Crossing the Bar

Today, I lost another part of my history. My aunt died at age 93. We knew it was coming, so it wasn’t a surprise. She was in a lot of pain towards the end, so some people call that “a blessing.” Perhaps. Life is a blessing, although we don’t always see it that way. If there is something that comes after this life, perhaps it is a blessing too, although we may not realize that now.

She wasn’t an aunt by blood, but by family. She outlived 3 husbands, and her second husband was my father’s twin brother.

Elsa lived in Rochester, NY for a while. She met Bob Jobe while in college, and they were married only 3 months when he was called up for service in the Army in WWII. Her new husband did not come home from the war. She would have been in her early-to-mid 20s then, probably in 1942 or 1943.

My paternal grandfather and grandmother lived in Rochester, NY. They moved there, from Canada almost directly across Lake Ontario, early in their lives. My grandfather worked at Kodak, and had met George Eastman. Markus and Ila had 3 sons: Norman (b. 1916), and fraternal twins Howard and Raymond (b 1918). Norman was the oldest, and Howard and Ray were fraternal twins. Norm went on to be a school teacher (and taught some of the first computer courses in high school in NY State!). My father was always good with math, and Ray with electrical things and radio.   My father went to the Miami University of Ohio, where he finished his degree in accounting and finance in 3 years. He then went to work at Rochester Products, as a quality control inspector.  My uncle Ray became an electrician at Kodak and was taking courses part-time, apparently at RIT. When WWII came along, both enlisted in the Army; my father had a deferment because he had a skilled position making parts for planes, but didn’t feel it was right because he saw married men being drafted.  Perhaps because he was color-blind, or maybe because he only had 3 years of college (even though he had his degree), he was given an enlisted position and sent to an anti-aircraft battalion in Europe. Meanwhile, Ray’s background and probably some good scores on the aptitude tests resulting in him being made a lieutenant in the Signal Corps. I know my father was deployed in various places throughout Europe, and his company participated in the liberation of one of the concentration camps (he did not talk about it with us until he was in his 70s). Ray was deployed (I believe) in Asia but I don’t think he saw any combat.

When WWII ended, my father came home and took a job in Rochester.  Ray left the Army in 1946 but stayed on for two years in Korea as an advisor to the Signal Corps there, leaving before that war started. He returned home, possibly because my grandfather died in 1948. (Tragically, he died on the day my mother and father were going to be married; they postponed the wedding a month). Ray then used his GI benefits to complete his education at Ohio State, getting a degree in electrical engineering and in business administration. He went back to Kodak, this time as a project engineer, and worked there for six years.

Before meeting my mother, my father had met Elsa and they dated a while. At some point, Elsa and Ray met, and apparently really hit it off. They were probably married around 1950?

My aunt Elsa was a remarkable woman. A child of the end of WWI, she grew up to be extremely independent. She read a lot and was quite intelligent. In another day she might have gone on for an advanced degree, but that wasn’t an option in the mid 1940s — not only because of WWII, but because that wasn’t something women did then. She ended up getting a job with Kodak, first as an executive secretary, then after moving to California she was a film tester with a great deal of autonomy. That was unusual for a woman in those times — she tested film and cameras for Kodak. They gave her test film and sent her all over to photograph things so they could see how the film behaved.

10-66 Elsa-Ray posing-27
Ray and Elsa in California in 1966


In 1958, Ray and Elsa moved to live in California, in Portola Valley, to be near my uncle’s new job with Lockheed in Palo Alto (possibly at NASA Ames?). He worked on advanced (and at the time, secret) supersonic aircraft and even spacecraft in California. I wish I knew more about him, but he died too soon. And this was in the days before everyone put everything on Facebook. (It was even before the Internet.) When they moved to California and bought the land, there was no Silicon Valley. My uncle designed the house and built most of it. It still stands, on the top of a tall hill, not far from Stanford University. My aunt lived there for 50+ years, my uncle only for about 8.

While building the house, my uncle fell off the roof and fractured some vertebrae, but luckily didn’t damage his spinal cord. I remember him and my aunt coming to visit when I was around 8 years old. He had a back brace on. I don’t recall him ever without it. He brought me some puzzles, and (I think) a book on ciphers. I thought it was “The Codebreakers” (David Kahn) but the dates don’t match. I remember that something he gave me or told me about got me interested in cryptography at that early age, and it never left me. I remember talking with him about science and space exploration. How I wish he had lived longer so I could have talked to him about my career.

10-66 Elsa-Ray posing-14
My sister, Ray, and me in 1966

He was ill then. He developed bladder cancer at some point, and was misdiagnosed. After they found it in 1962 or 1963, it spread despite surgery and radiation. He died 10 days before my 11th birthday, at the age of 48, in 1967; he was buried on my sister’s 9th birthday. That was not a good year for us, for many reasons. It was especially tough on my father although I don’t think I quite understood how wrenching it was, because he kept it all in. Losing a sibling must be difficult, but to lose a twin… My father was a child of his times and didn’t let his feelings show that often, as that “wasn’t something men do.” Someday I need to write some things about his life, because he had so many struggles.

Elsa, of course, was devastated by Uncle Ray’s death. My Uncle Ray had been the love of her life. I don’t know how long they were married but it might have been as much as 18 years. And he was the second husband who died prematurely.

