The Universal Notebook: Distant relatives

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My Aunt Janet died last month in Georgia at the age of 89. She was the last of her generation in our family, which means that I am now the oldest living member of the family at 74. This makes me feel both old and young.

Aunt Janet was eight or nine years younger than her big brothers, Al and Gordie. She always seemed young and beautiful to me. I was six and she was 22 when she got married in 1955. That was the same year she graduated from Middlebury and moved to Georgia.

I attended the wedding reception at the Portland Club. I have a picture of myself going through the reception line and kissing the groom, Uncle Brant. That six-year-old boy is who I feel like whenever I think of Jan and Brant, both gone now.

Edgar Allen BeemBrant’s father was the head of research at the S.D. Warren paper mill and his mother served as chair of the Portland City Council back in 1946 and 1952. Janet’s father (and my namesake) was the manager of Metropolitan Life in Portland. Her mother, my Nana Beem, was active in the Episcopal church, Ladies of Kiwanis and the Rossini Club, among other local groups.

Al, Gordie and Jan grew up on Ludlow Street out behind Deering High. Al and Gordie attended Bowdoin. Jan went to Middlebury where she studied French. She settled in Macon, Georgia, because Uncle Brant took a job down there.

In Macon, Aunt Janet became the city’s volunteer coordinator and raised four sons. I rarely see my Southern cousins, so I spent a little time sorting them out when I watched their mother’s memorial service streaming on my computer.

My cousins are more demonstrably Christian and more conservative politically than I am, to varying degrees. Of course, it’s not hard to be more conservative than their liberal Yankee cousin. I once tried to engage in an email dialogue with the oldest and most conservative of my cousins and found I had no patience with his views. We couldn’t talk because we had so few underlying assumptions in common. He saw government as the enemy and I see the government as us.

So I was heartened when I logged onto the Episcopal church website to watch Aunt Janet’s memorial service. I saw that the home page featured links to LGBTQ, trans and racial justice organizations with which the church was affiliated. I looked up the pastor and learned that he was a gay man. As the pastor of our church (until recently) was a lesbian, I felt a kinship to Aunt Jan across the miles between Maine and Georgia and the spiritual divide between the living and the dead.

Aunt Janet was apparently more progressive than her sons. I have to imagine that is a matter of the imprint of place. Jan grew up in secular New England. Her boys grew up in the Bible Belt. Makes me wonder whether I would have become a Republican and a born again Christian if I had grown up in Macon. I doubt it. A bit more conservative perhaps but only a bit.

I saw several other distant relatives while watching Aunt Jan’s service. It did make me feel a twinge of guilt at not making the trip to Georgia to honor her memory, but then I never visited her in Macon while she was alive, so it just made sense to keep my distance.

I admired my Aunt Janet greatly. She was a living connection to my father’s youth and to my childhood, both of which seem very distant now.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen review column.

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