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redeyechicago.com

Aunt Mary Louise Wiley: A great gift

Mary Schmich

October 17, 2012

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Aunts are underrated.

The nation never pauses for a day to shower aunts with presents or hustle them to brunch. Aunts are not the backbone of the greeting card industry. They're not the heroines of country songs.

But a good aunt is among life's great gifts.

Mary Louise Wiley was that kind of aunt, up until Sunday morning, when she died quietly in her bed at The Breakers retirement community in Chicago, a rosary laced between her fingers.

"Unexpected" is not a word generally applied to the death of 93-year-olds, but Aunt Weeze's death was.

She had never used a cane or walker. She harrumphed at the idea of doctors, and after giving birth at 40, she didn't visit one for more than 50 years.

Until her swift decline in the past few days, she greeted every day in mascara, lipstick and a white bouffant hairdo as neat as her apartment. She greeted every evening with a drink. When she got to laughing hard, she snorted.

In her 20s, Mary Louise went to Washington, D.C., to work as a secretary, but then her father died and she came home to take care of her mother.

"Don't waste your life in Carroll, Iowa," her mother pleaded, and so together they moved to Omaha, Neb., where she continued as a secretary. At 38, ancient for that era, she married.

After she was widowed at 83, Mary Louise moved to Chicago, closer to her three sons, and every couple of months, I'd take her out to lunch. She didn't dwell in memories, but over her glass of white wine, if I asked, she'd tell a story.

"Tell me again," I asked her recently, "how my dad became a Republican."

I'd always thought my father was raised that way, until she told me otherwise. An aunt, among her other attributes, is a keeper of family stories and secrets. She can tell you things that no one else has or would.

Mary Louise had her flaws. She could be crotchety, impatient, unfairly critical. She was every bit my father's sister, shaped by the German-Irish dogmatism of their childhood.

She was also fun, and if she loved you, she loved you fierce.

During the years that my family struggled financially, Aunt Weeze and her husband, Joe, helped us out, with food, with money, always with the merriment of Santa Claus.

They taught us, by example, that this is one thing aunts and uncles are for: to amplify the family circle, to share the burden and the bounty.

And Aunt Weeze never forgot my birthday. She had no daughters, but she somehow knew that the thing a 12-year-old girl wanted most in the whole, wide world was a locking diary.

In her final years, living alone, no longer able to drive, she was lonely. She didn't say so, exactly. She didn't have a large vocabulary of feelings.

But more than once during our lunches, with her fingers wrapped around the stem of her wineglass, she said, "I don't know why God has left me here."

To which I'd always say: "To have lunch with your niece."

We had our last lunch in September, sitting on the porch at the Heartland Cafe. Her wineglass empty, she closed her eyes and lifted her small, pale face to the sun.

"Mmm," she said. "That's nice."

Aunt Weeze was the last of my parents' siblings, and when an aunt goes, so does a shred of your parents and your past, of yourself.

But I still have the diary, blue with a golden key.

mschmich@tribune.com