Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Memories of my Aunt Sylvia

 Sylvia Nichols Allen   (1-14-47 to 1-09-13)

If it is possible to have a second mother, Aunt Sylvia was mine.  She has been part of the fabric of my life since I was born.  At every stage of my development, no matter how geographically distant, she has been there for me, a guiding force and a supportive mentor.
Aunt Sylvia came to live with us in Norfolk when I was just a young child.  I remember uncrossing her legs, telling her to “keep her teeth open” when she wasn’t smiling, and sitting with her while she read to me.   Her love for reading infected me at an early age, and we bonded over books throughout my life.

When Aunt Sylvia returned to Vermont, I soon learned from her that “real women drive tractors”. She used to drive me around the farm on the tractor, take me to the covered bridge swimming hole down the road, along with my mother and Uncle David, and take me to the chicken coop so I could excitedly put my hand under each chicken to see if the magical process of laying an egg had occurred.   Occasionally, a chicken was not particularly thrilled to be disturbed on her nest, and I was sternly pecked.  We usually visited the farm every year, and I looked forward to eating fresh, homemade bread, running around the farm, and visiting with my aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

When I nearly drowned in a swimming hole in Bristol, Aunt Sylvia was the one who yanked me to safety and tended my scratches.  When I swam in Lake Champlain and found myself covered with leeches, Aunt Sylvia and my mother removed them while I screamed in horror.
Even in my moody, disaffected adolescence, I treasured my time with Aunt Sylvia.  I remember trips to Vermont, time spent with her, a day trip to Montreal.
As a young adult, Aunt Sylvia and I developed a more mature bond.  She had always treated me as an important person in my own right, but we were able to discuss relationships, love, adulthood, careers.  I brought my first significant boyfriend to Vermont and stayed at her house in Montpelier.  She was gracious in accepting Jeff for the person he was, given that he was a free-spirited hippie who was happy to sit on the railroad tracks and play his guitar.  I had developed a love for cooking, and for vegetarianism, and she graciously allowed me to make a mess of her kitchen as I concocted hummus and tabouli.  She and Mich took us to Camel’s Hump, and she never complained, though her knees were squawking all the way down.
I became engaged to my husband about the time she married my Uncle Mich.  Redmond and I came to her wedding, and I was thrilled that she seemed to have finally found her perfect match.  The love and respect they showed to one another was obvious to all of us.
Over the next several years, there were many changes to my life.  I lived in Montana and married Redmond.  He and I returned back east, and we spent the summer in Vermont living in the barn apartment on the farm.  He worked for my Uncle David that summer, and learned how to clean the troughs, and to harvest hay.  We spent a lot of time with Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Mich, and Redmond grew to think of my Vermont relatives as his family.  I became a librarian, inspired by her own career, and she took a great interest in my career as it developed.

When my daughter Sadie was born, I so looked forward to Aunt Sylvia being a presence in her life, as she was in mine.  Sylvia came down when Sadie was only a few months to spend a week watching her, after I returned to work.  We took several trips to Vermont, over the next few years, and Sylvia and Mich came along with my family and mother on a cruise to the Bahamas.  Sadie took to her Great-Aunt right away, and treated her like another grandmother.  I remember going to Shelburne Farms, and to the Shelburne Museum, and to the islands in Lake Champlain.  I have pictures of Aunt Sylvia and Sadie holding chickens, much as she and I once did.
Over the past few years, my life has had some turbulence.  No matter what I told her, she was patient and non-judgmental.  We spent many hours on the phone, and she gave me priceless advice and guidance.   When her cancer returned, I prayed for the best.  No matter how painful the treatment, she never complained, and maintained a sense of acceptance, and humor about her condition.   I can only hope that when it is my time, I can face death with the grace that she did.   I spoke to her on the phone shortly after Christmas.  She was exhausted, and I kept the conversation short.  The last thing she said to me was that she wanted to speak again soon so that we could have a real heart to heart and talk about some of the challenges I was facing, and that she regretted that she was so tired and foggy.  Sadly, that day never came.  She shortly thereafter was hospitalized, and moved into hospice.   When my mother and I heard the news, we made hasty plans to fly to Vermont.  I could not imagine not having the opportunity to see her one last time.   Though my heart was broken, it was cathartic and beautiful to see that she was at peace, that she was in good care at Vermont Respite House, and that she was surrounded by those who loved her. There was scarcely a moment when someone was not holding her hand.  We played her favorite music, read poetry to her, and talked to her about our favorite memories of her.   It was an affirming and healing process, and I will always be grateful that I was able to sit by her bedside and tell her how much I love her and how important she was in my life.
Sylvia was an amazing woman, who enriched the lives of everyone who knew her.   As she didn’t have any children of her own, she was able to “mother” the young people around her; her many nieces and nephews, her students, and her support and concern have helped so many navigate around the many lumps and challenges we have faced.  She was balanced, centered, and persistent.  She knew what she wanted from life, and she never was paralyzed by self-doubts.  No matter what challenges she faced, she “just did”.  She serves as a shining example to me of how I wish to live my own life.  Though I am grieving, I am also celebrating the life of a woman who lived every day to its fullest.  Thank you, Sylvia, for being a beacon of light for so many.  I will never forget you.
Karen Stanley Grigg


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