family ties

As I sit on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains watching the winter sun slant over drought-parched vegetation, I am treated to the sight of a bobcat ambling casually up the road. My Aunt Marilyn would have been excited to share this gift. Perhaps the forest cat was sent from her, now that she no longer walks the same earthly path as I.

My father’s only sister passed away on Monday while I was driving to feed the horses that I care for once a week. We shared an equestrian passion, so the timing felt right. By all accounts, Marilyn was ready to move on, and she accepted her fate without regrets. She left behind a large extended family that will carry her in our hearts. And I suppose I am resigned to letting her go.

When I was a young girl, I wanted to be like Marilyn when I grew up: lean and outdoorsy, with a beautiful smile that revealed her zest for life. She was also stubborn and outspoken — attributes that not everyone appreciated — but in my shy, don’t-make-waves girlhood, I admired her strength and honesty. She lived in a lovely house in Berkeley, perched above the social unrest of the ’60s, with a sprawling view that sparkled at night. She raised three of my older cousins, whom I admired for different reasons. And she married a man who adored her, and who treated me like an extension of his wife: calling me beautiful when I felt gawky and awkward, hugging me like a cherished prize, sitting quietly amidst his chatty family, making it alright that I often played that role, too.

Listening to the tributes to Marilyn at her memorial, I was struck by how lucky I am to share some parts of her personality: from the stories of her travel adventures to the dance class she started at 86 years old. During a trip in Mexico’s Copper Canyon, she and one of her traveling party stood outside on the platform of the train so they could feel the wind against their faces and see the sheer drop from the many bridges to the canyon below. I imagined that I would do the same, given the opportunity. And I know I will still be dancing, should I be lucky enough to live into my late 80s or beyond. I am not quite as outspoken,  influenced also by the gentler Southern women on my mother’s side, choosing the subtlety of the written word more often than the verbal bluntness Marilyn wielded. As an example of Marilyn’s unsolicited frankness, my cousin Lyda shared: “Apparently I should not wear pleated pants or the color yellow.” Yet those jabs were part of what made Marilyn who she was, and we forgave her those mild wounds, which were soothed with boundless love and generosity (unless you were playing Scrabble, which she always won with infuriating zeal).

Marilyn, having grown up in my father’s perfectionistic and intellectual family, was hard on herself in her youth, but she grew to love and accept herself as she did those around her. Perhaps a bit too dismissive of our attempts to control our lives, she encouraged us to just live: wise words that I carry with me. Marilyn will be there each time I mount a horse, hear a birdsong in the woods, or have the opportunity for a fresh adventure, caution be damned.

Sometimes the detour is worth the delay.

Marilyn at Badger Pass, late 1940s

Marilyn at Badger Pass, late 1940s


3 thoughts on “family ties

  1. “lean and outdoorsy, with a beautiful smile that revealed her zest for life…outspoken, [with] strength and honesty” – Hmm, sounds like someone I know. I guess you got your wish to be like her – in your own way. I’m not sure I ever met her, but as Kim and Polly said, what a beautiful tribute. And how lucky the world is that she existed.


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