From my paternal grandmother who left Poland as a teenager for life in America to my maternal great-aunt who ran a large dairy farm, in my family, we never had to look too far for strong female role models.
While I had a very interesting cast of characters on both sides of the family who influenced my development, my favorite was probably Theresa Soltys Thompson, better known to our family as Aunt Terry. I was her namesake, and we had a special bond between us that continued to grow through the years.
Born in 1920, Aunt Terry had an adventurous spirit that spanned the generations. A natural born storyteller, she had a joy and zest for life that drew people to her like a moth to a flame.
As a young woman, she volunteered for the WACs during World War II, thinking she would be serving stateside. To her surprise, she was sent overseas to India, an adventure that sparked her lifelong love of travel.
Even in the army, Aunt Terry always had a strong sense of self. After an inspection where she once again got demerits for wearing nail polish, her CO asked my aunt why she just didn’t take the polish off. Aunt Terry replied, “It might be a man’s army, but I’m still a woman!” It may have been a coincidence, but not long after that, the rules were changed to permit clear nail polish!
While in the service, Aunt Terry met her husband, Bob. After they married, they settled in California and eventually had two children. She was a waitress, and most likely faced the same difficulties and challenges working mothers have today. But despite her busy schedule, Aunt Terry truly valued the people in her life, and made a real effort to keep in touch with those she loved. She and my mom took turns calling each other every week, talking for at least an hour – and this was back when long distance calls were billed by the minute!
My cousins definitely inherited their mom’s intrepid nature. After his high school graduation, my cousin Mike and a friend drove across the country, working odd jobs when they ran out of money. Not long after his return to California, he set off for Australia, working there for a few years. His sister, Pat, went to Africa after graduating from college, where she taught for several years. Of course, Aunt Terry went to visit her children in these exotic locals!
With her children grown and with more free time, Aunt Terry decided to learn to play golf. Despite starting the sport late in life, she became pretty good at it, even winning a few local tournaments. She and her friends had a great time on the course, especially when they had the opportunity to play a practical joke on the men.
For example, during one round, they came across a rattlesnake. Undeterred, one of the ladies killed the snake with her five-iron. At that point, they decided to have some fun with the snake and coiled it up by the men’s tee. Hiding behind a tree, they watched as the foursome behind them approached the tee and discovered the snake. Apparently, there were some interesting tales in the clubhouse afterward!
My aunt was always willing to work hard and learn new skills. When she and her friends became widowed, they banded together to tackle odd jobs that needed done around their homes. In their 70s and 80s, they repaired kitchens and bathrooms, and even built a deck together.
For most of her adult life, every few years Aunt Terry would come to Pittsburgh for a visit. Picking her up at the airport not long after Uncle Bob died, my dad reached for her carryon, which was unexpectedly heavy. Turns out Uncle Bob’s cremated remains were in the suitcase! Aunt Terry had decided that when she died, she wanted to be buried in Pittsburgh and she was worried that her kids might forget to ship Bob’s ashes. So, when Aunt Terry’s visit ended, Uncle Bob stayed behind in my parents’ attic!
Year later, when a veterans’ cemetery was built in Bakersfield, Aunt Terry decided she wanted to be buried there, so we needed to ship Uncle Bob back to California. I got the box with his remains from my parents’ house and took him to the post office, praying that he would make it back safely – which he did!
Aunt Terry had always been the best of correspondents, but as she got older and her handwriting deteriorated, she added me and my sisters to the list of people she regularly called. Our talks were always a highlight of my week, as she was remarkably well versed in current events for a woman in her 90s, with strong opinions on a variety of topics.
While she was able to live in her own home until she was 95 years old, after several falls, Aunt Terry moved to a nursing home about two years ago. About a month after getting there, she fainted and the staff called an ambulance. Feisty as always, when she called to tell me about it a few days later, I heard all about the handsome man taking care of her.
It’s been less than a week since I got a call from my cousin, Pat, to tell me that her mom hadn’t been well, and was starting hospice care. The next day I got another call from Pat – Aunt Terry had died that morning.
My daughter Nicole said of Aunt Terry’s passing: “Her light was so vibrant, it seemed like it would never go out.”
But truly, her light is still there – it’s in the hearts of all who loved her. Rest well, sweet soul!
Terry Kish is a freelance writer in the Pittsburgh area. She has been an integral part of the writing team for This Awful-Awesome Life since September 2017.