Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Last Matriarch

My Aunt Peg died on New Year’s Day. She was 90 and the last living child of my maternal grandparents, Charles and Nora Pie'. That’s a pretty good run in my book. My mother, Peg’s older sister, died at 64; my father at 56. For much of my life I was pretty distant from most family. My mother had five sisters and two brothers who lived to adulthood, so I had aunts, uncles and cousins galore but they were way out west and who knows where in the east and mid west so I didn’t really keep up with them. But I did keep in touch with Peg. She was the lynchpin of the family; she still lived in the family hometown, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, knew where everyone was, how they were doing and was always pleased to hear from me and fill me in on relatives whom I hardly knew.

More than anything else, Peg was the sister who helped out after my father’s early death and mother’s subsequent nervous breakdowns. I can’t say that I particularly appreciated her efforts at the time. I was, in fact, about as big a jerk as a 15 year-old can be about the whole affair. My attitude was that family was trouble and should be avoided. Only later I came to realize just how much Peg sacrificed for her sister and her sister’s two sons. Peg’s efforts taught me what it means to be family. As I’ve grown older, that has come to mean more and more to me.

Peg was one of the two siblings who attended my mother’s funeral in 1979. The others were too far away to make the trek to out-of-the-way Danville, Virginia. Mother’s funeral was a pretty simple affair: a graveside service on a fine June day after an informal “wake” at the Holiday Inn the night before that involved much beer and many stories. The memories shared then were first steps back toward a family I had pretty much ignored. I didn’t exactly reach out to the various relatives but I did keep in touch with Peg; she was my link to the family diaspora. A few years later, after moving west, I connected with the Idaho-Washington relatives and have drawn closer to family ever since and to Peg in particular.

I visited her several times over the years, most recently as part of my Appalachian Trail hikes. Peg’s house in Johnstown was a refuge for me after Maggie picked me up in Maine in 2002. Throughout much of that trip I envied hikers who had family along the trail and pull off for a few days to recuperate somewhere besides a motel room or hostel. Maggie and I spent about five days with Peg. It was an opportunity to re-orient myself after six months on the trail as well as the chance to catch up with family news. During that visit, we called my other surviving aunt, Alicia, in Spokane. She was 92, had difficulty talking and would die a few months later. Not an especially substantive conversation but meaningful nonetheless.

In 2005, after finishing the trail in Pennsylvania, I took the train from Harrisburg to Johnstown, retracing a route I had taken as a child on trips with my mother and brother. The train shed in Harrisburg looked much smaller than my 40 year old memory of it but I recognized it all the same. I was amazed to see Peg waiting for me at the Johnstown station. She had suffered some back (I think) problems and was limited in her mobility but she came anyway with her daughter, Gretchen. My brother, Neil, drove up from Atlanta that day so the event became a mini-reunion, with much beer consumed and stories told. It was my last visit with Peg. She fell later that year, injuring herself severely, never to return to her home.

I’m not one to bolt cross-country for funerals but there was little doubt in my mind that I would be heading for Johnstown after I got the news of Peg’s death. Sure, it would be a hassle finding an affordable flight at the last minute, flying all night to Pittsburgh and driving a couple hours to Johnstown but all I had to do was think back to Peg’s efforts on my behalf 45 years ago and the decision was a no-brainer. I made it just in time to join cousins and family friends in remembering a remarkable life that made all the difference to me.

As funerals go, it was not an especially sad occasion. The gathering reminded me how fortunate I am to have had someone like Peg in my life. I met cousins whom I had known only through Peg. And, yes, much beer was consumed in her memory.

Godspeed, Peg. You will always be part of my life.


My brother Neil posted his own thoughts of Peg at his blog, Saddleview.



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