The roots of my family tree include some pretty awful fracturing.
On my mother’s side, her mother/my grandmother — who was from an ardent blue-collar Irish Catholic family — divorced in the early 1940s, when doing so was shameful with a capital “S.” Among other things, it resulted in my mother being sent to a boarding school before she was ten years old, which ultimately had Mom trading almost anything for a façade of safety and security for the rest of her life.
My father’s mother — a grandmother I never knew — died of alcoholism while still in her forties, leaving my grandfather to raise my dad and his two younger siblings in the slums of Newark, New Jersey.
When my father entered the Navy after high school, my grandfather dropped my Aunt Margaret and Uncle Bud off at an orphanage. Not long after that, he ghosted all three of his children — poof, my grandfather was gone for life, never resurfacing. Uncle Bud was adopted by a family that moved him to Florida, where he lost contact with his siblings for more than a decade.
Aunt Margaret remained at the orphanage for nearly a decade — from age five until she was thirteen. My father eventually arranged for her to live with us in our suburban Jersey home, where he built a basement bedroom for her. In exchange, forsaking an education beyond sophomore year, Aunt Margaret became the live-in babysitter.
While there’s not nearly enough column space to detail how this trauma impacted all the Krug children (and their progeny, including moi), let me share more about Aunt Margaret.
Aunt Margaret married a man named Bob, someone who also did not complete high school. They had two children, a boy and a girl. Aunt Margaret encountered a woman who struggled with drug addiction, who was the mother to young twin boys. My aunt understood that that the boys were at risk. She and Bob took the boys in, where they stayed until adulthood.
The family of six — with four kids younger than ten — followed my father and our family to Iowa. However, unlike my upper-middle-income family, Aunt Margaret and Uncle Bob struggled. At one point, they lived in an old Iowa farmhouse that lacked a furnace and running water.
Uncle Bob learned to become a tool and die maker and eventually supported his family well on good union wages. He died in 2004, leaving Aunt Margaret in a four-bedroom house in rural Iowa.
When my mother was diagnosed with lung-to-brain cancer, Aunt Margaret moved into Mom’s home for four months to care for her. It was an incredible act of compassion for which I will be forever grateful, and frankly, remain at a loss to ever repay.
Aunt Margaret — “Marge” to almost everyone else — is now in her mid-seventies. She stands barely 5 feet, with pronounced age lines and a pixie cut of gray. She is the youngest of women in Walker, Iowa, population 851. For several years, she cleaned the town’s city hall, which came with a perk.
“I have a key to city hall,” she confided recently. She decided to organize a thrice-weekly coffee klatch of the town’s women elders at the city hall. They get together to talk about family, current events, and their health. “The ladies tell me about Arthur visiting,” my aunt confided. “As in ‘arthritis.’ ‘Arthur’s come to visit my wrist or my back.’”
Aunt Margaret regularly grocery shops for seniors who are homebound and takes people to doctor visits. She is a companion to several women she will simply take in the car and drive.
My aunt will readily admit to a horrible sense of direction, and inevitably she will get lost. She has learned a trick, however. “I look for water towers,” she shares. “As long as we can find a water tower with a town name on it, we are not lost.”
When you pull into her short white stone driveway in Walker, you’ll notice a plastic bust of Elvis Presley staring out of one of the front windows. She has actually dedicated an entire room of the house to Elvis — action figures, posters, beads, and more.
My aunt also regularly fires off cards to people in her life, letting them know that she cares. I recently asked how many she sends every month. “About 35. It doesn’t cost that much. I can get five cards for a dollar at the Dollar General in town. It is two-for-a-buck at the Dollar Store.”
I am a regular recipient of my aunt’s cards. Some are corny (“My heart’s buzzing for you,” with bees on the front of the card), but all of them are heartfelt, with important human words like “I love you.”
I once asked what accounted for her compassion toward so many people, some of whom are strangers. Her response: “When I was in the orphanage, they put me in charge of the younger children because I could relate, because I cared. I guess that’s carried over.”
I don’t take her cards for granted. I know that this woman is a true gem in my life. I dread the day when Aunt Margaret’s cards — with their wonderful, loving, handwritten words — stop showing up in my mailbox.
A couple years ago, my aunt asked that I be the one to deliver the eulogy at her funeral, whenever that day comes. I decided that Aunt Margaret deserves a preview of what I can say. I will share this column with her. It is the least that I can do for the most compassionate person that I have ever known.