Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Rest In Peace, Aunt "Pete"




All my life, I’ve had strange premonitions; my latest came true this morning when I checked my e-mail and found a note from my sister Mary that our last living Aunt, Sara Jane Morrissey Fisher, had passed away Sunday, following a brief bout with colon cancer.

I had been thinking about Aunt Sara Jane a great deal for the past few days, and Sunday, I couldn’t get her out of my mind. Since there was no Packers game Sunday afternoon, I spent an hour or so in my office at home, collecting some pictures of a recent family get-together and some of the most recent pictures of our grandchild, Ellia, to send to Aunt Sara Jane. I wrote a couple pages of information and enclosed the pictures. When I went to put the envelope into the mail box for pickup Monday morning, as I closed the lid of the box, I had this extremely powerful thought that Aunt Sara Jane would never read the letter. I mean, a VERY strong premonition. Twilight Zone stuff.

She never will read that letter.

I didn’t know my Aunt Sara Jane was battling cancer. She lives in San Clemente, California, and the last time I actually saw her was around 1973. But she was an iconic presence during my formative years, and will always hold a very special place in my heart.

The photo at the top of this post was taken around 1956 at Grandpa and Grandma Morrissey's big house in Oshkosh. That’s Aunt Sara Jane, with my sister Lynn and me. Thank heaven, a couple years after this photo was taken, the legendary baseball coach Russ Tiedemann corrected my abominable batting stance.

Aunt Sara Jane was seldom called Sara Jane by any of her family members. Her nickname was "Pete", and my brother Pat, the family genealogist, says "Several years ago when I visited Pete, she told me how she got her nickname. She told me that her nickname for dad was 'bob a Reeba' and he call called her 'Sweet Pea' but she had a hard time with the Pea part and always said Sweet Pete. It stuck." She was Aunt Pete to me; her parents called her Pete, and so did all three of her brothers and sisters.

 

Sara Jane Morrissey was born on December 6th, 1931, the youngest of the four children of James J. Morrissey and Mabel Curran Morrissey. My dad, Bill, was the oldest; Aunt Ruth Ann was next in birth order, then dad's younger brother John, whom everyone called Jack; and then Sara Jane. Sara Jane was named for her aunt Sara Jane Morrissey, who was a full professor at Columbia University in New York.


Here's a photo of my dad, Bill, putting his Army cap on Aunt Pete. My brother Pat's best guess is it was taken around 1946. Dad was not one of the many GI's who made it "Home alive in '45" - after the end of World War 2, he didn't have enough "points" to be discharged immediately and had to spend several months serving in the Army of Occupation in Japan before he could come home.

Aunt Pete was 17 years old when I was born. I was the first child of the next generation, and as such, was spoiled rotten by my aunts and uncles, great-aunts and great-uncles, grandparents, et.al. By the time I was old enough to start remembering things, Aunt Pete became a figure of mythical proportions in my young life.

My earliest recollections are from when I was 4 or 5 years old. I spent a great deal of time at my grandparents’ home in Oshkosh – lots of weekends and lots of other visits, when my parents would go on vacation, when another of my brothers or sisters was born; just lots of time at Grandma and Grandpa’s house.

After graduating from Oshkosh High (there was only one high school in the city back then), Aunt Pete went to work as a secretary at Northwestern Mutual Life in downtown Oshkosh. To my young eyes, the Northwestern Life building was a skyscraper – all of six or seven stories. And Aunt Pete took a bus to work – a bus! How exciting! She got to ride on a REAL bus with other grownups!

Aunt Pete was a strikingly beautiful, tall Irish lass with a full head of bright red hair and the fair skin the Irish are known for. She always dressed professionally and carried herself like a model. She spoke in perfectly modulated tones, and as if she’d had years of elocution lessons. She had the wide vocabulary of an inveterate reader.

When she would come home from work while I was visiting Grandma and Grandpa, she always brought home a small, white bag full of the best carmel corn in the world, which was sold at the Carmel Crisp shop, a store near the big insurance company skyscraper downtown. I was allowed only a small taste of the carmel corn before Grandma served dinner (which was called supper back then) so it didn’t “ruin my appetite”.

If only my appetite could be ruined a little more often these days, now that I’m in my 66th year and carrying a pound or two too many……

The carmel corn treat after dinner was a regular part of any visit during a work day. And so was story-telling time! My grandparents had a huge home very near the UW-Oshkosh campus. There were five bedrooms upstairs. Aunt Pete’s bedroom was at the end of the long upstairs hallway, and across the hall was the small bedroom which was called “the little room”, where I slept while visiting. Every night that I visited, Aunt Pete would either read me a story from a book, or engage me in making up a bed-time story. The stories we made up had to involve “desperados” (one of her favorite terms) and “good cowboys” who had to triumph over the desperados.

Those bedtime stories in that small room at the end of the hallway were unforgettable.

