52 Birds: Week 5

Share: A Tribute to my Great Aunt Elaine

My grandma's sister Elaine turned 91 last month at her home near the Gulf Coast of Florida. Simply put, Elaine is a family legend. Many of us admire Elaine's sharp intelligence, her incredible memory and her inspiring travel experiences.

In the early 1940s, Elaine worked in our hometown cafe earning money to attend St. Cloud State Teachers College. In one summer, she earned a total of $96 and brought all but $4 of her earnings with her to college. Though she did become a teacher, she graduated instead from St. Catherine's University in St. Paul. 
Elaine 1943A couple years ago, it occurred to me that Elaine would have been one of the few women from our small town to have attended college at that time, and I asked her about her path to St. Kate's. "The G.I. Bill," she explained. She went on to describe how, in 1942, she left Central Minnesota for Washington, D.C., expressly to join the Navy … but she didn't let on to her folks about her plan. Once she arrived in D.C., she wrote home requesting her birth certificate so she could enlist. (I'm still surprised her parents complied!) Following boot camp in Cedar Falls, Iowa, Elaine was stationed for a time in Detroit, ending her service with six months in Hawaii, after which she moved to the Twin Cities. (This photo shows Elaine working on meteorological data during her Navy days.) There she served in the Naval Reserves, completed her studies at the university and lived with Harvey, her first husband, until moving to Florida in 1961.

The fact that Elaine remembers exactly how much money she earned at the cafe all those summers ago testifies to the integrity of her memory. Several years ago narrating the pages of a photo album that had been my great grandfather's, Elaine told the names of nearly every person pictured, described where each person had lived and added details about their families or occupations. Elaine remembers years and people and places like no one I know.

During my visit with Elaine last month, I listened to her travel stories, taking notes all the while. The most interesting experience I heard about for the first time was her evacuation from Cairo during the Yom Kippur War of 1973: The day the war broke out, she and her companion were unable to fly to the Valley of the Kings as planned because the planes had been commandeered for war purposes; instead they took a train the 400 miles and back. Later in Cairo, they were shuttled by bus to Alexandria where they boarded a ship and traveled across the Mediterranean to Greece. On a different trip (this one in 1978), she described the stink and dirty water in the streets of India. She got as close as a bus could drive to Mount Everest and later traveled to Hong Kong, Bali and Fiji, where palace guards, at that time, were barefooted on patrol and bowls of coconut were set out for museum guests.

These rich stories of interesting travels and family histories are what I will miss when Elaine passes on. Over the years, I have been blessed to have been one of Elaine’s pen pals and am grateful to have known this generous, intelligent and delightful woman.

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