My ‘Great’ Great Aunt

My great aunt Jean was truly my “great” Aunt Jean, was the joke we used to say. Not only was she literally my great aunt, being my grandpa’s sister and all, but she was a great lady. She died last year, but a dream I had recently has caused me to think of her a lot lately and about how she would have appreciated my current adventure.

My great-grandmother left Patna, Scotland for America in 1922 with my great-grandfather while she was pregnant with my great Aunt Jean. They settled in Bloomington, Indiana, but then moved to Detroit. When Aunt Jean was seven, she and my five-year-old grandpa moved back to Patna for a few years with their mother. Patna is a tiny town West of Glasgow. Nowadays, the town had nothing to its name other than a pub and two cemeteries (a new and and an old one) but I like to picture Aunt Jean and my grandpa frolicking around misty green hills and getting into mischief as kids in their Depression-era clothes. My grandpa remembers getting made fun of in Patna for his American accents but Aunt Jean only remembers making friends quickly.

Interesting aside: Their mother, my great-grandmother, was a survivor of the sinking of the Lusitania, which was torpedoed by German U-boats on May 7, 1915. She would have been a goner, and thus Aunt Jean, my grandpa, my mother, and I would have never existed, if, at least according to family lore , a man in a lifeboat hadn’t pulled her from the water and justified it to the other lifeboat passengers by saying “Why, she’s just a tiny thing!” My great grandmother, whom, was called “Minnie” (seriously) was about less than 5 ft tall.

When I was growing up, Aunt Jean was a common fixture at our home for holidays when she would leave her role as a water aerobics instructor at her retirement community outside of San Diego to spend Christmas with us in Detroit. I always appreciated her big personality and her storytelling. My mom and her sister joked that all of Aunt Jean’s stories began with “And first, the Earth cooled.” Yes, her stories were rather long and meandering but she was one those people who could tell a captivating tale about anything. One of my favorites was the story of the mythical day when a candy truck tipped over in their Detroit neighborhood, sending all the kids running to load up their pockets, bags, and even wagons with the loot.

But, if I’m going to be honest, she could totally be a bitch at times. She did that old lady thing of thinking her age afforded her the right to say any rude thing she wanted, such as “My god, those are the ugliest shoes I’ve ever seen” when I was 13 and we were walking out the door to see a play in downtown Detroit. And while she was generous and adventurous enough to take my sister and me on a trip to Hawaii when I was 12 and my sister was 15, the trip was sort of a disaster and we all fought most of the time. It had been a while since my then 70-year-old aunt had been around teenagers and that wasn’t exactly a peaches-and-cream time in the relationship of my sister and me.

Aunt Jean loved to teach a lesson, which was no doubt tied to her love of a good story. We used to play cards together and one time she suggested we raise the stakes. By gambling nickels. I remarked that this wasn’t the 1930s and nickles aren’t “real money.” The following Christmas, she gave me $100. Entirely in change. But this change wasn’t just in neat little coin rolls, no. She had painstakingly baked quarters, dimes, nickles, and even pennies into gingerbread cookies and sewed change into socks and stuffed animals. It took me hours of crumbling hard cookies and ripping open fabric to have a respectable pile of change to take to the bank. She was cracking up the whole time. Fourteen-year-old YemenEm was not.

What everyone who met Aunt Jean admired about her was her spunk. Lady had it in spades. She got married when she was 17 and wanted to divorce her husband ever since her 40th birthday. She finally did it on her 70th birthday. (But when he died of lung cancer some years later, Aunt Jean was by his side).

Aunt Jean visited one year when I was in 9th grade and asked me if I had joined my school’s Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual, and Transgendered club. “I’m not gay,” I told her. “I know!” she barked. “But why wouldn’t you join?!” I’m sure I was far too insecure to associate myself with a club that would surely cause  some people to think I was different. But later, I thought how cool it was of my elderly great aunt to be so open-minded and progressive. Characteristics that I , rightly or wrongly, don’t really associate with  grandparents.

One time when I was really hurting for cash in college she asked me what I spent my money on. When I said “Well, mostly dinner parties for my friends.” She said “Well, that’s never a waste of money!” She valued friends more than anything and had some really great, long-lasting friendships.

She traveled the world, often going on couple’s trips with my grandma and grandpa. She tried to go on a big trip every year, right up to the end. Last year when she went on one of her common far-flung cruises with her gentleman friend, our family was fairly certain she’d die aboard the ship because her health had declined so much. But as I pointed out to my mom, for a woman whose love of traveling is unmatched, that is probably, for her, the single best way to go. (She actually lived through the trip and had a great time).

My sister called and told me Aunt Jean had died as I was covering the big healthcare reform decision at the Supreme Court last year. I had to put the sad news out of my head and continue on with my workday. But when I got home later, I cried because Aunt Jean was no longer in this world. I thought of how she lived her life how I want to live mine: with passion, a great sense of fun, a love for family and friends, and an unyielding sense of adventure.

I had a dream about Aunt Jean while I was on my honeymoon in Southeast Asia, and it has really stuck with me. I’m not particularly mystic, and not at all religious, but I strongly believe that most dreams have a deeper meaning. One morning when I was walking up in Luang Prabang, Laos, just as I was felt I was drifting into the waking world, my Great Aunt Jean’s face appeared very clearly. In the vision, Aunt Jean was about 45-years-old and joyously laughing, her head through back and her mouth wide open and she was wearing bright red lipstick. I didn’t know Aunt Jean as a middle-aged woman, but I could see her so clearly. It felt like she was saying “Look at you! You live in Yemen and you’re in traveling through Asia! You are living your life.”

Just like she did.

To my Great Aunt Jean,


*Note: On Feb. 27, I updated this post after getting some factual updates from my mom and aunt.


  1. I totally forgot about that Christmas when she gave you all of the hidden change. I’m glad you can see the humor in it now. I know you didn’t at the time.

  2. I loved this post. I’m glad you were able to see past your differences to see how much you two had in common. I want to think that some of Aunt Jean is in you, Yemenem.

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