Aunt Phyll passed away June 15 this year. She was living in a retirement home. She was to be 97 years in 2 months. Aunt Phyll didn’t have children of her own, and at the age of 97, she didn’t have peers in this life to gather and mourn her passing. She had relatives though, scattered across the world and a few right here in Jamaica. So at the behest of the family matriarch residing here in Jamaica, we gathered last week Saturday to celebrate and honour Aunt Phyll’s life. A grand total of four of us assembled, masks on, six feet apart to speak about Aunt Phyll and mark her passing with respect. And it got me thinking…
Auntie Jeanne was the one who organized the funeral. Auntie Jeanne is in her eighties and is the holder of all files to do with family. She is more than a repository of family history though. Auntie Jeanne actively looks for and looks after members of our family who have no one else really to call upon. Auntie Jeannie was the one on the ground here in Jamaica who handled all of Aunt Phyll’s admin…her finances, answered questions, made decisions as to her care and so on. She visited and she monitored. You see, Aunt Phyll had no children of her own. Aunt Phyll lived most of her life outside Jamaica too. And in this year 2020, most of our family lives outside of Jamaica. Only a few of us remain here. So Aunt Phyll passed and Auntie Jeanne decided to mark her passing and honour her life by organizing a forum where a few of us could gather and pay respect.
A Funeral in the time of COVID
Auntie Jeanne laid out a whole program: hymns, readings, prayers and a tribute to Aunt Phyll complete with fascinating family stories. In attendance that Saturday morning were Auntie Jeanne of course, her younger brother, my uncle Francis, my brother and me.
Family Ties: Just how are we related again?
Indulge me while I outline just how I am related to Aunt Phyll. I’m hoping that other family members of my generation here and abroad will read this post, and I’m pretty sure that just as the actual relationship and genealogy were hazy to me, it probably is for them too. So here we go.
My great grandmother was Emily Richardson, nee Carey. She was one of eleven children. She had one sister who was Rowena. Rowena married Mr. Clifford Barclay and had one child. That child was Phyllis, same Aunt Phyll. So Phyllis was first cousin to my grandmother Monica, and therefore second cousin to my own mother also named Monica and Uncle Francis (in attendance at the funeral). It means that Aunt Phyll was cousin to me and my siblings as well. And now my first cousins can trace their relationship to Aunt Phyll too.
And because I know my cousin Marcie (who I didn’t meet until we both attended university in Trinidad…Marcie grew up in Barbados) will read this post, allow me to bring attention this link in the family tree for clarity: Great grandma Emily (we called her Gong Gong much to her dislike) and Rowena had a brother named George. He had a daughter named Gwenda. Gwenda was therefore my grandmother Monica’s first cousin. Gwenda is Marcie’s mother. There you have it.
My Own Memories & More of Aunt Phyll
My own memories of Aunt Phyll are few and far between. She visited Jamaica from time to time when I was a child. I remember her being hard of hearing and therefore quite a loud speaker. We had to shout to be heard. I also remember her being quite dramatic, her loud voice adding to the drama. I was fascinated that she was unmarried and childless, living overseas all by herself. Such are the musings of a child.
Aunt Phyll was a trained stenographer and worked as a court reporter in a military outfit here in Jamaica many, many years ago, pre-independent Jamaica I believe. She wore a uniform and attained the rank of corporal. Auntie Jeannie recalled how she had to read the Gleaner editorials aloud so Aunt Phyll could practice her short-hand. Aunt Phyll subsequently migrated to the UK, then to Canada then finally to the USA. A four-passport holder, Aunt Phyll became a registered nurse while residing in the USA.
Aunt Phyll was once engaged, but that was as close as she came to being Mrs. Anybody. The end of that engagement is a story filled with intrigue and drama I gather that is not really spoken about. All we know is that the end of that relationship seemed to have caused Aunt Phyll some amount of anguish. She moved on though, and went on to have several romantic liaisons. For those close enough and looking on, Aunt Phyll appeared to be an independent professional, with a full social and romantic life. She never married, she never had children of her own.
She ended up returning to the land of her birth post-retirement when living alone became untenable as she got older and needed care and supervision. Her second cousins (Auntie Jeanne and her sister Auntie Krupsie) were the ones who intervened and handled all the admin related to this decision for Aunt Phyll to come back to Jamaica to live.
Almost 97 is a “good innings” as they say. She didn’t have cancer or anything like that. Dementia had set in, and some other ailments and eventually, Aunt Phyll’s body just wound down and expired.
In giving a tribute to Aunt Phyll at the funeral, Auntie Jeanne said that Aunt Phyll possessed the ability to make herself comfortable wherever she found herself. I thought that was a wonderful quality to possess, and reflected on it through the lens of unmarried, childless Aunt Phyll, a path not common I don’t think among women of her era. Given the small number of persons in attendance at Phyll’s funeral (remember we were all of 4) and the fact that we were all relatives, the occasion took on a very informal air. Auntie Jeanne’s tribute took on an interactive nature, with Uncle Francis interjecting his own memories of Aunt Phyll with pithy commentary and family secrets that will never see the light of day via this post and questions from me seeking clarification on the family ties and one other question. I asked Auntie Jeanne: “Did Aunt Phyll ever express regret for the way her life had turned out?”
“Oh absolutely not!” was Auntie Jeanne’s quick and certain response. How wonderful.
The funeral wrapped up, and of course, Auntie Jeanne had provided a repast for the four of us in attendance. Such is her (awesome) nature. As we shared out food and invited the funeral home staff to partake, we chatted some more. I got caught up on what was happening with some of my older relatives.
Living, then Getting Old…
I confess that I do not do a good job of keeping in touch. I should do better. As I listened it struck me: depression in older people is a real thing. Listen. Ugh. I’ve never been diagnosed with clinical depression, but I have lived my life at the edges of some dark pits, kept from falling into the pit though therapy, prayer, exercise and diet. I understand how utterly horrid a joyless existence is, and I think it is sad to come to the closing chapters of a life, in many cases having lived taking care of others and amassing all that is expected of us as we tick off accomplishments and mark the traditional milestones, with regret, uncertainty and even despair. Parents miss their children when they move on and out. Some older people are faced with financial realities with a severely reduced income stream. Health issues are real, with the specter of dementia looming large (certainly in my family) and physical pain associated with all manner of conditions associated with living longer. Not feeling as if their life adds value to the world post-retirement is also a reality for many older people too that weighs the spirit.
So at the end of the day…
So as I drove home after Aunt Phyll’s funeral, I thought. I thought about choices, serendipity, so called “bad-luck”, health and finances. I thought about the love and care of family (as lived and demonstrated by my Auntie Jeanne). I’m grateful to Auntie Jeanne for providing the opportunity for us to put the full stop at the end of Aunt Phyll’s book. It was an important and worthy thing to do. I thought about the things I can do now so I am not sad or sick in my later years. Of course there are no guarantees. I know this. But at almost 52, I’m not accepting sickness and sadness as inevitable.
Rest in peace, Aunt Phyll.