Friday, October 21, 2011

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: Aunt Dorothy Goes Home

Aunt Dorothy's burial on Wednesday afternoon in the rain. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

If there truly is no place like home, then Aunt Dorothy should be plenty happy now that she’s finally there.

After 97-years roaming planet Earth, Dorothy Demske was laid to rest at Michigan Memorial Park in Flat Rock on Wednesday - a perfectly gloomy and rainy October day that seemed fitting for a funeral and burial - if nothing else. And when I say Dorothy roamed the planet, I was being literal, because before she died, Dorothy trotted her wee frame across the globe to more than 40 countries and nearly every state in the U.S. - her latest venture in 2002 when, at the age of 89, she went out west to Colorado and Oregon to not only see what Mother Nature had to offer, but also hit the casinos.

She lived life like a rock star, or at least she kept the same hours. She was the most anti-geriatric person I ever met in that department. She’d sleep until the middle of the afternoon most days, and stay up until the early hours in the morning. I’m not sure how she made any friends at the American House, a senior home in Riverview where she lived the last decade or so of her life, or if anyone there even knew she existed since she was living in an opposite universe, but she did. In fact, everyone loved Dorothy … and why not?

Dorothy lived the way most of us wish we could. She had no fears, either about living, or dying. She was sure she would live to see 100 - she even looked forward to it, going so far as inviting everyone she knew to her century birthday party up to five years in advance! Well, she didn’t quite make it. Lung cancer, of all things, derailed her plan. Ironic given the fact she was a non-smoker. But at 97, or any age over 90 really, shouldn’t the cause of death always be listed as … old age?

Dorothy at peace. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

It’s funny that the last time I would see Dorothy would be at funeral, because it’s also the first time I met her – at my wife’s father’s funeral. That was 16-years ago, and I’ll never forget that meeting because at the age of 81, Dorothy stepped off the back of a makeshift platform set up at the gravesite, and did a backwards flop into a snow bank. She was perfectly fine, and in fact laughing about the whole episode, which not only brought levity to the situation, but also stole the show.

At the time, all of my mother-in-law’s siblings were still alive (save for two, who died at infancy). Dorothy was the oldest of those siblings, Marge, my mother-in-law, was the youngest. In between were sisters Mildred and Helen, and a brother, Jud. Within a year, Helen and Jud would die. Mildred joined them four years ago, leaving only the bookends of the Demske clan left to reminisce.

I’ve been lucky enough to be around for those 16-years to eavesdrop on some of that reminiscing, and it’s been fascinating.

Dorothy Demske loved to argue, but near as I can tell, she never really complained. She embraced the world around her like no one I ever met at any age. She didn’t care that her body was failing her, I guess because her mind was still razor sharp. Her stories were amazing; not only in their subject matter, but also in the way she told them. She was kind of like Yoda (certainly in size anyway) to all her nieces and nephews and their children, who would gather around her on holidays as she would tell stories about her childhood or her worldly travels.

Her life story was pretty amazing. She was born in 1914, and when the Great Depression hit, it hit the Demske family particularly hard. Living in Wyandotte, MI., her father, like many others at the time, had lost his job and eventually the family home. With five kids to feed, and no way to do it, Dorothy suddenly found herself taking over as the breadwinner in the family, working a job at the welfare office in Wyandotte shortly after she graduated from high school.

Photos from Dorothy's childhood.

“She would have loved to have gone to college,” her sister Marge reflected, “but there was no way back then – no money, no way to get funding.”

After the depression, Dorothy would stay in the working world at a time when most women got married, stayed home and had kids. She stayed single her entire life, going on to work at GM for 34-years before she retired in 1974. And where some folks struggle with what they should do with the rest of their lives after retirement, Dorothy never had that problem.

The world was her oyster, and at the age of 60, she was hell bent on seeing as much of it as possible, and sharing it with as many people as possible. Despite never marrying or having children, Dorothy made it a point to take her nieces and nephews (of which there were plenty) to Washington D.C.

That trip to D.C. was a real bonding experience, not only for Dorothy and her nieces and nephews, but also for the many cousins who made the trip. Cousins who often didn’t see much of each other and were brought together by Aunt Dorothy for a memorable visit to our nation’s capital. They were still talking fondly about those trips at Dorothy’s funeral.

And it wasn’t only this world that Dorothy loved to visit. She often talked about seeing visions of the dead. When she was a little girl, she vividly remembers seeing a little boy walk down the hallway outside her bedroom door. She told her mother about the little boy, and her mother told her she was dreaming. The next morning it was learned that Dorothy’s uncle, a young boy named Floyd, had died the night before. Dorothy insists the young boy she saw walking down the hallway was Floyd shortly after his death.

She would continue having visits from the afterworld her entire life, most recently from a pair of trousers and shoes belonging to her brother Jud. They never frightened her; instead, she was always calm and relieved by them. Dorothy considered herself something of a medium – and the visions were a way of letting all her loved ones know that the deceased were giving Dorothy a sign that everything was all right. Most people stop believing in ghosts when they grow up. I think Dorothy started believing in them even more.

St. Patrick's Church in Wyandotte where Dorothy's funeral was held. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

In the last five years, I’m not sure if I ever saw Dorothy dressed in anything other than a bathrobe. She made it a point to come and visit Marge at least a couple times a year and she would always stay for a week during her visit. For a woman who probably weighed less than 100 pounds, she sure loved to eat. And listening to her argue with her younger sister about the silliest things made me realize that siblings never really leave their childhood habits or birth order behind, no matter how old they are.

But Dorothy was also a magnet - a world-class storyteller - a walking history book. She had a way of taking over a room, even if it was filled with kids who normally don’t give older folks the time of day. Thankfully, my brother-in-law Terry had the foresight to recognize this gift and he decided to bring a tape recorder with him on a visit to see Aunt Dorothy one quiet afternoon about four years ago. Terry interviewed Dorothy for several hours about her life that day, and he brought that tape to her funeral where we all were blessed to hear Dorothy tell some of those stories one last time.

More amazing than the stories was the fact that there were more than 50 people gathered, both old and young, on a cold, rainy Wednesday afternoon, to hear those stories told by an old woman who never got married or had any kids of her own, but who easily had the biggest family of any of us. Even in her death, Dorothy had a way of holding the room as we all sat there silenced and entranced by her tape-recorded voice talking about the first time she and her dad went out for a drive in his brand new car, or the time she rocked her baby brother to sleep when she was five years old, a month before he died.

I was looking at a picture of Aunt Dorothy that was sitting on our table as I listened to her tell those stories. It was like she was there. In some ways I wondered if she was. Either way, I got the feeling we’d be seeing her soon.

In the end, maybe the Priest presiding over her funeral said it best when he said, "I never once heard her say, 'I wish I would have done something different.'"

How many of us can say that?

R.I.P. Aunt Dorothy.


  1. Lon, what a lovely post. Ironically, my wife died of lung cancer, she had smoked, but quit 40 years ago, we were always angry at references to smoking. When you mentioned that it is probably true that all people over a certain age die of old age; my son, who is a physician, describes it as TMB. . .too many birthdays.

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