Unconventional life ends with beautiful death

Earlier this month a couple dozen freight cars that derailed from a Michigan train made the news. During that same week, our family lost an important connecting piece of the social convoy that has seen us through life. While our relative derailment didn’t make the news, it was a much greater loss.

My aunt Bonnie Smith (aka “Beautiful Bonnie”), age 88, died on March 10th after succumbing to her fourth invasion of cancer. As bladder, kidney and colon cancers hadn’t been enough to do the job, it took a fourth to do her in: stealthy multiple myeloma. The derailed grain cars had been empty, but Aunt Bonnie’s life was full and connected to many others’ lives in our community.

My earliest memories of Aunt Bonnie identified her as some kind of exotic creature: ruby lips and nails; cigarette in one hand, soda in the other; lying in the sun on hot summer days; staying up reading late into the night, then sleeping in; golfing in a league; wearing flashy clothing and jewelry; and driving a cool convertible.

I didn’t know anyone else who had traveled to more than one other continent, or who had a pet monkey in a cage by her stairway. And when the dance music started, Aunt Bonnie didn’t just cut a rug with Uncle Elmer, she shredded it!

This was hardly the behavior of the other neighborhood farm wives. I can’t recall ever seeing Aunt Bonnie in barn boots, bathing a 4-H project animal or baking cookies for the open exhibition class at the county fair. I can’t remember her going to work at a regular job like my mom. But she was a sought-after card and dance partner. Even my compliment-sparing father said so.

Bonnie never aspired to be the kind of woman most other women thought they should be. She did what best fit her personality and didn’t feel pressured to be Susie Homemaker. As her daughter, Micki, eulogized, people were Bonnie’s drug of choice.

Clad in a wardrobe that rivaled Liberace’s, Aunt Bonnie outwardly could be dismissed as shallow. But privately, I knew better. We had some deep life conversations where the outwardly confident “Beautiful Bonnie” expressed self-doubt and wondered if she had done enough for others and where she stood with God.

Had Bonnie had the mother she’d lost at the age of three serving as her foundation in life, she might not have developed the carefree demeanor that attracted so many people to her. She might have grown into a more conventional adulthood with a more typical orientation. But her life path and attachments were different. The impact of being a fun-loving person and gregarious conversationalist are harder to measure than the family contributions of a nurturer or breadwinner.

Uncle Elmer, her hard-working, task-oriented husband of 60 years, struggled with that. One of his favorite pastimes was grousing about Aunt Bonnie to anyone who would listen. After he had passed, Aunt Bonnie told of the day he sputtered a little too much about her not cooking enough, travelling too much, unnecessarily spending money, etc. The typically good-natured Aunt Bonnie finally snapped.

“You want to know what people are saying, Elmer Smith?” she demanded. “They aren’t talking about what a lazy spendthrift I am, they are talking about what a fool you are to have stayed married so long to such a worthless woman.” After that, Uncle Elmer cut back on the criticism.

Aunt Bonnie tried not to hurt anyone’s feelings. She was intuitive and didn’t just read books but read people. If you wanted the low-down on a person or situation, she’d accurately fill you in without mincing words. Sometimes the job of mediating between warring parties fell to her, like the times she and Elmer went on trips with their siblings and friends. When people came close to blows, Bonnie adroitly used her humor to defuse the situation.

That all was laid to rest last week. The only kin left from my dad and his six siblings’ shrinking generation are my mom and Aunt Sharon. As the remaining witnesses to that chapter of Smith family history, they agree Aunt Bonnie’s unique beauty will live on in laughter and memory.

 

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