As I got a bit older, if I was visiting on a weekend, Aunt Pete would take me to the movies. The small town a half-hour away where I grew up, Hortonville, didn’t have a movie theater, but Oshkosh had several. Aunt Pete would take me on the bus (YES! THE GROWN-UP BUS!) to the Time Theatre on Main Street or the Raulf Theatre a few blocks from the Time, and we would see the science fiction movies that were so popular at the time, along with the standard cowboy and Indian fare and the occasional comedy.

When I was seven, Aunt Pete took me to see “The Solid Gold Cadillac” – a film shot in black and white, except for the late minute or so, which was in glorious color, when the solid gold Cadillac appeared. When I was ten, she took me to see North by Northwest – and so began my love of Hitchcock films. We always discussed the movies we’d seen on the bus ride home.

I still remember so many of those trips to the movies, and will never forget the bed-time stories from when I was younger.

 

When I was 10 or 11, Aunt Pete started dating a young man who had lived a short distance from the original James and Mabel Morrissey homestead in tiny Waukau, WI. His name was Merrill Fisher, and he drove the greatest car I’d ever seen: a long, black Jaguar Mark Two 3.8 sedan. That alone made him a cool guy in my book!



I loved to ride in that car, which looked exactly like the car pictured above. I imagined it was as close as I’d ever get to riding in an actual British racing car.

 

In September of 1961, Aunt Pete married Merrill. I was 12 years old and remember the wedding very well. In the picture above, taken at the reception at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Oshkosh, left to right it’s Grandpa James Morrissey and Grandma Mabel Morrissey; the radiant bride and her husband; Merrill’s mom Mayme Fisher and his dad Alford Fisher.

I wish I had more pictures of my Aunt Sara Jane – the family archival photos which I have are bursting with candid shots of my dad (the first-born) but very short on photos of Sara Jane – the curse of the last-born. After they were married they moved to Neenah, where Merrill was involved in a cemetery/mausoleum business.

Shortly after that, my cousin Rita was born – their only child. By the time Rita was born, I was in my teens, and didn’t have much time for cousins who were so young. I remember my younger brothers and sisters playing with Rita, but because of our age differential, we didn’t have much interaction.
 

Above is a photo circa 1965 of a family Christmas at my folks' house in Hortonville. Left to right, in front of the fireplace (and cut in half!) is my mom, Pauline; my sister Erin is sitting on Aunt Ruth Ann's lap; her daughter, my cousin Rita, is sitting on Aunt Pete's lap, and that's my brother Pat at the end of the couch.
 

A few years later, around 1970, Aunt Pete, Uncle Merrill, and cousin Rita moved to Oil City, PA, where Merrill had become a partner in another cemetery/mausoleum operation; and a few years after that, the family moved to Canfield, OH, a southern suburb of Youngstown, where he had purchased Sunset Hill Memorial Garden.

I took a trip to visit them in 1973, and spent a wonderful long weekend with the three of them, just visiting and being shown the local sights. But now, Uncle Merrill was driving a huge, new Cadillac Sedan deVille. Business was good.
The visit was during a period of time that I was trying to re-connect with family members who had meant a great deal to me when I was growing up. A few years after that, Aunt Pete and Uncle Merrill were divorced, and Aunt Pete continued to live in their beautiful home on Deer Trail for many years, moving to southern California (San Clemente) a few years ago, to be closer to her daughter and her daughter’s husband.

That was the last time I ever saw my Aunt Pete, that long weekend visit in ’73. The last time I saw her daughter, my cousin Rita, was in Appleton, WI in 1984, when Rita flew in from southern California to attend my Aunt Ruth Ann’s funeral. In her later years, Aunt Pete was not much for travelling; she couldn’t bring herself to go to her sister Ruth Ann’s funeral, even though the two of them had stayed very close personally, so she sent Rita on her behalf.

I stayed in touch with Aunt Pete, sending birthday and Christmas cards, and a few times each year, for the past few years after she moved to southern California, sending her pictures of my brothers and sisters, my kids and the events in their lives, and just keeping Aunt Pete “in the loop” with family activities.

I am sad that she’s gone; her pain from the colon cancer and chemo is gone; but the memories of my wonderful times with her will always live on in my heart and mind.

Rest in Peace, Aunt Pete.

Thanks to my brother Pat for collaborating on this post by providing photos and information.

7 comments:

  1. This is a wonderful tribute. Well done, and condolences to you, sir.

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  2. You have an engaging facility for family history. I would have enjoyed meeting Aunt Pete. I am sorry that I never will do so in person, but thanks to your narrative, I feel that, in a way, I have.

    Russ Tiedemann? One of the few from my past who was truly larger than life. I regret I never told him so. He had a daughter - Patricia, I believe. I rescued her (more or less) from a lake once.

    And what is it about premonition? I am neither religious nor superstitious, but I, too, have experienced the phenomenon. I cannot explain it.

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