Aunt Gene

She was born at home in 1919 and named Alice. The doctors told my grandmother that she might not live because she was small and sickly. A priest was summoned immediately and she was baptized in anticipation of infant death. But God had other plans for baby Alice.

The smallest of thirteen children, she was never allowed to work in the fields with her siblings because of her mother’s concerns for her health. Instead she was relegated to indoor duties – cooking, cleaning, sewing, etc. Most kids would have been happy to avoid the grueling farm labor but she always carried a certain amount of guilt for not having carried her weight. But as she told me many times, “Mom said no! And that was the end of the discussion.”

At thirteen years old she left farm and family behind and joined her two older sisters to enter the community of the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood in O’Fallon, Missouri. When she made her final vows in 1940 she became Sister Eugene Marie and began a life of teaching that included nearly 40 years at her beloved St. John the Baptist Parish in St. Louis.

Growing up, I knew that our family was special because my Mom had three sisters who were nuns. My Grandpa wore it as a badge of honor that three of his thirteen had dedicated their lives to God. And after Vatican II, Sister Lucy, Sister Noel and Sister Gene could freely join our family gatherings. My Aunts were “way cooler” than the school Sisters that taught me. We could laugh and joke around and I knew that they had lives outside of their classrooms (and brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews). My earliest memories of Aunt Gene are of her calling me “PeeWee” and me calling her “Shorty” – that would NEVER have happened with the Sisters at my school.

Perhaps Aunt Gene related to me because I was a scrawny kid like she must have been. Maybe I was drawn to her because she looked like my Mom in a habit. Regardless of the reason we have shared a bond that has lasted my entire life. As a child I loved the attention that she gave me. As an adult I saw how deeply she loved God and the children and families she served. Countless numbers of students were taught by Aunt Gene. And countless more were served in foreign missions through her tireless fundraising efforts. I often wonder if in her work for the missions she ever felt again like little Alice being told to stay indoors while others tended the fields? It doesn’t matter. She could do more with a few pennies than most of us could do with millions. And her gift was freely given.

My Mom and my Aunt Gene

My Mom and my Aunt Gene

This week Aunt Gene was carried home to God. She so desperately wanted to see her parents again. I imagine their reunion in heaven was quite a celebration. And those of us left behind will cherish our memories of her and celebrate, too. We honor the life of a humble servant, a great friend, a dear sister and a loving aunt.

I’d like to think she’s finally tending those fields right alongside her Mom and Dad and her siblings, Lucy, Ray, Edna, Art, Vernon, Noel, Frank, Everett and Bob.



P.S. Check out the article from the St. Louis Archdiocese Mission Office:

Family Matters

Recently while waiting for a flight, I saw my cousin at the airport. She was headed to Texas to visit her sister; I was on my way to New York on business. We hugged and kissed and exchanged the usual pleasantries and then we both went our separate ways. But I was changed a little by that brief encounter. As I boarded my plane I recalled fond memories of our childhood and our shared experiences and I realized once again that family matters. I thanked God then and there.

FamilyLivingPictureWe’re all born into families. Many of us marry into families. Others of us are adopted by families. Some families are small. Some are large. And it’s all relative (pun intended).

Our need of family intrigues me. We need to belong. We need to be part of a group of individuals that share a common bond; common link; a common ancestor. This need to band together is primordial. We gather as one. One people. One tribe. One purpose.

I’m certain that there are people who like to live alone. Hermits perhaps or cloistered nuns. But most of want to live with others; to share our lives with others. We need to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. And families seem the perfect way to do that. The shared experiences. The shared traditions. The shared memories. The shared joys and sorrows. That’s what makes us family. That and our love for one another. In our caring for and being cared for by family we see God’s love in action.

Families are not just biological creations. Some families are individuals not joined by birth or marriage but joined by love or common cause. We become family by giving of ourselves to one another. We become sisters and brothers through our need for one another. We lift each other up; we carry one another’s burdens; we celebrate one another’s victories; we laugh together; we cry together; we pray together.

Recently I experienced the amazing love of family when my mother-in-law passed away. My wife and her brothers came together to support my father-in-law and to carry one another through the most painful of times. Their tenderness for one another and their love needed no words; no grand gestures. It was just pure and simple and profoundly beautiful. I have never been prouder of them or prouder to be a part of them.

