We celebrated my great aunt Lois' 90th birthday this last Saturday. Lois is my father's father's sister, the youngest, and only surviving, of four children born in Butte, Montana to another incredible and independent woman and her adoring husband.
While I've known Lois and her husband Bob my entire life, I had no idea the true woman she was and didn't appreciate the life that she has lead for its bravery, uniqueness and dignity until I saw all of her friends and family gathered around her, heard their tributes and stories and watched the documentary Lois’ daughter Betty hired a filmmaker to record in which Lois told the story of her life with astounding detail and nearly unbelievable humor.
Lois is incredibly intelligent, and has lost none of her facultative abilities to age. In the documentary, she recalled with perfect clarity the Butte of her childhood, a city that in no way exists in the same form today, a beautiful and vibrant place of diversity and elegance. The city thrived on the livelihood of the "richest hill on Earth," the copper mines that brought immigrants from every part of the world and saw a social scene akin more to cities like New York and San Francisco than most small Western towns. One interesting aspect of Lois' idyllic memories of her childhood and teenage years is that she remembers the miners as dignified and gentlemanly men, men always clad in suits and ties who Lois says she never heard utter a swear word. But behind the veneer of civility laid the truth that Butte was known for being a city of easy vice, housing the longest running bordello in the history of the United States. It is a testament to my great grandparents that they allowed their children to only see the kindness and beauty of their city and kept them removed from the sordid. This must have shaped Lois’ character as she seemingly sees only the good and beautiful in those around her, and not the frailness behind them.
Lois was, I believe, and early and unwitting feminist. She was a basketball star, the only girl in her college class and a woman of moral certainty, as evidenced by the story she told of her first date with Bob, where he asked her, in succession, if she wanted a smoke, a drink or to get in the back seat, all three to which she said no, a feat hereto unmatched by any woman in our family.
Lois has lead a life that I could live only in the most ambitious of my dreams. She moved to New York to marry Bob in a ceremony that will be recorded in the annals of slapstick for an appalling cold with laryngitis, an exceptionally kind hairdresser, misplaced guests, shockingly cold weather and a never-to-be-forgotten announcement by Lois at her wedding dinner that all she wanted to do was go home and go to bed, said in the approximately thirty seconds she had her voice that day and during one of those lulls that appear in conversation at the most inopportune time. All of the bachelor guests of the wedding were thrilled by what they thought was a moment of ribaldry from an otherwise dignified woman and never let her forget her willingness to commence her marriage.
Poor and young, Lois and Bob lived a Bohemian life in New York where they would spend Saturdays touring the city with $.50 in their pocket and a candy bar for lunch. New York was cheap then, she said, and, since Bob had lived there for several months before their marriage, he knew how to show a girl a good time for free.
My favorite story that Lois told, though, had to do with the reason they left New York. She was home during the day and listening to a radio drama. The heroine was a young girl from a western mining town, which was amusingly appropriate. The heroine lived alone in New York waiting for her fiancé to return to her from his overseas travails. One day, she heard a knock at her door. She opened it to find her fiancé, who then tumbled to the floor. He told her that he had returned from India with backwater fever and had come home to die in her arms. Shortly after listening to his program, Lois welcomed Bob home from a day at the office, where he worked for Ingersoll Rand selling mining equipment. “Lois,” he said, “the company has decided where we’re to go! We’re being sent to India!” “No!” Lois replied, “you’ll die of backwater fever!”
But, to India they went, traveling on an ocean liner to Plymouth and then from London to Calcutta via boat and train. I can only imagine a girl, 22 or 23, having moved from Montana to New York and than to Calcutta, being asked to represent a major international company as the wife of the only American salesman, managing a house of servants and suddenly dealing with the outbreak of the second World War. They fled on the last boat from Delhi, captained by a friend who let them know, in code, that they had to be on his boat or risk being trapped in India. A 49 day voyage around Africa followed, with blackouts every night, the threat of torpedo attacks and the addition of 500 wounded rescued from Japanese U-boat attacks to add to the 1,800 already on board ship. They returned to New York and Lois found a phone to call her father, who cried in relief that she was alive. They decided that it was time to return home and drove cross-country on rationed gas with barely enough food to eat as the war raged on.
At this point the first half of the documentary ended, leaving me desperate to know what happened next. What I do know from this point on is only from what my father was told in one long evening of astonishing communications from the usually taciturn Bob. After their return to Butte, he was recruited by the Secret Service and joined the war effort. What followed were a series of the most remarkable and well-neigh unbelievable adventures that the two of them shared, almost always together.
I did not expect to come away from Saturday’s party feeling as though I had just witnessed a great and defining moment in my life. I also did not expect to be welcomed by Lois with such love and kindness, nor did I think that I would be given the gift of having her share stories of me from our times together in my childhood, times that I wish I could remember. My memories of Lois and Bob are always of a very kind and gracious couple who seemed to be somehow above my plane of existence, living a life of elegance and detachment. I had no idea that we were as loved as we are, and as valued, that their memories of my parents’ generosity in opening their house to visits gave them such pleasure.
Lois and Bob have moved now, from their large home on Bainbridge, and are living in a retirement home not 20 minutes from me. I cannot let this time go by without taking the opportunity to be witness to more of the remarkable woman that is my aunt Lois. What a rare and precious opportunity I’ve been given.