March 3, 1920 – January 21, 2018
Because I call my blog, Writing The Life, and death is a part of life that we all will face eventually, I want to write about my Aunt Ag--the last member of my father's birth family. She passed away on Sunday. For more than forty years, I've been the person in our family who writes and delivers the eulogies. It's not an easy task. But it is one I do joyously because of the way it takes me back into memory and allows me to relive a time with them.
Agnes was one of six children born to Walter Jackson and Gladys Meek Hamm. For the first eight years of her life, she lived in Farmington, Maryland, near Rising Sun. And then, in 1928, the unthinkable happened and her beautiful, young mother died. Her father couldn’t take care of the six children and so the family was broken up and the children sent to live with relatives.
One sister was adopted in Baltimore. Her two brothers lived with their grandfather Hamm in Rising Sun. They saw very little of each other until a grenade blew up in my father's hand during WWII and they all gathered around what they thought was his death bed. To everyone's surprise my father lived. And that was good for me because I wouldn't be here if he hadn't. From that point forward his siblings were closer than any family I've ever known. Perhaps it was their early separation that bound them--but whatever the cause--the bonds were unbreakable. And I considered myself very lucky to grow up surrounded by their love.
Aunt Ag, along with her older sister, Edna, and her younger sister, Lil, came to Sugar Grove, Virginia to live with their grandfather, Steven Meek. He soon saw how intelligent his granddaughter, Agnes, was and he sent her to college--something few women did at that time. After graduation, she became a school teacher--teaching 3rd and 4th grade in a one-room school house in Sugar Grove.
In the early forties, she met Claude Finney and fell in love. Eventually, they moved to St. Albans, West Virginia where Ag became the CEO of the West Virginia Water Company. It was a time before affirmative action, a time when women were not considered equal to men in the workforce, and there were very few female CEO’s in America. Agnes was a trail blazer and a wonderful role model for her nieces.
Throughout her life, she acted as a mother to both her brother, my father, and her younger sister, Lil. After my mother died, she took care of my severely handicapped father. And she cared for her Lil until she passed away, one year ago today. Returning to Sugar Grove last year was a difficult journey for Agnes to make at 96 years old, but she’d made a promise to Lil that she’d bring her back home to be buried next to her beloved husband. It was a promise our Aunt Ag was determined to keep. And, she did.
When I think of Aunt Ag, I always think of her as a lady. Her sisters Lil and Peggy were the outrageous ones. Ag would watch their antics and smile, indulgently, while always remaining poised and impeccably dressed. Even as a 97-year-old woman, she dressed up to go out to dinner or lunch, always accessorizing with matching jewelry, shoes and purses. She loved prime rib and margaritas, strawberries, cookies and hotdogs. Ag had a way of lifting people up and never had a bad word to say about anyone.
She never lost her sense of wonder or her desire to learn new things. My cousin and her husband took Agnes, at age 97, to Best Buy for her first computer. Showing her how to use it was like watching a child learn to read. They taught her how to shop on line and she watched in amazement.
We all loved to sit in the recliner next to her and laugh at her stories, many of them about the antics of her sister, Lil. The ornery one.
And she was grateful to all of us who loved her. In truth, Ag was adored by all of her nieces. She never had any children, but she couldn’t have loved us more if she’d given birth to us.
After her sister Lil died, we all made it a point to call Aunt Ag more frequently. I called every Sunday. And she’d answer the phone: “Oregon. I only know one person in Oregon and that’s You.” When I hung up, I’d say, “I love you, Aunt Ag.” And she always responded with, “I love you, too, honey.” Sundays won’t be the same without hearing those words.
I believe our bodies are a garage in which our spirits park for a moment in eternity. During her moment, Agnes was many things: A teacher, a wife, a CEO, a dear friend, a cancer survivor, a beloved aunt, a doting sister, and so much more. She was sweet, smart, funny and always optimistic.
As children, most of us look for approval from the adults in our lives, but we didn’t have to do that with Aunt Ag. We always had it. And having that helped make us confident and secure in who we are.
We all wanted her to live to be 100 and planned to throw a big party for her, but I think, without her sister to care for, she was ready to go. And she wanted to die, the way she’d lived, on her own terms. She made us promise that we’d never put her in an assisted care facility. That she wanted to stay in her own home. My cousin, who honored that promise, had arranged for round-the-clock care just days before A. Ag died.
A gentle, but mighty heart has stopped beating and a soft voice has gone silent. The oldest, wisest and brightest star in our sky - the one that has led us to this point - has gone out. But even amidst the pain of losing this elegant and thoughtful woman, we know that it is now up to us to take her with us into the future.
So, we recommit ourselves to the next generation, her grand and great grand nieces and nephews who bear not only her genes but also her hopes and dreams. They will carry with them her legacy and most of all, her love. And if they are courageous enough, they will now walk a path that was started and forged by her.
Thank you, Aunt Ag, for everything you were and everything you meant to each one of us. You will be long remembered and forever loved.