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

That’s All From Lake Wobegon

In his sweet eulogy of his grandmother Mary Marsden, Evan poked gentle fun at Mary’s strong Minnesota accent in which she greeted him on the telephone — “Ohh, heyeee, Ev” — and signed off with “That’s all from Lake Wobegon,” a reference any Minnesotan and many others across the country recognize from Garrison Keillor’s storytelling on Minnesota Public Radio’s “Prairie Home Companion.”

That’s all from Lake Wobegon, where the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and the children are above average.

Garrison Keillor’s motto about his fictitious small Minnesotan town of Lake Wobegon

Mary was a strong woman — and passionate progressive Democrat — whose life force kept her going through heartbreak and cancer to her beloved winter escape in Acapulco and back until just before her 93rd birthday, when, days after Joe Biden’s win, a brief illness stopped that determined forward momentum.

It is hard to believe that powerful voice, with all its nasal twang and Norsky vowels, is gone.

Mary and Dave Marsden were very close Macalester College friends of my parents. Their first child, Betsy, was the first baby my mother had ever held before I was born a few months later. Their second child, Annie, was my sister’s age. The Marsden home in St. Paul was on our home leave circuit every couple of years when we visited from overseas. We grew up with Betsy and Annie during these summertime reunions on the wide, welcoming porch of Mary and Dave’s St. Paul home.

When I dropped out of college after my sophomore year and drifted to Minnesota during the final years of my dad’s Foreign Service career, Mary gave me not only a home but also a purpose, as if I were actually needed. Somehow that “job” resulted in me making oatmeal for a very surprised breakfast crew of the younger Marsdens, Brian and Craig. Mary knew I’d find my way, and she just accepted me as I was, then and always.

Years later — after Betsy and I moved to Brooklyn and I wore one of her dresses for my first date with the man that became my husband — Mary also embraced my husband and daughter, declaring them “precious” at every opportunity. In return, Mary became precious to each of us.

Last Mother’s Day, I wrote Mary a letter thanking her for taking me in without judgement all those years ago, for lovingly patting my fat bottom (which I hated at the time), for embracing my family. When we last spoke a couple of months ago, that Minnesota twang still made my ears buzz.

Her life may have ended, but she’s going to be with me, along with my imitation of her accent, for the rest of my life.

Evan

Me, too, Evan. Me, too.