The oversized, wonderful life of my petite Auntie Marie


As published in the Providence Journal on November 16, 2014.

The email from my cousin brought news I didn’t want. My aunt, Marie Paulson, had unplugged her oxygen and crawled into bed, declaring that, after nine years of ovarian cancer, she had had enough.

Petite and cheerful, with an easy smile and deep reservoirs of empathy, my aunt had forged a special bond with me. When the astrology craze hit in the late 1960s, she was quick to point out that, with our February birthdays, we were fellow Aquarians. “We’re beautiful people,” she told me, with certainty. “We understand each other.”

Before I was old enough for school, my aunt had brought me to her kindergarten class for a day. I recall that her students kept hugging her. She was a five-foot superhero — part teacher, part mom, part nurse, part friend, and all love.

But now her light, at least the physical part, was dimming.

My cousin eventually persuaded my aunt to reattach her oxygen. When her son-in-law and nephew visited, she perked up. By the afternoon, she was drinking wine and watching Wimbledon. Later, it was Jimmy Fallon.

But somewhere between tennis and “The Tonight Show,” my aunt wrote down her “wishes” — one of which was that I write her obituary. She said I would “do her justice.”

I am a copywriter. For more than 30 years, I have been slinging words for all kinds of clients — in annual reports, websites, radio spots, print ads, email blasts, you name it. I tell people I can write anything.

But this was different. I was flattered that my aunt thought I could do her justice with the obituary. But can any death notice do that?

I knew the pitfalls from experience. After my father’s sudden death 21 years ago, I wrote his obituary in haste at the kitchen table before leaving for the funeral home to make arrangements. How could I have forgotten his master’s degree in English from Penn? Why did I use the slangy “frosh” instead of the more correct “freshmen” in referencing the state-champion basketball team he had coached?

Oversights and errors weren’t the only things I was wary of. Obituaries have a just-the-facts curtness about them, which I welcomed — purple prose valedictions only deepen the sadness for me. Still, in summarizing my aunt’s life in nine column inches, I knew a lot would have to be left out.

I noted her academic accomplishments, but not the exhilaration and trepidation she must have felt leaving her immigrant parents’ home to attend the University of Rhode Island in 1946.

I referenced her 49-year marriage to my uncle, but not the detail about them going to Moonstone — the nude beach — when they were dating in college. (“We had so much fun,” she had told me, with a you-don’t-even-know look.)

I cited her 23 years as a teacher in Providence, but not that she taught in tough schools during turbulent times and that, in the midst of integration, her love was a godsend to the 5- and 6-year-olds in her class.

I listed by name her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, as well as her three sisters, all gone now, but included nothing about the laughter and music that once filled her beach house during big family parties.

My aunt reviewed my draft and said it was “to the point.” I’m sure she meant it as a compliment. It was also an accurate criticism.

News of her death came at dawn on a Tuesday. I went downstairs, made coffee, and paced around the kitchen. The obituary, especially what it didn’t say, nagged at me.

I knew what I had to do.

Four days later, as sunlight streamed into St. Pius Church at my aunt’s funeral Mass, I stepped into the pulpit: “Good morning. Marie was ‘Auntie Marie’ to me, and I’ll always be grateful for that …”

And then came the words that were missing from my aunt’s obituary — less to the point and more to the person.

I hope my eulogy did her justice.


Remembering Dick Parenteau


I’ll never forget the day I met my neighbor, Dick Parenteau. Deb and I had just moved in next door to him on Peirce Street with our young sons, Peter and Evan. As we emptied the moving van, the parade of boxes seemed endless, as did our to-do list. Oh, and Deb was four months pregnant.

The morning after the move, I took the boys across the street to the basketball court at Academy Field. As we walked back, Dick approached us in the police station parking lot, calling out hello in that strong, clear voice that would become so familiar to our ears. He said he had seen us moving in the day before, but didn’t want to bother us.

Over the next 16 years, I would discover that this was pure Dick. As a neighbor, he was always present and always considerate. The morning we met marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

So what was Dick thinking on that first day? I never asked him, but I bet it was something like this: “Are these people out of their minds?” Deb and I bought the Rose Cottage with rose-colored glasses firmly in place; we had no idea of what we were getting into. But Dick sure did. He’d been living next door for years. He knew the plumbing would fail, which it did. He knew the roof would leak, as it did with every heavy rain. He knew the windows wouldn’t open, which they didn’t. He probably didn’t know that a family of possums would find its way into our basement via a hole in the foundation… but when they did, he wasn’t surprised.

A neighbor two doors down met us later that week and said, “Rose Cottage… Someone had to buy it.”

But Dick never passed judgment on our purchase, never said a word about our naivete. And as the contractors came and went, he was the constant: part foreman, part inspector, part peanut gallery, part therapist. “Look how far you’ve come!” he’d exclaim, finding the glass half-full, even in our ghastly kitchen. When our spirits sagged, he adjusted our focus: “How are the boys? How’s Juliana? You have a great family. I love your kids.”

And we loved Dick. In the 90s, he took Peter and Evan to the Patriots’ training camp at Bryant along with his grandson Rick. Years later, he summed up the day: “The boys watched Bledsoe; I watched the cheerleaders.” He helped Deb build out our gardens, planting trees, moving bushes, and setting up an elaborate watering system. Up before six every morning, he would grab the Providence Journal from our sidewalk and place it at our doorstep, and then walk down the street to do the same at the town library. When we went away on summer vacations, he organized our mail, made sure our houseplants survived, and dozed in the chaise on our front porch. We always came home to a house that was cool and serene: Dick had turned on the air conditioners and lights earlier in the day.

Most people knew Dick as the Mayor of Peirce Street, yelling at cars that ran the stop sign at Dedford Street; chiding the police and public works crews; saying hello to the stream of runners and walkers who all seemed to know him; telling people about the majestic elm that stood in front of his house – the one he said he would chain himself to if they ever tried to take it down.

But we also knew him as the kind neighbor who knocked on the door on Christmas morning to give our young children gifts and have a piece of Deb’s coffee cake before heading out to spend the day with his daughter Renee and his grandchildren. With his presents, white beard, and easy laugh, he was our belated Santa.

Dick and I both loved Peirce Street on Sunday afternoons in the summer – quiet and sun-dappled, with breezes washing through the trees. That’s when he would ask me if I was making the gravy. He knew it was my ritual, simmering a tomato sauce for Sunday dinner. He knew, because occasionally I’d need an onion. The first time it happened, I told Deb I was running out to the store, but she said to knock on Dick’s door; he would have one. Which, of course, he did. Months later, when I knocked seeking an onion yet again, Dick opened the door with one already in hand and a smile on his face. “Making gravy?”

Always present. Always considerate. Always helpful.

Some Sunday soon, I’ll need an onion, and Dick will be present again – in my thoughts as I drive to the store, remembering and missing a dear friend.

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