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