Halfway through the day my mom called me to tell me my Auntie Vee passed away suddenly in a car accident today. The rest of the day felt somber in tone, and thoughts turned repeatedly to my Auntie Vee and my Auntie Geri. My Auntie Geri’s life has been devoted to caring for Auntie Vee, and I can not imagine her sense of loss right now. However, she is comforted knowing that fifteen minutes before the accident, Auntie Vee took communion and had ashes spread on her forehead for Ash Wednesday. Spiritually, Auntie Vee was ready.
My Auntie Vee was a beautiful person. She was a nun, and the few letters I have read of hers reflect her strong spirituality, her capacity for introspection, her keen intelligence and her insight. Even though my Auntie Geri always feared that my Auntie Vee and my dad would end up killing each other if they spent too much time together in person (both had fiery personalities–to put it mildly), when my Auntie Vee wrote letters to my dad, she expressed only grace. I am grateful for that, for through those letters I glimpsed the beauty of her soul.
Auntie Vee lived through the horrors of WWII in the Philippines, and she escaped the Japanese by traveling through the jungle with her order. I remember her telling us that the danger was so great that if an older nun could not continue, the order would leave her with a bowl of rice and a blessing before hastening on. I have always admired her for surviving such horrors.
After WWII, her order sent her to the University of Michigan to obtain degrees in music and then to France to study Gregorian chant with the leading authorities on the subject. When she returned to the Philippines, she built up the music program at St. Paul University to such an extent that, according to my Auntie Geri, she became something of a celebrity there. My Auntie Vee found that status bothersome and interruptive of what she actually wanted to pursue: The life of a contemplative. After some decades, she made the courageous decision to come to the U.S. to join a new order and finally devote herself to spiritual contemplation. When the new order failed shortly thereafter, she found herself adrift and–scarily–illegal in California.
With my Auntie Geri’s help, my Auntie Vee was able to achieve asylum as a political opponent to President Marcos. Eventually, she was granted full citizenship. She tried to join other religious orders to become a contemplative, but she was already approaching her senior years and no orders would take her at that age. Auntie Vee eventually resigned herself to becoming a lay nun and supported herself by teaching piano and conducting choirs. At that late stage in life, my aunt built a successful new life for herself from scratch. Her abilities and talents became so quickly apparent to her local community that she always had more students and musical opportunities than she had time for. She even managed to make yearly trips around the globe –always with spiritual destinations in mind. No matter where she went, she would always make sure that every trip included a special pilgrimage to Rome.
My most recent memories of Auntie Vee are of how she loved my children. She struggled with dementia in her later years, but whenever she saw my children, she would light up and interact in a playful, sweet way that touched my heart. I also have other memories of Auntie Vee before the dementia: Coaching me at the piano, welcoming me into her California house that smelled of citrus and fresh breeze, sending me rosaries every year in the hopes that I would become Catholic, sending me videos about Catholic miracles and saints–again in the hopes that I would become Catholic, urging me in person to reconsider my religious views, and one particular letter she sent me on my mission that I will never forget. In the letter she quoted John Henry Newman and his hymn, “Lead Kindly Light.” Minutes after reading her letter, my missionary group sang that very hymn (without any prompting from me) in class. From then on, “Lead Kindly Light” has been my favorite hymn. Far from being offensive, her attempts to persuade me to her spiritual truth were reflections of her deep commitment to God that I appreciated. I share that commitment, and I recognize the source of her evangelical instinct. The source was always love.
I will never forget how my Auntie Vee played Chopin nocturnes on my piano in our Salt Lake house. With the mountains as her backdrop, Auntie Vee played the dear music with skill and tenderness. She was in her nineties by then, and her fingers were afflicted with arthritis. And yet she played beauty upon beauty, for by then, that was the most prominent characteristic of her soul.
My aunt was also strong, and even though she was almost always quiet in social situations, her personality could never be mistaken as diminutive. When faced with a student who didn’t seem to understand her direction or a choir that had the same issues, her temper would flare. In those situations, she could make the walls shake. I will never forget the crooked frown she wore when lecturing about some musical passage, nor how she would shake her finger accusingly at the offending party (or parties). Even in her later years, she never lost the ability to make the person on the other end of her shaking finger feel at least somewhat frightened.
Her forceful will and deep convictions fortified her through so many storms of life: Losing a mother at a young age, dealing with a difficult family situation ever after, becoming a concert pianist, joining a religious order, surviving the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, reinventing a new life in the U.S., and finally, in her later years, undergoing countless surgeries and health problems. In her nineties, she even survived the amputation of her leg. Without that fiery determination and force of will, she would have given up long ago.
God took her just as she would have wanted to go: right after she received the Eucharist and attended Ash Wednesday mass. With her heart turned to God, she was ready when He took her. He took her quickly, and, as far as we know, without pain. She is now enjoying the company of her dear mother, her beloved sister, Lydia, and my father.
Her life was one we will not forget.