Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Family Portraits #4: Aunt Frances

I must admit that I am finding this series to be both fun and moving to write. It is a good thing to remember the people who influenced me in my early life - a very good thing. This week's installment is about my dad's older sister. Keeping these essays to 500-550 words greatly limits what I can say, so it's interesting to note that what rises to the surface are all the truly positive things I recall - and usually one or two interesting, even quirky memories. There is no room here for complication/implication/criticism, and each of the people I am remembering was (or is) a very complicated person, living lives filled with both good and bad choices - like we all do. My thanks once again to http://www.thehighcalling.org and Ann Kroeker and Jennifer Dukes Lee for designing the original series from which these ongoing Wednesday reflections flow.

The fountain at Laity Lodge, where I met both Jennifer and Ann.

Like my dad, Frances was born in Arkansas, and traveled as a toddler to Los Angeles where her parents, grandparents, and other assorted shirttail relatives settled in adjacent neighborhoods. Both Frances and Dad were born in the midst of World War 1 and grew to adulthood during the Great Depression. Sepia-toned photos show her with a brown bowl-cut, a huge bow on her head and a large, heavy-looking jaw. Her eyes twinkle, looking out at the world with intelligence and curiosity.

When she went to UCLA, she studied hard and excelled, also working a part time job to save money for jaw surgery and orthodontia. It is hard for me to imagine such female determination in the 1930’s, especially growing up as she did in a very conservative Methodist home. But education was highly valued by my dad’s entire family - my grandfather had an accounting degree, my grandmother a teacher’s certificate and all three siblings were college graduates, two earning doctorates. ‘Looks’ were definitely not a high value. I don’t think it occurred to my grandmother that Frances felt self-conscious about hers. 

After college, she married a big, blustery Norwegian named Bob and together, they set out to change the world. Literally. My Uncle Bob was a local politician, working in city and county government until his death from cancer about 35 years ago. And Aunt Frances? Well. Frances Gold Anderson was the driving force behind two county-wide Sunday school organizations - G.L.A.S.S. and B.R.A.S.S. That first acronym stands for Greater Los Angeles Sunday Schools and the second for Bernardino Riverside Area Sunday Schools.

Let me tell you, from the 1950’s up until about the 1990’s, those organizations were a very big deal in southern CA evangelicalism, and lots of people knew and deeply respected my aunt. To me, however, she was just another member of my dad’s quirky family - a gifted, sincere, big-hearted soul. It wasn’t until I was in my 30’s that I realized that Aunt Frances was a Big Deal.

This is what I know about her: she loved the Lord, she loved the church, she loved her family, but she also really, REALLY loved her work with para-church ministries. In truth, I would say that she was a very driven person. In her later life, she added a ministry area and worked to build California Baptist College into a university with a growing reputation for excellence.

And she knew how to throw one heckuva bridal shower. She did that for me and for each of my three kids at her sprawling home in Riverside. Everything was always carefully, creatively and deliciously done. She did not have my mom’s flair for beauty and d├ęcor, but she was great at clever games (so was my dad, actually), really thoughtful about family history and a gracious hostess and concerned aunt.

Every single Christmas, she sent out a long family Christmas letter, almost always written in rhyme. Yes, that’s what I said - rhyme. Oh my, we giggled over those! But we also looked forward to their arrival and secretly sort of admired her chutzpah. She was a widow for a long time and was the last of her siblings to die. I didn’t always understand what made her tick, but I admired her a lot. And I loved her, too.