Any regular readers of this blog know my Aunt Joy’s story of The Walls in Your House Will Sing. How she was chumped in her first marriage and then remarried Matt in midlife — her high school sweetheart who was also once chumped. (His wife ran off with the town priest.)
They had 38 beautiful years together, the last 14 of which Matt had dementia and my aunt was his caregiver. Matt passed away last February. But this last weekend we got to celebrate his life. We all gathered at Matt’s most favorite place in the whole world, his family cottage on Seneca Lake in upstate New York. A big turnout of friends, family and neighbors showed up to drink beer, hangout on the lake, and tell stories.
We should all be so loved and remembered so well.
It might be churlish of me (I blame my alter ego Chump Lady), but it did occur to me that neither of their exes would be remembered this way.
On the face of it, Matt wasn’t an extraordinary person. He was an insurance salesman. Not out of any burning passion for insurance, but because it was the family business and Matt was a family man. His son Jamie told a story about how when Matt got out of the Army in the 60s, he was offered a job in Washington, D.C. for $10K a year. He parlayed that offer against the one from his uncle working in Elmira, New York for $6K a year. His uncle said, “I hear those Washington summers are really hot and humid.”
Matt took the job closest to Seneca Lake.
His hometown gig meant more time for his children, big extended family, and later seven grandchildren. More time for model railroads, the Rotary Club, wet springer spaniels, boat rides and cold beer.
He had his priorities right. When he and my aunt reconnected, Matt was a single father of two teenagers. (The ex and the priest decamped for a tropical island, as I recall.) My aunt had been a single mother of two daughters for years. Both of them the Show Up parents.
The showing up paid dividends. All those kids spoke at Matt’s celebration. Everyone choked up. Okay, I cried when my cousin Hil said that Matt — her step-dad — showed her what it was to be a father. What it was to be a husband who loved his wife. What it meant in her life to see that kind of commitment modeled to her.
Jamie put it beautifully — there’s an “on paper” life and there is “the real story” life. On paper, Matt had suffered tragedies. His father died when he was just 16. His wife walked out on him. He spent his last 14 years suffering from dementia.
But the real story was that carrying on his father’s business meant a deeper investment in his family. Being chumped led him to “the love of his life” — my aunt. (Not a dry eye there.) There’s no dementia silver lining, but because Matt prioritized his family and friends over all those years — all those summers on the beach, all those campfires, all those wet dogs — he accumulated an abundance of good will and great stories.
Matt was the cool uncle who tried to impart life advice to his teenage nieces. Warning them that boys want sex, he quickly became mortified. So the advice was blurted out as “Be cool… cool it…” This then became a family motto: Be Cool It.
The nieces, now in their 60s, showed up wearing “Be. Cool. It.” t-shirts.
How did my Aunt Joy hold up? I think it was a hard day for her, honestly. The walls in her house feel Matt’s absence. The walls in the cottage have bicentennial wallpaper. It’s the most Matt thing ever. When I walked in that dining room, I wondered where Matt was. And immediately felt a great wave of sadness.
Aunt Joy is getting new walls soon. This winter she’s moving into senior living. After 14 years of caregiving, she recently took a cruise to Alaska. My cousin showed me a picture of Joy riding an ATV. There was a mention of zip lining. She’s 82.
Be Cool It.