A Life Well Lived
On October 1, 2020 our dear mother Astrid Linnea Brown passed away. She died of natural causes at the age of 93 years and eleven months. She lived through the last century and this one with an unflappable kindness that family and friends counted on. She spoke humbly and often did not realize how much wisdom was embedded in her comments on everyday life. I miss that voice and know I will begin to hear it rising from within myself.
On the morning of her last day of life, Christina and I had a brief Zoom call with her. She remembered that Christina recently had cataract surgery and asked how she was doing. Even though she had entered hospice, we had no idea that she would shift from frailty to dying just a few hours later that afternoon. Thanks to technology, my sister, Kathy, who lives nearby, was able to alert and help gather all four of us daughters so we could be present to our mother’s last hour of life. While Kathy held her hand, we other daughters (in Washington, Arizona, and North Carolina) held vigil via Zoom. We shared scripture and music and the promise that we would take care of each other. We gave her permission to let go. As we played Dvorak’s Going Home from the New World Symphony, our mother, the organist, let go of this life and moved on to her next.
Since our father’s death seven years ago, after 65 years of marriage, Mom transferred out of the family home to an assisted living campus near Kathy. My sisters and I phoned her nearly every day for the last couple of years, being especially diligent as she shifted into nursing care and during this time of pandemic isolation. Many times she called us before we reached her. We were her lifeline as her capabilities diminished. It was an honor to have these conversations and shared insights into one another. Mom tackled her last phase of life with the same resilience and steadiness that led her through the birth and raising of four daughters, the arrival of thirteen grandchildren and then 28 great grandchildren.
She was a classic woman of her generation—wife, mother, community member, and also a talented piano player and church organist. In many ways our mother was the epitome of the American Dream. Her parents both immigrated to this country as teenagers with their Swedish siblings. They were poor and hardworking. Mom lived through the Depression and never forgot the frugality and hard work of those years. She lived her whole life with the values of love, kindness, and honesty. These are the values that endeared “Astie” to her many descendants. These are the values needed now more than ever in our country. Thank you, mom, for this powerful legacy. We will not forget.
There are so many stories to share when you live as long as our mother did, but the one I choose to focus on here is how much I learned from her about writing. Her penmanship was impeccable. Her commitment to writing letters was multi-generational. And she always paid attention to the proper use of language!
My immigrant grandmother, Vendla, taught herself to read and write English. She never got back to Sweden to see her family, so she counted on letters as the link to that other life. Mom often spoke about watching her sit down at the dining room table, Swedish/English dictionary at her side, writing those letters. The imprint was strong. Mom in turn always took time to write her four daughters as we moved far from home. Actually, our father also wrote us letters because his father had written letters to him during his service in the Pacific Theater in World War II. The importance of communicating via the written word remains with us and has been passed on to our children and grandchildren. (In the younger generation texting and email has, of course, often replaced actual letters but the IDEA of writing is deep in the extended Brown family.)
Mom’s writing went beyond letters. In the late 1990s she and her younger sister, Helen, took one of our PeerSpirit writing seminars. I was delighted by the writing she shared in a group much younger than herself. She joined a writing group when she moved into her long-term care center after dad passed away.
One of the things I cherished doing with mom when I visited in recent years was driving to a nearby park to be inspired by the beauty of nature. At first she could walk, then she used a walker, and still later I pushed her in a wheelchair. We would sit and look, sometimes read a Mary Oliver poem, and then take some time to write our reflections. It was a beautiful way to witness my quiet, introverted mother as she articulated some of her deeper thoughts.
This snippet of her writing that I share here came from a shared moment with my sister, Margaret. After a fall, mom had been moved from the assisted living wing into the nursing wing. Susie had come earlier to help our local sister, Kathy. Margaret and I arrived to help disassemble her assisted living apartment. Mom, Margaret, and I paused for an afternoon tea break and took a moment of quiet to reflect on the statement at the top of her page: Little things make a big difference.
You see here her beautiful penmanship even at age 92, her appreciation of our presence, and her getting used to the name of the new place that would be her home for the rest of her days. By having parents who lived for so many decades, I have gained a deeper understanding of what it means to live into old age. And I had a chance to internalize what an extraordinary role model my dear mother was for me. I walk now in her footsteps, in my own way, as best I can.