Shortly thereafter, Elsa made a promise to my sister and myself, based on a conversation she had with my uncle before his death: she had put money aside in special accounts for us, to be used for our college expenses. So long as we made good progress and good grades, we would have all our books paid for. This kept up while my sister and I both completed undergrad, then masters, then Ph.D.s for each of us. That small amount was a great help because we really didn’t have much in the way of financial resources. And then, at some point after graduation, she gave us what was in the accounts — which looked like near the amount they had started with. She also gave us great moral support over the years, encouraging us to go out into the world and explore.

When I finished my BA and was going to go spend weeks in Europe with my sister, backpacking around, Elsa gave me a 35mm camera to take with me — an almost new Pentax automatic, very state of the art. Her only condition was that I had to use it, and she had to see the pictures some day. I still have boxes of great slides from those years with no projector, and I don’t think my daughter will ever want to see them….

While at Lockheed, Ray (and Elsa) met another person there with great stories to tell. John Roscoe was a widower or divorcee with a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland (his dissertation was published as a 6-volume set!), and was a former Colonel in the USMC. He had worked for Admiral Byrd in Antarctica — there are two geographic features there named for him: Roscoe Glacier and Roscoe Promontory. I found a short bio online, and it has quite a bit more on him.

When my Uncle Ray died, it was a big loss to all their local friends and colleagues. Apparently, John was a good friend who helped Elsa through the ordeal, and … they got married a little over a year later.

Elsa retired after several more years working at Kodak in California but kept active in the community, the Sierra Club, and spent a month every few summers in Polynesia as a helper at an archaeology dig. She volunteered for various other things too, including the U.S. Geological Survey Volunteers For Science. John had several heart attacks in the late 1990s, and his mobility greatly decreased, but he and Elsa continued to travel and follow their pursuits. John died in 2007 — Elsa’s third husband, gone, too.

The last few years were tough on Elsa, as the years advanced. She developed illnesses that sapped her strength and led to pain, but they didn’t really dim her cheer and curiosity until a short while ago.

I was able to visit her in October on one of my infrequent trips out to California. She was thin and frail and clearly not well, but she was wonderful to visit with. I spent the afternoon with her, but she was clearly fatigued by it. The times I called her in the months after that she sounded weaker, but was still so happy I had visited.

We heard a few days ago that she had taken a turn for the worse and was in hospice care. My sister and I spoke Sunday night about trying to connect with her on the phone one last time. But Monday morning we received word of her passing.

My last uncle — my father and Ray’s older brother — died last year, in August, at 96. My father died 6 years ago, at 89. My mother died earlier than she should have, in 1996, but my daughter bears her name, and has a little of her quick wit, so she is still with me. There is no one of my line before me still alive, and only a few cousins left from my parents’ generation. There is no male in any close branch of the family to keep the Spafford name — and the Y chromosome — going, although there are many distant cousins I have never met.

The death of my Aunt is a sad event, but not grievous. She was a wonderful woman with a full life, and I hope she had no regrets at the end. She will be missed by many people. But her passing is also another frosty gust of the winds of time, which I notice more each year. When I was young, my mortality was never even a brief thought. Now, I wonder how much more time I will have for a few of those things I want to try — or try again — and time to regret the things that didn’t quite work out? I joke about how people will remember me… if they do. I have no glacier named after me, or theorem, or building, or scholarship.

I think of Elsa. She was vital well into her 9th decade. She died without having children, yet, there are many who will remember her for some time to come. She made a difference. Perhaps that is the best thing to say about someone — they made a difference: the world was better they were here. That was true of Elsa.

I seem to recall that the Australian aborigines believe that uttering the name of people who have died, or showing their likenesses or anything they have made awakens their spirits and keeps them from the Dreaming — the time of peace after death. So, they erase all instances of the name and never utter it again, and sometimes destroy everything made by someone who dies. The quicker that person is forgotten, the sooner the spirit finds peace.

I’m sorry, Elsa, but we’re going to hold you in our hearts a little longer. Dreamtime will come, but for now, we remember you.

[Edited 2/19/12 based on my sister’s comments]

[Edited 2/20/13 based on info from Carrie S.]

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8 Responses to “Crossing the Bar”

  1. simson Says:

    So sorry to hear about your loss.

    Like

  2. Skip Saunders Says:

    Well said, sorry to hear about your loss…but I need to comment on your Australian Aborigine theory of life beyond death, and contrast it with the Catholic one. Catholics are taught, at least this one was, that life after death involves a heaven and a hell, it allows one to see and know all that transpires, it is complex, but consists of a sensient soul that might even become declared a “saint” if certain criteria are satisfied pre and post departure. Personally, I believe the true “life after death” is much more a convolved mixture of the Aborigine one and the Catholic one. Death is the end for the individual…. the “life after” is really the rememberences and influences one has placed among the surviving population. Conrtrary to the Aborigine view: it is good to be remembered. Contrary to the Catholic view, there is no sentience, but “sainthood” is conveyed by those who have been influenced. In this view of mine, your Aunt is clearly a saint and I hope you (and others) remember her for a long time with the eloquence you’ve currently expressed.

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  3. Ron Says:

    An eloquent and loving tribute.

    Like

  4. Joyce Hall Says:

    I am so sorry for your loss and what a great tribute to your family.

    Like

  5. Alex Says:

    So sorry for your loss, so grateful for the lessons.

    Like

  6. Roz Spafford Says:

    I’m sorry you’ve lost her, Gene. She sounds like a remarkable person, and this is a lovely tribute to her.

    Like

  7. Linda Austin Says:

    I knew and loved your Aunt Elsa. Even though Ray had died and she was married to John when I met her in 1990 she still considered Ray’s family still her family. I would like to share even more with you of my memories of your Aunt. I have some pictures of her I can share with as well.

    Like


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