Of course there will likely be many sad days ahead. Grief slips in and attacks us when we least expect it – a song, a photo, a favorite food, or some long-forgotten memory can trigger an emotional overload. Our loss can be truly disabling. But we trudge along and we cherish our memories and get busy with caing for one another. And we adjust. And we adapt. But we NEVER forget.

And this is why family matters.



Big Brother

I grew up with two older brothers – Dave and Dean. My brother Dave, the oldest, has always been my protector, counselor, advocate, defender and friend – in short he’s my big brother and my hero.

Today it seems that we’re in short supply of heroes. Politicians lie to us. Church leaders have abused us (and their authority). Sports stars are too often arrogant jerks. And movie stars, rock stars and television stars seem to be mostly self-absorbed narcissists. So I’m blessed to have a hero in my family. And I suspect that some of you may have once shared a bunk bed with a hero, too.
My brother Dave is only a few years older than me but at times it seemed that we were a generation apart. He was a teenager in the 1960’s and I was one in the 1970’s. He was all “crew-cut and skinny neck ties” and I was all “moppy-haired and platform shoes”. The sixties were way cooler than the seventies – he had the Beatles and Route 66 on TV. I had the Monkees and Marcus Welby, M.D. When Dave was a teenager I was still in grade school and in complete awe of his coolness. I would secretly listen to his Motown LP’s and douse myself with his English Leather® while he was away. 

One of the best Christmas presents that I ever got, The Kenner Girder and Panel Building Set®, came from Dave. He bought it with money he earned working part-time at Standard Drug Store. He could have spent all his money on himself. He didn’t have to get me a gift but that’s just the kind of brother he was (and is). I credit Dave for instilling in me the love of design and construction that I still possess today (and have made my career).
Dave was born responsible. Which is perhaps the curse of the ‘first-born’. Parents seem to place all their hopes and dreams on their first child. “Make us proud!” is the command to the oldest. By the time parents get around to the third child the command becomes a plea, “Don’t shame us!” And with the exception of those aforementioned platforms shoes, I believe that I held up my end of the bargain. Oh, and that time that I wrecked Mom’s Corvair (I still say it wasn’t my fault). But while the expectations were lowered for Dean and me, Dave was charged with making them proud. And he did! And he does.

Little Brother ~ Big Brother

Growing up, Dave did all the tough stuff. He was the trailblazer. He was the trendsetter. Dean and I were the followers. Dave did all the heavy lifting. We reaped the rewards of his older brother wisdom and hard work. He took care of us even when Mom and Dad didn’t ask. And long after he should have. When you have a reliable older brother it’s easy to think that he should just take care of it – whatever it is. Such is the blessing of being the younger sibling.

 Dave has always been there when I’ve needed him and has shouldered his responsibility as the oldest with grace and generosity. Anytime that I’ve asked for his help the response has ALWAYS been the same – What, where, when? No hesitation. No resistance. Just support.
So Dave here I am again and of course I am in need. What I need is for you to know that I love you – here, now and always. And you are my hero. I keep hoping that someday I’ll grow up to be like you.

Big Sisters ~ Little Brothers

There’s a special relationship between big sisters and little brothers.  It seems that big sisters tend to “mother” their little brothers and little brothers often seek their big sister’s approval.  But it’s much more than that.  There’s a special love that they share that’s on a psychic or spiritual level.  I’ve been fortunate enough to have witnessed this dynamic between  big sister/little brother many times in my life.  God has blessed our family three-fold: my wife Deb and her “little brother” Brett; our daughter Bess and her “little brother” Blake; and now our granddaughter Anna and her “little brother” Noah.

This sister/brother love is life-long.  It is pure.  And it is unconditional.  What a gift God has bestowed on these sisters and brothers! 

I firmly believe that Debbie is such a good mother because she learned ‘how-to’ on Brett.  She was (and still is) in many ways his second mother.  I’ve seen how she can comfort him and I’ve witnessed her heartbreak when he has dealt with dissapointment or sadness in his life.  She celebrates his joys and supports him in all he does.  SHE IS HIS ROCK.  And I know too that Brett loves and cares for Deb equally and that they share a bond that is eternal. 

