“Did you see the picture on Facebook of Aunt Mary?” I asked my dad during our Sunday phone call. “It was her 97th birthday last month.”
Aunt Mary is technically my father’s aunt, but she has always been Aunt Mary to me. Why worry about adding the “great” part? Aren’t all aunts great? We Ryans are an ever expanding group of humans — one kid much like the last. One aunt just as awe-inspiring as another.
I didn’t find out until later but Aunt Mary Elizabeth Linard, the younger sister to my grandfather, passed away last Sunday night.
Ninety-seven years is a long, full life. A lot of love, joy, sadness and family fits into 97 years. I am saddened by our loss but am rejoicing for her spirit.
As long as I can remember, Aunt Mary lived just a few miles from grandma, grandpa and Aunt Kate’s house in Custer, S.D. She moved into her Black Hills home in 1990. You could, and we often did, cut through fields from one house to the next. When grandpa’s house was over-full of family on the holidays, a lucky few were allowed to escape to Aunt Mary’s, if she liked you! It was a treat to sleep in the home the strong woman had created.
Like much of the homes in the area, her property included several forested acres and her wrap-around deck provided shade as well as a relaxing outlook for parents as we explored.
In early years, we were drawn like moths to a flame to a hole — the remains of an old mine — out of view of the deck. We would creep as close as possible before being warned away by some meddling adult (probably made aware by our sudden silence).
In later years, when the emerald ash borer began devastating the Black Hills, we would get a crew together and cut down trees or rotate logs before using it for firewood.
Those logging trips would bring out our stories of cutting down Christmas trees with Grandpa or recollections from our parents' time spent with the Linard cousins.
Mary Elizabeth was born in 1923, the third of five children five children born to Leo and Lillian (Meis) Ryan, on her grandfather’s homestead in Kimball, Brule County, South Dakota. In order of birth the children were: Lynus “Pat” (my grandpa), Wm. Mark, Mary Elizabeth, Veronica “Hunk” and Leroy “Kidd”. She was often referred to by both her first and middle names as Mary and Elizabeth were both common in the family.
Mary married Bob Linard and they lived in the Chicago area, where they raised their family. (My favorite is her daughter Rita, but that’s a secret.)
Aunt Mary’s house was filled with examples of her handiwork, from quilts and rugs to afghans and potted plants.
After receiving the text of Aunt Mary’s passing, I called my Aunt Kate who, having always lived with my grandparents in Custer, was very close to her aunt. As usual, she brushed off my prodding of her emotions saying that Mary had been sleeping a lot and her passing was expected. She was the same age as my grandfather when he died, never older than her eldest brother.
For the past several years, Mary has been cared for by her children, rotating from a house in Wisconsin to one in Texas.
Kate told me of the “Mary-isms” being recalled in a family group text. “Who are these people and when are they going to leave?” was a favorite. Photos of vodka martinis (unique from the gin ones more common in the clan) and bloody beers were sent and cheersed in her honor.
“I remember you once telling me you felt honored to get to know her as an adult,” I said to Aunt Kate.
“Yes. I was always scared of her as a kid. She had a sharp, cutting wit and you never knew if she was serious.”
Our conversation turned into reminiscing and storytelling — like most Ryan talks.
Every Saturday, Kate and Mary would walk to town. Grandma, who wasn’t able to walk that far, would meet the group for breakfast and drive everyone home. This was always a female outing and I have great memories of those trips, feeling grown up and special to be included.
“Mary said that everyday was the same and we needed to do something special so she remembered what day it was!” said Kate with a laugh.
Soon, Saturday breakfast walks turned into Saturday night mass and family dinners. Not only did grandpa and Mary live in Custer, but so did their brother Mark and whenever anyone had family visiting, my grandpa’s house quickly filled.
If I was awake early enough (and I was always at grandpa’s because he would say while flicking on the light, “Sleep is for the dead”) I would walk with Aunt Kate every morning. We would go down to the mailbox (about a mile to the main road), down the highway where we would meet Aunt Mary at her mailbox.
Aunt Mary would wear her fanny pack and carry a little white flask. Sometimes I would get a sip of water. Other times I was told it held vodka as Mary hoarded it. It wasn’t until Monday’s conversation that I learned they were teasing me!
A treat for the whole family were the days Mary would invite us over for homemade waffles. Her little kitchen would quickly fill as kids set the table, Mary mixed the batter and the one waffle maker was flipped on and coffee flowed.
The dining room filled and we spilled out to the deck, where the less chatty family members would retreat (never my dad!).
It was common that summer afternoons in Mary’s house were accompanied by the Chicago Cubs. Her one extravagance was satellite TV to keep up with her favorite team.
While reading through this column I realize this isn’t so much about Mary as a person but Mary as a family member. My family remembers loved ones through stories. A favorite story of mine, one I want remembered and will write here, seems to summarize what it means to be a Ryan.
A decade or more ago, while Mary was still living alone, she fell and couldn’t get up. She was able to reach the phone and called her brother, my grandpa who was five years older than her, for help. Grandpa arrived but realized he couldn’t help her up, so he called my Aunt Kate.
Kate entered the house to find grandpa, on the floor, holding his sister’s head in his lap. This is the scene I visualize — the quiet, care and compassion between the siblings in a private moment. Both elders always held me in awe and sneaking this vision of them as humans makes me feel closer to them, though they are both now gone.
Kate, of course, called the ambulance.
In true moments of need, Ryans stick together. We respect our elders. If they don’t want to live in a nursing home, we care for them just as they cared for us as children.
Tuesday morning I woke from a dream and called my dad. “I saw all the dead Ryans.” It felt like the end of the movie “Titanic” when all the dead people are as they once were, together and happy. But for me, it was a vision or memory of Grandma and Grandpa Ryan with Uncle Mark and Aunt Mary, all gathered for a Saturday night dinner at grandpa’s house. The fire was lit and the room was warm. My brother (who would now be 35) was holding court — just like dad does — telling a story which everyone laughed at. The scene felt like a hug and, now awake, it is nice thinking of them as together and happy.
Aunt Mary, I love you. I will always love and remember you. Cheers, until we meet again. (Say hi to all the dead Ryans for me!)