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Jersey Boy Smile

My Beautiful Aunt, Ave Atque Vale

Maya's photo of Art and Karen

Saturday it was Aunt Karen's funeral in Sacramento. I so wanted to be there, I feel very wrenched in my stomach thinking about it. But Charlie having had incidents involving a trunk (of the automotive sort) twice due to anticipating my 40-hour trip to California in June, I couldn't.

Charlie maybe has a cold from the latest round of crazy weather (roasting hot 104 degree humidex one day, then breezy 70s -- like being at the ocean), and/or from a recent excess of emotional angst. He woke 3.30am and then was ultra good, cheerily acceding to me setting the timer twice for two hour segments. We all went on a walk at 7.30, then I went running while he breakfasted, then he got a fabulous haircut and shave, then he slowly did 16 miles on the bike path. He moved quite slowly, indeed, the rest of the day, on a home 6-miler and a walk in which he stood and stared at things and made gestures and noises while I thought about Sacramento. Despite a long afternoon nap, Charlie went to bed at 9.45 pm and to sleep.

My sister kindly offered to read something for me at Aunt Karen's service. Here it is.

My sister Jennifer, who’s reading this, and I were born in the late 1960s, when Aunt Karen was going to Cal Berkeley. She was an English major, confuting stereotypic assumptions that all Asian Americans of earlier eras were engineers and science majors. I’ve always loved books and reading and studied literature too when I went to university.

Aunt Karen often gave us books. One of the first was a worn forest-green copy of Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin from a mysterious place called Portobello Road. My mom told us that this was a big market in London where old things were sold. Later “Portobello Road” became familiar to me because Jennifer had a record with the Bedknobs and Broomsticks soundtrack and the “Portobello Road” song -- “street where the riches of ages are sold” -- was one of my favorites. Thanks to Aunt Karen, I had one of those riches, from a country far away.

When I was in second grade and had the chicken pox for two weeks, Aunt Karen visited and gave me a stuffed white kitten and two Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books. Anotehr time, she gave us The Juniper Tree and Higglety Pigglety Pop! There Must Be More to Life by Maurice Sendak. She shared her copies of two piano books, one with the songs for Sendak’s Really Rosie and the Nutshell Kids and another with music and lyrics from all sorts of Lerner and Lowe musicals, from Gigi to Camelot.

No surprise that some of Aunt Karen’s gifts to Charlie were all about books and stories, a pale blue and pink blanket with Peter Rabbit embroidery and a set of plastic dishes painted with Winnie the Pooh (the Milne drawings, not the Disney ones). The plate and bowl are long gone but Charlie still uses the cup when he brushes his teeth and the blanket is safely tucked away in my bedroom.

These gifts -- and the silk scarf in dark blues and gold and red flowers, and a soft grey wool scarf -- were, to me, emblematic of Aunt Karen. She was kind and caring, there is no doubt. The things she gave us were thoughtfully chosen, with us specifically in mind: Aunt Karen noticed the finest of details. She might not tell you that, but this attentiveness came through in her gestures and actions; in, for instance, the plates of Christmas cookies she, and Alissa and Maeley, made and gave every December. My favorites were her Russian teacakes, petite and with just enough powdered sugar and melting in your mouth, and her thumbprint cookies, with a perfect smidgeon of jam in the center.

I noted this artful precision and grace in Aunt Karen’s writing when she and I exchanged some emails in recent years. I could hear her voice so clearly in her writing and have saved the emails for careful rereading. Due to Charlie’s struggles with being away from our home in New Jersey as he became a teenager, my husband Jim and I have not been able to visit California for the holidays. I’ve deeply missed the chance to see and talk to Aunt Karen and everyone in Sacramento. Happily, I was able to attend Alissa and Uri’s beautiful wedding in June and see Aunt Karen with that delighted, just-tickled-pink smile and to feel her familiar, gentle presence.

It was the smile she cheered me with when she brought me that stuffed kitten when I was little. It was a smile she never lost, through good times and sad times. Having been through some things myself in raising Charlie (he is on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum), I have always been inspired by, and sought to emulate, Aunt Karen’s resilience, her quiet strength and her grace in adversity.

In recent years, I have been thinking ahead to when Charlie might be able to travel again, and how it would be good to sit down with Aunt Karen and tell her how much that frayed copy of Squirrel Nutkin meant to me and to thank her for bringing literature, a taste of a world beyond, beauty and grace into my life. I’m grateful to Alissa and Maeley and Art to be able to tell you about what Aunt Karen has meant to me and to Jennifer for reading it.

We love you, Aunt Karen. We will miss you dearly and deeply. You and your buoyant, joyous smile, will be always be in our memories and close to our hearts.

love, Kristina

[click on the photos to enlarge]


Digging around in Lake Tahoe (looks like I'm on the hunt for something in that water).


Must have been Jennifer's 2nd or 3rd birthday!


Taken in Sacramento ca. 1967 at the house on Q Street (that's Jennifer; I wasn't around yet).

Screen shot 2012-07-06 at 1.51.15 PM
Aunt Karen (with that smile -- she just looks so delighted) and her family at my cousin Alissa's June wedding.





Beautiful words Kristina..... so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing. May you find peace.


A beautiful tribute! It is hard to be so far from one's family at times like these; I'm sure they hold you in their hearts as you hold them in yours. My thoughts are with you.


Wow, she was indeed beautiful. Thank you for sharing the pictures and your tribute. I see so much of Karen in you.


Beautiful. She was certainly proud of you becoming a devoted wife and mom.
She looked delighted in all the pictures you shared:-)
You and your family are in my prayers.

Barbara @therextras

I feel sure Aunt Karen understood your need to be with Charlie & knew of your love & lovely tribute. Sincere sympathy.

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