My Aunt Sophie passed into another realm last week. Not from COVID, but, from a life well-lived.
At 98, she lived a remarkable life. She wasn’t famous, nor did she ever strive to be, but what she was, was what love should be, can be, and is.
In her 98 years she played trumpet in the high school marching band, she had a mean left hook, and she was a Rosie the Riveter, where she actually worked as a welder on ships being built for WWII in Richmond, CA. More, she was a devoted wife, she was a sister and caretaker, she was an incredible grandmother, and, she was a mother. Not just to her seven children, but to her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren, neighborhood kids, and to my sister and me, her nieces.
My mom was very sick when I was a kid, so at one point, we moved in for short periods of time with Aunt Sophie and Uncle Ray and their chaotic, but warm and ridiculously fun, family. One more mouth to feed? No problem. More laundry? No problem. Baths for a dozen or so kids? No problem. The transition from my house to this home, was, as my sister calls it, different. More, although it was so foreign, it was welcoming, all consuming, kind, and bountiful.
My aunt and uncle didn’t need to take care of my sister and me, but they did, without question. My cousins became temporary brothers and sisters that I always craved and as an adult, I now appreciate and relish. My cousins, they used to terrorize me – that’s a story for another day, but, those moments still make us laugh and that nostalgia, of days never to return again, are not lost on us, as we ponder all that was and now is.
According to my dad, Aunt Sophie was always the caretaker. She was one of seven siblings, my grandmother was sick much of the time and died when my dad and his twin, were eleven years old. Aunt Sophie became their caretaker after that and the emotional attachment has never disappeared. She helped put them through high school and in turn, they were the first to go to college. My Aunt Sophie was the safety net in a family torn by loss, and she continued to move through the world in this way her entire life. It wasn’t until the memorial service the other day that I really note the childlike attachment that both my dad and uncle carry for my aunt. Hovered over her casket, from the back, all I saw were two young boys in suits, who love their sister so very much, and who recognize the gravity of losing this soul, who was so beautiful, so gracious, and who granted them care and nurture when they needed it most.
I never told my aunt how much I appreciated her presence in my life and how I think about her often. I see her as the first feminist in my life. A mom, a welder, a caretaker, an enforcer – she was the quintessential role model of a woman who made smart and insightful choices. I wish I had told her that her tender, yet firm care for me as a child, is why I exist today. Her place in my mind and heart, and her influence, remind me that being a good mom is the highest and most important calling on the planet. Her willingness to take care of me, my sister, any child that needed a safe place, is a lesson in that saying: It takes a village.
Sophie means wisdom. I believe not only was my Aunt Sophie born wise, but she also chose to be wise. In that choosing, she recognized that by loving so freely and so willingly, she was saving us. She was granting us what we needed. She was choosing to see us, all of us, for everything we are and aren’t, and loving us though that. My Aunt Sophie’s life is a reminder that legacy isn’t just about doing something that everyone can see and note in the history books. Her life is a reminder that being kind and ensuring that children are really cared for, where they are valued as little humans, is what makes our future possible. A legacy chock-full of so much giving and so much helping, that those of us who were recipients of her intentions, move through the world with an understanding of what it means to be a good and decent human.
The lessons my Aunt taught me through her actions will never be lost. For it is in our most quiet teachers that guide us and lead us, with their inherent strength and their gift of acceptance and love, that we thrive. This – this legacy of wisdom, is what I give thanks for today and every day. Rest well, Auntie Sophie. And, thank you.
Karen Leslie Hernandez is a theologian and interfaith activist. She has published with several media outlets including the Women’s United Nations Report Network, The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue/Studies, the Interfaith Observer, and she is the only Christian to have published an ongoing Op-Ed Column with OnIslam out of Cairo, Egypt. Some of her past gigs include designing and teaching an Interfaith Dialogue workshop with Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, as well as spending four years working with United Religions Initiative, in several different positions. An Over-Achiever, Karen has not one, but two theological master’s degrees – one from Andover Newton Theological School, the other from Boston University School of Theology. She did her BA at Wellesley College, graduating with honors in her major, Peace and Justice Studies, where she wrote her thesis on Al Qaeda and their misuse religion for political gain. Karen currently lives in California, works at three faith based non-profits, teaches and lectures, is pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree at Claremont School of Theology, and she is also a certified domestic violence advocate.