Aunt Iris was old the day I met her, or so it seemed. She was my grandmother’s sister, one of ten children who grew up in Muhlenberg County Kentucky at a time when life was both simpler and much harder.
She was a part of that greatest generation of Americans, ordinary young men and women who left their homes and families and joined together to do extraordinary things and in so doing, quite literally changed the world.
As a member of the Navy Nurse Corps, Iris arrived at Pearl Harbor just days after the bombing. She would serve all around the Pacific Theater for thirty-one months. She made the Navy her career, and when she retired as a full colonel, she returned to her beloved Kentucky, never to leave again. For the longest time, I did not know about her distinguished service record. True heroes never act like heroes.
In the early 80’s I moved to Nashville where my uncle Marshall, her older brother, lived and worked as a graphic artist. He was a lifelong bachelor, and when he developed throat cancer, I took care of him during the last years of his life. It was then that I really got to know my aunt Iris as she took care of his bills and made many trips to see us in Nashville. We grew very close during that time and remained so until her death in 2004. She was one of the most intelligent and fascinating individuals I have ever met. An avid reader, she loved to talk about books, ideas and principles. Her desk was always stacked with newspaper clippings she would mail to her friends and acquaintances.
“I’m so afraid someone’s not going to know what I know,” she said only half jokingly.
We were at totally opposite ends of the political spectrum, and would quite often engage in spirited debates over government or policy or candidates only to end the conversation laughing over our differences, an ability that seems sorely lacking in today’s harsh political landscape. She loved birds and nature and thought that there was no place in the world like Kentucky. Often, I would try to get her to go on trips but she had traveled enough and rarely wanted to leave her home.
Memory has a way of canonizing those who have passed away. I do not at all mean to make her out to be a saint. She was not. She was a pack rat, who rarely threw anything away. I know because I spent weeks going through every single item after she died. She was prone to paranoia and often thought that folks were stealing from her. Either that, or folks really were stealing from her. She had a hard time letting go of grudges and could be as stubborn as any person I’ve ever known, qualities my wife might tell you are family traits. But I loved that woman dearly and for some reason, she loved me in spite of my own many flaws.
Aunt Iris never married and, other than an old Mercedez Benz that she babied, lived quite simply. She often dressed in a way that might lead one to think she barely had two nickels to rub together yet when she died she left well over a million dollars to start a scholarship fund so that any student in Muhlenberg County who qualified could go to college.
I was asked to speak about her at the dedication for that scholarship fund and put together this little movie of her telling her story in her own words. It’s hard to sum up eighty-nine years of a life in six minutes, but I did my best.
I offer it up on this Veterans Day, 2014 with special thanks to the many men and women – aunts, uncles, parents and children all – who have served and fought so that the rest of us can live in peace and freedom. To all of you we owe a debt of gratitude that we will never be able to fully repay.
God bless you all.