Monday, May 28, 2012

Remembering my favorite nun

Mike's aunt Mary Gilmartin, otherwise known as Sister Genevieve or "Aunty Gena," as she was known by her nieces and nephews and their families, died today at the young age of 75. She had been failing for some time, with both dementia and heart problems, so it wasn't a particular surprise...but that makes it no less easy to bear.

When we first got married in 1990, it took me some time to feel comfortable as part of Mike's family. His Aunty Anne (who married a Canadian) came to our wedding and I think was quite delighted that Mike met an American, because it meant he would be living closer to her. His aunties in Britain, though, didn't know what to make of me and didn't seem too crazy about my appearance in his life, for the following reasons: 
  • I dashed all their last hopes for Mike to become a priest
  • I was American, which also meant that Mike would be less likely to live in the UK
  • I didn't change my name when we got married (yikes! a feminist!)
  • I was...gasp! A protestant!
However upset they might have been at our match (Mike's most critical aunt was extremely unkind to me the first time we met but softened after I produced a male heir to carry on the name!), Aunty Gena was never anything but gracious, loving, and accepting of me. I loved her fun spirit, sense of humor, and love of life. She was a true kick in the pants!  

She loved children--
here she is playing "Ring around the rosy" with great nieces and nephews

Circa 1993


Sisters Helen and Gena with their grand nieces Emily and Jenna
She dearly loved her family!

As a member of the Little Sisters of the Poor, she dedicated her life to taking care of the aged. I remember how delighted she was by: 
  • Buying perfume, lotion, and other luxuries for her little old ladies
  • Driving FAST! (and bragging about this!)
  • Whistling to a parakeet, who would sing back at her
  • A nice beef roast! (when we would go visit, the convent would put on traditional English dinners for her guests...and she would always enjoy eating special foods with us)
  • Introducing us to all of the other sisters and the elderly residents she took care of
  • Seeing women dress up (she told me she liked it when I wore a skirt or dress when we visited, because she lived vicariously through other women dolling themselves up)
  • Spending time with her family
  • Laughter and teasing
  • God, her order, and her calling
Visiting with Chris (age 3?)

Looks like I disobeyed her request to wear a skirt!

With Mike's mum and Chris

Aunty Gena moved around to various cities--when we first got married she was in Liverpool, then in Preston (near Blackpool), and at the end of her life in Scotland (where she grew up). Sadly, the last time we were in the UK we didn't see her because she was so much farther away. The last time we saw her was her 50th jubilee (50 years as a nun). It was also the last time we saw Mike's Aunty Helen (who died a few years ago), Aunty Kath, who is one of the two last survivors of the siblings, and his cousin's daughter Jenna (who tragically died three years ago). The one saving grace about this is that they all seemed healthy and happy at the time--as you can see in the photo below--and we can treasure those memories. They loved to laugh and joke!
Mike's mum, Aunty Helen, Aunty Gena, and Aunty Kath
With baby Kieran and my sister-in-law Shemara at the Jubilee

Our family with Aunties Gena and Helen
Aunty Gena shattered any illusions I had of nuns being serious, staid, or uptight. She is the reason I get agitated to hear about the Vatican's attacks on women religious. She gave up her own life and personal freedom to service to God and the aged.

We feel very sad at her passing and will miss her presence dearly. I will always be grateful for her embrace of this American Lutheran feminist agitator.

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