening gloves back on at the summer home they bought in Sea Pines on Cape Cod, a place that stayed in the family when Mom and Dad found their “terminal home” down the road.

Mom would have known the names of all the flowers in these pictures.  I should have paid more attention. But I picked up on the passion: I’ve grown an avocado and a mango tree from pits, our citrus tree produces lemons and limes six months a year, and we had to remove a banana plant, a passion fruit vine, and a coconut palm because they were taking over.  Maybe it’s South Florida’s tropical environment. Or maybe Mom’s gardening magic is in the air.