My Aunt Arlene was a role model in public service and the strength of women, but it was her funeral that changed my life. At a singular moment during the service, I was pulled away from my personal despair to realize how many lives she touched in a way that I want to emulate. With tears streaming down my face, sitting among my extended family but feeling like the only person there, I was doing that lip-biting, deep-breathing thing you do when you’re trying not to lose it completely in front of a jam-packed synagogue. I struggled to balance the expression of my loss with the requirement not to disintegrate into a puddle of sadness.
That was right about the time that U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow took the podium. She was followed by (at that time) soon-to-be-elected Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. Senator Carl Levin was there too, though he didn’t speak; later, he was one of the last people to leave the small group lingering at my aunt and uncle’s home that evening. I don’t remember anything those political hoohas said in particular, though at a later memorial at the Capitol for my Aunt Arlene, I faintly recall either Debbie Stabenow or Nancy Pelosi saying, “When Arlene Victor calls, you return that call.” The Important People were followed by even more important people, those who personally knew and loved her most. My Aunt Arlene’s casket was carried by about six women, each of whom considered her their best friend. The procession of cars on the way to the cemetery seemed to span a solid mile. Later, at the house the rabbi held a small service to give people the opportunity to talk about Aunt Arlene. After quite a while, he tried to curtail the speeches to no avail. She touched so many people is small and large ways. We needed to share those moments together, to cobble together pieces of her that we could hold onto in desperate handfuls.
“Wow,” I thought as I peered foggily through my profound sadness. “I thought she was just my beloved aunt. I didn’t realize she was a beloved someone to so many people.” You see, my Aunt Arlene was the original Mouse That Roared. She was a petite woman who spoke in a whisper because a battle with lung cancer left her with paralyzed vocal chords. She might have been easy to ignore, especially in our loud family. Except she wasn’t, especially in the louder world. As her funeral progressed, the overwhelming message was that Aunt Arlene didn’t allow status quo to deter her from change. And she didn’t often seem to allow an opportunity to go by without expressing herself, at least as her public persona. Maybe her near-fatal war with cancer in the 1970’s was a turning point for her, when she started to believe that one small woman could make a difference in small and large ways. She was the first person I knew to get solar panels, well before anybody even knew what they were. She wrote letters to hotel companies about their shampoo bottles. She was the national president of Women’s Action for New Direction, a lobby group for peace. And she never forgot one of my birthdays – without fail every October 25th she called to say she would be late sending a present but wanted to know what did I want her to get me.
Although I would love to write for you all about my Aunt Arlene – she is worthy of volumes - that’s not what this piece is about. I want to tell you about how in this moment of death a light shone down to illuminate how to live my life. I became determined not to allow the way things are from becoming the way things should be. Unfortunately, I’m not called to public service like my aunt and for that I feel guilty, but I can make changes in my little life. I can drop a pebble in my little pond. I can manifest difference in my little world, which hopefully can radiate out to the greater world beyond.
Like my Aunt Arlene, I write letters (okay, emails) to people I don’t know in pursuit of my goals. I take risks, I reach out. I try not to let apparent failure interfere with my desire for success. These are all ways of honoring my Aunt Arlene.
I would be so blessed to have lived a life abundant with friendship like she did. So I became determined not to allow opportunities to go by without expressing my affection and without reaching out to people I care about. That’s why I spearheaded efforts for my high school reunion last summer after more than two decades of absence. I try to express affection for my friends when I feel it. Life is too short not to hug people you’ve love.
My Aunt Arlene’s funeral helped me realize that personal connection is too valuable to let wither and die. You wouldn’t believe how many people are willing to turn their backs on opportunities to bring more friendship and love into their lives. Or maybe you would. But I can’t. Ever since my Aunt Arlene’s funeral, I’ve been incapable of letting friendships get away, often, very often, to my own personal distress. Rejection is part of the package of reaching out to people. I guess that’s why people don’t do it more often. And, believe me, it sucks to be rejected. It never gets easier or less painful. But it’s like panning for gold. The friendships that thrive in my life are boundless treasures. Because think about it, you guys, at the end of the day - at the end of your life - your personal connections are all that are left. That’s the big ticket. The whole wangdoodle. The center ring. The main event. Aunt Arlene’s funeral helped me see that.
I would rather have my Aunt Arlene healthy and alive any day. But I am grateful for the lessons she left for me, and even all these many years after her funeral, I still try to follow her example in a way that will make her proud.