03/31/2001

I got the call late last night. My great aunt in Cleveland died yesterday.

It’s kind of become tradition, on my mom’s side of the family at least, for me to write the tribute when a relative dies. Somehow I’m good at expressing those sentiments, and, well, I am a writer. But I can’t write Aunt Lilian’s tribute, and it has nothing to do with Aunt Lilian being on my dad’s side of the family.

I hardly knew her.

When my dad moved to Kansas City in the early 1970s, he never really looked back. He adopted Kansas City as his hometown, and after he and my mom married, he adopted them as his family. His father probably saw me fewer than a dozen times. His mother only saw me six or seven times more than that. I’ve seen one of Dad’s cousins twice, and his other cousin once. I met his aunt and uncle once, at their 40th or 50th wedding anniversary, in 1989. I only remember it being a big number in a day and age when few people make it to their tenth.

Once I got out of college and on my own, I always said I’d make it back to Cleveland. Some Thanksgiving, or sometime when I had some vacation time due, I’d fly out or take a road trip. I never did. It was always easier to just go to Kansas City. It’s closer, and economies of scale were on my side. One year I even had an airline ticket. I ended up not using it.

Then Uncle Bob died. I didn’t even make it to the funeral. I knew Aunt Lilian wouldn’t have a whole lot of time left. When you’ve been married that long, once your partner dies, you generally follow pretty soon.

Last Thanksgiving, I thought about going. I didn’t. I was thinking maybe this year would be the year. But I know good and well I probably wouldn’t have.

This has been all about me. That’s terrible. So what do I know about Aunt Lilian?

She was my dad’s favorite aunt. I think she may have been his only aunt, but that’s OK. She was worthy of the title. Her brother was my dad’s father and my grandfather. You can say a lot of things about Dr. Ralph–he was a brilliant man, a wise man, a great doctor, a small-time tycoon. But he wasn’t a nice man. Aunt Lilian was much more pleasant than her brother.

Dad didn’t talk about his family much. But he’d talk about Uncle Bob and Aunt Lilian and their sons, Bobby and Sterling. I think that says a lot.

Aunt Lilian was known for her chocolate chip cookies. That was the first thing Dad said about her. She didn’t know what the fuss was about. The recipe was right there on the back of the package of the brand of chocolate chips she bought and had been buying for most of the century. So anyone else could follow the same recipe, but somehow it wasn’t ever the same. I remember Dad and his cousins, Bob and Sterling, discussing why at one point. It was funny hearing a doctor, a physical therapist, and an electrical engineer talking about why a cookie recipe couldn’t be duplicated. These three great minds couldn’t figure it out. Aunt Lilian did her best to ignore them, and that was probably for the best.

And sadly, that’s the only story I can tell about her. She must have been pushing 100 when she died; I know Uncle Bob was 95 or 96 when he passed on. Her brother died more than 21 years ago, and he was in his 70s. All that time. I’m 26. In my 26 years, I managed to spend one weekend with her.

Don’t make the same mistake I made. A life is a terrible thing to waste.

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