My beloved Aunt Shirley, the sister of my father, died on June 6, 2020. During the last few years she and I shared a warm friendship – mostly celebrated over the phone. I’d like to share with you a few words about my aunt and our conversations over the years.
As I pause to reflect on the life of my Aunt Shirley, birthday cards are what initially come to mind. Yes, birthday cards. She was an enthusiastic sender of birthday cards! Even though my address changed often over the course of my life, my Aunt Shirley always seemed to find me and eventually a card with a note would arrive on my birthday celebrating my presence in the world. I suspect she did this for all her siblings, nephews, nieces, children, and grandchildren.
This year, like so many other years, my Aunt sent me a birthday greeting in May. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I didn’t go to the post office during the month of May. As a happy consequence of this choice, my mail was delayed in reaching me. So, it was on the very day in June when my Aunt passed away that my housemate joyfully announced, “Look what you received in the mail today.” Dropping a letter with the return address of Shirley Hinds into my hands, we both knew this was a little greeting from my Aunt from the Great Beyond. I will treasure that last birthday card and accompanying note. It was like a gentle goodbye kiss from heaven.
After birthday cards, Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island comes to mind. My Aunt was proud of her alma mater and she regularly reminded me in our phone conversations she graduated from Brown – Phi Beta Kappa! Often adding, “You know, at last count, nineteen members of our family graduated from Brown. That’s something, don’t you think,” she would ask almost rhetorically? “Yes, Aunt Shirley, That is something,” I would respond with enthusiasm pretending it was the first time, and not the 1,200th time, she shared that fact.
Thoughts of Brown University lead me to memories of the conversations we had about her husband, Ralph. “My Ralph” is what she called him to me. That affectionate determiner, “my,” emphasized her loving relationship with Ralph and it always touched me. Shirley met Ralph while they both attended Brown and her love for him was real and enduring. He was a true war hero and she would often recount the stories he had told her about his exploits in World War II. Ralph and Shirley were a real team throughout their lives.
My Aunt Shirley had a love of history and our conversations would often involve discussing American history. Shirley was very proud of her Yankee roots. Our colonial connections to John Howland and other Pilgrims would often be highlighted in our talks and my Aunt would share her involvement with The Questers. This is a group working to keep history alive and helping to preserve historical buildings. She often shared with me her involvement with this group and she always appreciated my genealogy discoveries.
The 1938 Hurricane. It was the rare conversation with Shirley when the 1938 Hurricane wasn’t brought up in some context during our phone conversations. “That reminds me of the time Grandma (her mother and my grandmother) was trapped in the Outlet building in downtown Providence during the 1938 Hurricane! Grandad was so worried about her,” she would start. And off she’d go! She did like to talk.
Children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren were often the topics of our conversations. She loved her family and she took special delight in sharing about her grandchildren. “Chrissy is having a baby and Jacquie is going to be a doctor,” she’d share with pride. “And, she’s marrying Andrew. He’s a state police officer, you know?” She’d emphasize “state” to ensure I knew he wasn’t some sort of local yokel police fellow. 😉 She loved her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren and she loved talking about them. I always enjoyed hearing the reports of her ever growing family.
My Aunt had high and exacting standards. This is well-evidenced by her successful children. In one conversation, my Aunt was telling me about the coming retirement of her son, a successful anesthesiologist and all around good guy, and I remarked about my own early departure from a working life because of health. I began sharing my embarrassment for not being, well, shall we say, the brightest star in the Whipple firmament. In an effort to encourage her to boost my sagging ego, I mentioned my career at the American Red Cross – Biomedical Services and my years owning my own business as a project manager. I mentioned these jobs in the hope that she would say something affirming and encouraging to me. She wasn’t taking the bait. After my lament, which was only a fishing expedition for a little affirmation, she responded, “Don’t worry, you still have time to do something.” I laughed. I hope she’s right. Aunt Shirley had high standards.
One of my most enjoyable and engaging conversations I had with my Aunt Shirley took place one afternoon after I discovered online her 1945 Classical High School yearbook from Cranston, Rhode Island. It was named the “Cranstonian.” I called her up to discuss some of the students and teachers in the book. Turns out she was on the yearbook staff and she was delighted to talk with me about her many fond high school memories. It’s funny how our memories can be so sharp from many years ago. What a history of the “war years” I learned that day. “We had a shortage of paper then, don’t you know, but we managed to publish our yearbook anyway,” she declared triumphantly!
My phone conversations with my Aunt generated such joy in my heart that they actually inspired my “Aunt Shirley Strut.” That’s right, after talking with my Aunt on the phone I would often bounce into the living room and exclaim to my housemate, “You’ll never guess who I just got off the phone with?!” My housemate would respond, “Well, based on that unique bounce in your step, I’d say you just finished talking to your Aunt Shirley.” Evidently, I only “bounced” this way after talking to my beloved Aunt. It happened more than once. We started calling it my “Aunt Shirley Strut.”
One day, at the end of one conversation while we were saying our goodbyes my Aunt Shirley said to me, “I love you, Andy. I hope you know that.” I was stunned. Now, to many families this farewell comment is common. In my family, this is a very rare and almost unheard of endearment. We do not tell people we love them. I was initially muted by my Aunt’s comment and momentarily taken aback as if she had violated a sacred family convention. It did, of course, soften me and I replied somewhat awkwardly but certainly sincerely, “I know and I love you, too, Aunt Shirley.” After that, we ended all of our conversations with an “I love you.” I will miss that.
Yes, I had tender affection and much love for my Aunt Shirley. Her connection to my beloved Grandmother, Marion Raybold Whipple, drew me to her greatly. My Aunt Shirley was the daughter of my grandmother on my father’s side and I saw many traits from my Grandmother in my Aunt. I loved seeing this family heritage manifested in her. Additionally, she was my father’s cherished sister and because of this fact she connected me back to my beloved father. Finally, I simply loved my Aunt Shirley because of who she was as a person, Shirley Whipple Hinds.
To quote the 1945 Cranstonian, “It’s impossible to put into words, that fluent talker, dynamic leader, that animated personality that is Shirley Whipple. We know wherever she will go success will be hers. Here’s to you, Whip!” Yes, she was all those things and much more. And yes, success was indeed hers. Here’s to you, Aunt Shirley! Here’s to you. I will miss you very much.