There were four people nicknamed Val and Buzz and Bug and Bill. Val and Bill were brother and sister. Bug and Buzz were brother and sister. Val and Bug were best friends. Buzz and Bill were good friends. Buzz married Val. Bill married Bug. They grew up, in large families, in the Dust Bowl years of Oklahoma. Bug and Bill were my grandparents. With the oddities of relative vernacular, Buzz and Val were my double-great-aunt-and-uncle. They were part of the “Greatest Generation” that survived the Great Depression, fought in World War II, and built full lives. These nicknames stuck throughout their lives.
Aunt Val died last week at the age of 94 in her beloved Oklahoma. For her last three days, she was in hospice and did not recognize my mother. But I won’t focus on that, except that I am grateful that the last painful stage only lasted three days. Aunt Val was the last of the great generation in our family. She was the last of my great aunts and uncles, which, when including spouses, numbered in the 30s. She was also the last in my family that would have been considered part of that Greatest Generation.
She was indeed a great aunt. She and Uncle Buzz did not have children of their own, but spread their love to their numerous nephews, nieces, great-nephews, and great-nieces. Because we were doubly-related to her, and due to her close relationship with my grandparents and mom and uncle, my sisters, cousins, and I were the beneficiaries of her expansive love and humor and attention. But really, anyone who came across Aunt Val benefited from her laughter. She would “get tickled” and her laughter tickled everyone around her.
When I think of laughing, I think of my grandmother and Aunt Val, laughing long and hard, thick as thieves. When Aunt Val and Uncle Buzz came to visit, I could catch glimpses of a younger Buzz, Val, Bug, and Bill. After poring through the family albums, and memorizing the numerous photos, I could see their younger selves came to life when they visited together. Coming from dirt poor families, they were rich in the currency of love and laughter and loyalty.
When PaPa (Bill in the foursome) died from lung cancer over 30 years ago, Aunt Val and Uncle Buzz were with my grandmother Nan (Bug in the foursome). They drove her home from the hospital and steadied her as she made the decisions that many weary widows must make. They stayed with us, my sisters and cousins, while my mom and grandmother were at the funeral home. They were sad, but their quiet grief gave us room to cry and explore the foreign territory of saying goodbye to our first close relative to die in our young lives. They said goodbye, but mostly I remember them bringing their solid warmth on a dreary November day near Thanksgiving.
A few months later, they traveled with my grandmother to Washington, D.C. It was her first big trip without my grandfather and she returned from that trip whole and laughing. I always think that that trip brought her back to life, thanks to Aunt Val and Uncle Buzz.
Aunt Val was the last one in her family. She outlived all her brothers and sisters, their spouses, her parents, her aunts and uncles, and several nieces and nephews. She talked every day on the phone with my mother and one day in deep sadness, she asked my mother why she was the last one. This was in the fall. My mom and I talked the next day and we cried together, knowing that Aunt Val was in her last days. My grandmother died 5 1/2 years ago. Uncle Buzz died 1 1/2 years ago.
Aunt Val and Uncle Buzz were married for 71 years. She was a teacher and he was a soil conservationist. In retirement, they played golf every day. When golf was no longer part of the routine, the still kept busy and active into their 90s. They laughed often and I think that was their secret to such long lives and a long, happy marriage. They made each other laugh and they made everyone around them laugh as well.
Why is it that in grieving and remembering, we find cliches? Why is it, that while Aunt Val’s life is more complex, right now I can only remember laughter? I don’t like the cliches, but I’ll go with the laughter.
Aunt Val told stories. She talked about her former students. Looking back to the generations before, it is easy to romanticize their struggle and it is easy to self-select the qualities that we hope we have inherited from our quirky family trees. I hope that my delight in and love for teaching came from my Aunt Val. Laughing and being silly are just about my favorite things, and I hope that I got some of this from Val, Buzz, Bug, and Bill.
Aunt Val’s funeral is tomorrow. My mom and older sister are there in Oklahoma. I am not and I feel horrible. I am looking at family pictures and sharing stories with my younger sister, who also was not able to make the trip.
I hope that Val, Buzz, Bug, and Bill are finally together again. I hope that they are gathered around a table, drinking coffee, sharing stories, and laughing as always. That laughter that I can feel in my sad heart is heavenly and I think I can hear them.