Thursday, November 19, 2009


Occasionally, someone passes through our lives in a way that we hope not only we will never forget, but that we will one day be able to duplicate. Such is the case of my Great Aunt Lois, a woman of singular character and fortitude. She married into my family at a time when my great-grandfather told a story of some pitiable neighbor, “A man who had no children… poor Mr. Gerstrom, no children. Only five daughters,” and yet she stayed. She lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights movement and desegregation in the Deep South, and near the end… I was lucky enough to be one of her “practice grand-children.”

When I went to Haiti, not only did she seek out to read the classic Mountains Beyond Mountains, she told my mother she should read it, too. (and Mom listened!) When I came to Africa, Lois picked up the biggest book on the subject, and slogged through Fate of Africa with me. We compared notes via e-mail, she with the unique perspective of still thinking of the Democratic Republic of Congo as “Zaire.” She amazed me with her curiosity and her drive to always continue learning. She was in her eighties, but learned to become more computer savvy than many, even maintaining her own “virtual bookshelf” and keeping up with all the adventures of myself and my cousins.

She was deeply religious, as are many in my family. When she sent out an e-mail to say God was calling her back, I nearly lost it in the local cyber café, reduced to a snotty and teary ball. Such emotion is a concept hard for the average Cameroonian to grasp. Here, life comes and goes. Another in the ground, another in the womb, and we plod on. Cameroonians don’t seem to understand our grief and outrage at a loss that is only so natural.

But as I trudged into town, trying to hide my tears, I thought about the message Lois had sent us, and the impact it had on me. One woman had changed my perception, given me e-mails to look forward to, and made me feel understood and appreciated. She motivated me to always continue learning, to never say die on developing as an individual, until it’s that time that God calls you back, and then you go gracefully and thankfully for the good life you’ve led.

In the day to day here, I often get caught up in my own ego, wondering who is right in some senseless misunderstanding based on cultural differences, and too much of my own pride. When I read the note Lois left us, I felt a strong tug of desire that I, too, would be able to say such things, express such gratitude of the life and opportunities I have been given, on my way out. Her life leaves me with the desire to let go a little more. Let go of trying to control or have things my way, and instead to appreciate, to serve. If I could make a few small impacts, show kindness, and invest in others in the way she has so profoundly loved me, I will be happy.

For Lois, I think the words of Emerson say it best:
To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.

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