Monday, September 24, 2012

Eulogy for my 106-year-old Aunt

Frank and Aunt Bo a couple of years ago, at the organ
My Aunt Bo's funeral was Saturday. She died in her sleep at age 106. For the past thirty years, she'd been living in sin with her boyfriend, Frank, age 105.

I couldn't make the funeral, as it was 1,200 miles away and on the Jewish Sabbath, which I observe. Aunt Bo wasn't Jewish, though she'd been married to my Uncle Milt, who passed away in 1983, for 52 years.

Our family's claim to Jewish fame was that my grandfather, the father of Uncle Milt and my dad, founded the first Jewish newspaper in Southern California, in 1897. At that time, there was a small Orthodox Jewish community in Boyle Heights but the choice of most Jews in the Southland was Reform Judaism, a branch that had developed in Germany as an embrace of the Enlightenment only a few decades earlier.

Jews in nascent Southern California tended to cluster in Santa Ana, the community where as a young man my grandfather began his paper. He brought his enterprise to LA when Wilshire Boulevard Temple was built, a magnificent structure that rivalled the grandeur of any church. Previously, it was called Temple B'nai Br'ith (temple of the children of the covenant), and so when my grandfather started his paper, he called it The B'nai Br'ith Messenger.

It was through the publication's non-Jewish advertising saleswoman, Byrdie Baker, that my uncle met her daughter, Bo. The dynamic Byrdie, who eventually rose to editor, was frail and old in my memories, a fixture at early family holidays, along with her second daughter, my Aunt Fern, whose son had been a famous singer in the 40's and had died before the 50's began. Talking about Ernie (Fern's son) seemed taboo, so I never learned about his untimely death, though in Aunt Fern's home hung a large photo of the handsome youth, hair slicked back, at a large microphone that said CBS.

Aunt Bo spent her working life at a desk at a local small business that sold tools, doing their accounting. She managed to obtain some jeweler's pliers and wire cutters for me, when I was in my teenaged jewelry-making phase. I never asked her about her worklife, about who sat at the other few desks, or whether she enjoyed the job. My uncle Milt was a traveling salesman, representing a company that manufactured cake decorations. You know, those little plastic ponies, birthday-candle holders, flowers and brides and grooms. He had a big case of samples he toted in his Southern California territory, and was always home on weekends.

On Sundays, my family drove the familiar 10-minute route to Aunt Bo and Uncle Milt's house for bar-be-ques, where hamburgers sizzled on a kettle grill with buns singed to perfect brown. In those days, a healthy meal always contained meat, and no one disparaged the hot dogs blackened on one side to what we now consider a carcinogenic char. I recall that my entire childhood was punctuated by these weekly patio meals at either Uncle Milt's or our own home, a custom my two younger siblings and I accepted as the rather boring norm.

My aunt and uncle never had children, an aberration then, though it was whispered that Aunt Bo had suffered four miscarriages. As the years passed and they moved into retirement, they travelled locally and took great pleasure in their social clubs, Sciots, an Egyptian-themed division of the Masons, and its women's counterpart, the Zag-a-Zigs, which provided its series of parties and meetings, the friendship network of their lives.

After my uncle's heart problems worsened and he passed away, I recall sitting at his funeral, the first and only I've attended with the coffin open. It was so peculiar to see dear Uncle Milt lying there, looking perfectly normal, as if asleep. I was told that my Aunt Bo, too, wanted to be "viewed."

It was few years after my uncle passed that Aunt Bo got together with Frank, and they lived together in her home for another thirty years. He survives her now and is apparently handling Bo's death well. I'd visit them occasionally, and Frank was always jovial, retelling his stories from his decades as a musician with jazz bands, often singing some of their standards, lyrics he knew perfectly. Aunt Bo and he would sit on their twin Lazy-Boy recliners and watch TV; they'd go to their weekly seniors meetings and have friends over to play the organ that was a major feature of their living room. Frank was driving until just a couple of years ago, deciding it was finally time to quit at 103. He still brags about his physical shape; he's strong and walks confidently, unassisted.

In the last several years I've taken several videos of Frank entertaining my children and me with his tales. Aunt Bo was conversational, but let Frank hold the limelight. Each time we'd ask the secret to their longevity, they'd answer in unison with a smile: "Keep breathin'!" Aunt Bo would inquire about everyone's activities, and tick off her own calendar items, though in the last year a fall suffered while getting out of bed to go to the bathroom left her with a fractured femur (successfully repaired in surgery) but unable to really walk.

The inclination is to ascribe import to the very unusual situation of two extremely elderly people living independently, flouting the odds by their very existence together. But my Aunt Bo and the two men in her life were plain people, unremarkable except for their mere physical tenacity. Everyone who lives is loved; every person allots his time to activities of one sort or another. Aunt Bo spent forty years at a desk in a windowless office, and enjoyed having friends sit at her home bar sipping cocktails. She liked playing the organ and making padded hangers as a Zag-a-Zigs charitable project. She loved her garden and noticed every rose. She was pleasant and cheerful and had no explanation for her longevity other than she kept living, noting, "it's better than the alternative!"

She wasn't particularly religious, though she went to her neighborhood church sporadically; she wasn't especially political (though a lifelong conservative) or excited by any field of academics or studies. She was competent, ran her affairs, was kind and generous to her friends and family. She was one thread in the fabric of Los Angeles, and outlived nearly everyone she knew.

Rest in peace, dear Aunt Bo.


  1. I'm very sorry for your loss Diane. No matter how long we have with those we love, it's never long enough.

    May God bless you and yours, and may you have a very restful Sabbath.

    Have a wonderful weekend.



  2. I love these stories about the triumphant human spirit, the motivation to move on beyond grief, as your Aunt Bo did after losing her first husband. May the delightful memories provide comfort to you, Diane. And what a great photo with those t-shirts!