From the time that our son Blake was born, his “big sister” Bess has been his guardian angel.  She has protected him and cared for him from the start.  Their love is something that only they can truly know.  The rest of us can observe from the outside, but they seem to communicate on a level that is all their own.  Even though they are ‘grown-ups’ now, Bess still worries about her “little brother” and Blake still seems to need her approval (or maybe it’s her affirmation) from time to time.  When he was a little boy, she would comfort him if he was upset.  And often she was the ONLY ONE that he wanted when sad or hurt.  Blake was a freshman and Bess was a senior at the University of Wisconsin when Blake broke his jaw (there are some sketchy details on what actually caused the break).  Bess flew to his side, helping him when Deb and I couldn’t be there.  Of course, she wouldn’t have considered anything else.  And Blake has been ‘ON CALL’ when his niece and nephew were born – he needed constant updates as to how Bess was doing.  This “caring for one another” seems to be the cement that holds them together.

I see already how two-year-old Anna loves her “little brother”.  The night that he was born, while he was being “cleaned up” in the hospital nursery, Anna and her Daddy, and I watched outside the nursery window (Mommy was ‘being put back together’).  While we were witnessing Noah’s first few minutes of life, an old man that was a patient at the hospital was wheeled up to look at the babies.  He asked Anna if that was her baby brother and of course she said yes.  He then asked her if she thought he could get a baby brother, too.  Her reply: “Yes but not this one – he’s mine!”  In those first few moments, looking through the glass, she had claimed her “little brother”.  And as tears welled up in my eyes I could only imagine how special their life together will be.  Another big sister/little brother legacy was born.  And once more I was blessed for having witnessed it.



Baby Sister

Our 2 year old granddaughter Anna is about to become a BIG SISTER.  Our daughter’s second baby is due next month.  It’s amazing how the baby becomes the big brother/sister literally overnight.  When our daughter was born our son Tyson was only 19 months old – instantly he became THE BIG BOY.  Of course he was still sleeping in a crib and he was still in diapers but in comparison to his newborn sister, he was a big boy.  The same will be true for Anna – she’ll always be our special baby girl but next month she’ll be the BIG GIRL when compared to her infant brother or sister.  And so it goes…

When I was ten years old I was still the baby of our family.  I had two older brothers and it seemed that I was destined to always be the little one.  But then the most amazing thing happened:  My baby sister was born!  Being 10 years old and having a baby sister might have been traumatic to some kids (I think my parents were secretly worried that I might strangle her in her crib) but I was the happiest kid on the block.  The baby was OUR BABY.  We (my brothers and I) all got to share her.  Mom allowed (or needed) us to help out with diapers and bottles and babysitting.  I felt so big!  I wasn’t the baby anymore.  And I loved it.  Even more – I loved her.  And I still do!

Kay and me - Christmas 1968

My sister Kay will always be my baby sister.  She’s a grandmother now but she’s still my baby sister.  I often think about how God has blessed me with Kay.  The obvious blessing was that it got me out of being the ‘baby of the family’.  But more importantly I got “hands on” training with an infant, and then a toddler, and then a  preschooler, and so on.  When I became a parent myself, I wasn’t afraid of my own baby like some young parents – I’d already done a lot of this stuff!  Plus I learned some important LIFE STUFF, too – like how to share and how to love someone more than myself. 

I can still remember so vividly that tiny pink bundle in Mom’s arms the day she came home from the hospital.  I knew then that was I the luckiest brother in the world (and I still am).  I became a dorky teenager and while kids my own age were interested in things that I lacked the maturity to handle (they likely did as well) I could retreat into play-time with my little sister.  As we grow older we grow even closer emotionally.  We are joined in a way that brothers and sisters are meant to be – emotionally, spiritually, eternally.  I talk to her most every day and she understands things about me that only she can – we were raised by the same two parents (it’s called sibling empathy).  Even though we are ten years apart we have many of the same emotional triggers and we share a lot of the same quirks.  We laugh at the same lame jokes and we sometimes “get it” when no one else does.  We have shared good times and bad.  And we will always be there for one another, even for the shitty stuff. 

I hope that Anna has the same joys and blessings with her baby brother or sister that I have had with mine.  I thank God each day for her.  At ten years old I didn’t know what was coming my way – God’s plan is still being revealed to me even today.  But I do know that my baby sister is one of His many blessings and I will always be a grateful BIG BROTHER.

I love you, Sissy!