In Memory of Auntie Phyllis

My first memory of my Aunt Phyllis was in Florida, where she let us stay after our home in Kuwait was rendered inhospitable by Desert Storm. I remember spending entire days chasing her cat, Effie, through dark, dusty rooms full of the artifacts Phyllis had collected during her time in Kuwait. Heavy wooden chests full of scratchy woven rugs, wrought iron chandeliers, dark, secret alcoves and the thick tile floor served as a playground for me and my sister.

Phyllis herself held a magical quality, like a benevolent witch. For one thing, her backyard sloped down to a river where we saw alligators, an appropriately creepy animal for a witch’s backyard. It was at her home that I had my first experience of the infamous concoction, dirt-for-dessert, a meal of pudding layered with Oreo crumbs and served in a flower pot, topped with gummy worms.

When we were older, we used to visit her at her cabin in the woods of the Adirondack mountains, where she would stow my sister and I in her loft with a fairy tale library and a full-sized, real bearskin rug (complete with gaping maw still attached), while my parents slept on the pullout couch. With the musty furs, mounted animal heads, and three playful dogs, it was a wonderland. Add to that the fact that it was usually buried under more snow than Lia and I had seen in our entire lives, and we were in heaven. We woke to the smell of fresh pancakes and bacon filling the one-room cabin, spent the mornings playing with the dogs in our pajamas, the afternoons exploring the snow-covered woods, and the evenings curled up by the great stove.

Phyllis took care of my family and she looked after us kids. Her world was always magical and full of wondrous things to explore. She happily shared her cabin, barely big enough for her and her husband Richard, with a family of four including two rowdy kids. She always had room to spare in her heart for anyone, person or animal, that might need someone to look after them; she worked at an animal shelter, and was never with fewer than three dogs in her tiny cabin.


When I got old enough to want to understand my father, I turned to Phyllis, who had known him longer than anyone else I knew. Clearly, she was important enough in his life for him to justify buying a cabin only five minutes from hers. My dad spent as much time as he possibly could up there.

So it only made sense that, in seeking to connect with him, I should spend time with my Auntie Phyllis. I had one really good conversation with her about my dad, and I regret not having been more direct sooner.


Phyllis passed away last week, after a yearlong bout of leukemia. I got the news in an e-mail from my dad late at night, sitting up in my small kitchen in Korea. Phyllis had been so excited for me to go live abroad, perhaps because she had done the same thing when she was younger. She was eager for stories, but every time I called her, I just got the answering machine.

Missing the Connection

In the preparations to go to Korea, I had seen very little of her during 2011. I visited during hunting season, but when I was set to leave the States in September, it seemed that I would not get the chance to see her again. She had been diagnosed earlier in the year, but hadn’t been expected to live so long and with such vigor. She seemed to have beaten the leukemia, as improbable as that was, and even had her hair back.

But despite all that, I had a sense she would not be waiting for me when I returned from Korea. Resigned to that, I got ready to leave.

Luckily, our job offer fell through, leaving me in the States until December. I went up to the cabin with Anna, to see Phyllis and say a proper goodbye.

Anna and I visited several times, and shared dinners with Phyllis and Richard. When it came time to leave, nobody said anything about final goodbyes, but the tears that sprang to our eyes made it clear that there was more being said than a simple, ‘see you later.’


Phyllis read my blog every day. She was so happy to hear about every adventure we were having in Korea, eager to follow the developing perspective chronicled here. I kept trying to call her, but eventually gave up. I caught myself taking her for granted, putting it off and blaming the time difference.

And then, I woke up and realized I shouldn’t waste time, that there wasn’t really any time at all. If I couldn’t reach her by phone, I would send her an e-mail with a detailed, personal update on my life.

I sent it on Tuesday.

I got my dad’s email on Thursday.

I wondered, did Phyllis read it? In her last days, would she have had the energy to check her e-mail? I at least knew I had reached out, but what good was that if I hadn’t reached her?

I was oddly calm to hear of her passing. I had been emotionally prepared, and we had said our proper goodbyes, so I wasn’t surprised. But did she know I had been thinking of her? I wanted her to know that I hadn’t forgotten to share my stories in Korea.

I called Richard to offer my condolences. Funny how when we seek to offer comfort, we find ourselves the recipient. Richard told me Phyllis had read my e-mail, and that it had made her so happy, easing her pain a little.

And that’s when I felt the sadness well up, like a tide waiting for the right combination of seasonal elements to overwhelm a protected harbor. It was a gentle grief, full of love, but I was happy to feel a loss.

In Memory of...

Phyllis taught me many of the things I needed to grow up into a happy adult, and embodied many of the values that are so central to my quest for balance right now.

She taught me that nature is vitally important. She taught me that there is always room to love, and that you don’t need much more than a warm home, good food, good friends and a few dogs to be fulfilled in life. She taught me how to understand my father. She taught me that magic is real, that the world is full of wonder, that age is no excuse to stop laughing and acting positively childish. In my quest to get as mature as possible as fast as possible, there was always Auntie Phyllis, making fart jokes, playing with dogs, doing all the things responsible adults were supposed to put behind them, reminding me to stay lighthearted.

She was like this until the end. And while she had the grace to let others look after her when she needed it, she was still looking after us all when she left us.

I love you, Auntie Phyllis. You will always be a part of me.