My Aunt Marilyn passed away this weekend. It reminded me that in our busy worlds, too often, we only think about the impact that people have on our lives after they are gone. I am as guilty of it as the next person. Her passing reminded me of many things we had shared, some directly and some indirectly.
I remember being told that at my birth she looked down on me and said, “this one is going to be a little imp.” In all my life, no truer words were probably ever spoken. I was and still am. And because it was her who spoke those words, I always tried to live up to those expectations but in the kindest of ways.
I remember my Aunt Marilyn had a lot of books and I wonder if she ever knew how much I shared that passion or that I still have the book she gave me twenty-something years ago.
I remember that she owned a record store for a while. I spent hours going through all those records and bought as many as I could afford. Unlike my books, the records are long since gone – but my love of music is still strong. I wonder how much of that love is entwined with the peaceful atmosphere my aunt created – if maybe a part of my music collection isn’t a memory of that time in her store.
But there is something that I wonder about most.
I wonder if my Aunt Marilyn ever realized that it was she who taught me about God.
I don’t consider myself a Christian, at least not a practicing one. Not one who would pass the requirements of any religious organization. That is not because I am without faith, in fact I have more faith then many who spend their Sundays in worship. My faith is a solid thing and it is a certain thing. My belief in God has been with me for a very long time. In all the church services I’ve attended, in all the materials I’ve read, and in all the courses I have studied, none have changed my thoughts or my faith. God is who God has always been to me. No words ever changed my faith because none of those later lessons ever compared to the ones my Aunt Marilyn first taught me, when she taught me about God.
She was my first Sunday school teacher. I don’t recall the lessons, but the message is still clear. A message my faith is built upon. That God is loving, He is caring, and He is understanding. If God judges harshly, if He feels disappointment in me, if He requires more than I am able to give, then those are not lessons she ever taught. I don’t think those are things she would ever believe because they were not things she wanted me to believe.
She was a woman that I defined by her smile. It was a soft, warm and consistent expression. It wasn’t bold or loud, but instead it was a resilient smile. Such that I can’t remember a time when she wasn’t smiling at me. The last time I saw her was a few months ago at my grandmother’s wake. My Aunt Marilyn looked tired, but she was, as always, smiling. Her Sunday school classroom was like her smile – it was a warm, patient and loving place.
I don’t remember many of her words, but I will never forget the tone of her voice. There was no judgment in that tone. It always felt caring, it always felt understanding. Perhaps that is why she was the best Sunday school teacher I had. Perhaps that is why I believe in a kind, loving and understanding God. The God she told me about didn’t judge me harshly, He understood me, He loved me. Maybe that wasn’t God at all, maybe what I learned was how she felt about me. It doesn’t matter really, the lessons and the woman are inseparable in my heart.
Perhaps that is the lesson for all our lives- on what we should seek to leave behind. That it doesn’t matter that my Aunt is many things to many people. That the sum of my remembrances might be different from those of her children, or my Uncle, or her grandchildren. It doesn’t matter that she was more than a prized book on my shelf or a happy exploration of a record store or a peaceful Sunday morning in the warm, safety of her classroom. What matters is that without her ever knowing it, she made an indelible difference in shaping my faith, and in doing so, a part of my entire life’s journey was defined by a gentle smile that not even time can fade.