She was a striking blonde, this aunt of mine, tall and slender, with a lilting laugh, a delightful sense of humor and a love of music and dancing. She had learned the Samba and the Lindy Hop and danced the Jitterbug like a pro. The youngest of four sisters known as the “Paulsen Girls”, she had been wined and dined by many eligible bachelors, an actor or two among the lot, and she had fallen deeply in love before she reached thirty. The man who had wooed her and stolen her heart had been a distant cousin, a stranger to her until her 26th year, and although their courtship began furtively, it ended suddenly, and her heart was broken.
The years that followed seemed to come and go as she established a career, took exciting ocean cruises during her summer vacations, and many interested but not very interesting men passed through her life. And now she was forty-six years old and the dream of a home, family, and a love of her life seemed to be fading away.
It was February and one of her clients who had grown to respect her and found her quite charming had invited her to join him and his wife for dinner on Saturday. He had a friend coming to town from San Francisco and knowing it was another arranged date set her teeth on edge, however because she valued the client and adored his wife, she felt she could not decline the invitation.
She had her hair styled in the French twist that was so flattering and wore her black and white dress and ebony cat’s eye glasses that set her apart from the crowd. Cal and Delia had made arrangements for a car to pick her up and deliver her to the Biltmore Hotel where reservations had been made in the elegant dining room. As she exited the car, she pulled the black stole tightly around her shoulders feeling the ocean breezes blowing her hair, and she stepped carefully up the sandstone steps into the entry.
Looking around, she spotted Delia waving from a table near the window and she turned toward her trying subtly to see the man standing next to Cal watching her walk their way. He was tall and quite handsome, with a sparkle in his eye and a big grin on his face. As he pulled out the chair for her, something akin to a spark of electricity shimmied up her spine. She tucked her skirt under her and sat down, happy to get off her wobbly legs.
The introductions were made and from then on the conversation flowed freely. His name was Malcolm and he worked as Secretary to the Board of Engineers with Cal as the Chairman. He was divorced, had two young teenage daughters and a wit and charm about him that drew Rigmor in like a magnet.
The evening flew past much too quickly, the four of them stopping for a nightcap on the way home. The conversation continued up the walkway to her house and after unlocking her door and handing back her house key, he leaned down and gently brushed his lips on her cheek, turned around and walked back to the car.
February 23, 1965
It was a great temptation to call you the next day, around the waffling hour, but I mustered up all my self restraint and tried to think about waffles instead. They were excellent, but a poor substitute.
As you might imagine we were ecstatic to find the sun shining and drove around reveling in it for an hour or so. I lit out around 1 pm and got home a little before 9:00. Traffic bunched up for awhile around Gilroy, where I spent something like an hour and a half going 12 miles, but after that it was a breeze. When I got sleepy I sang “Rigmor” to the tune of Joey, and it worked so well that I’m going to recommend it to the National Safety Council to go with their seat belts.
Now the purpose of this letter is threefold. First, to tell you how very nice it was to meet you. Cal spoke very warmly of you and I knew you’d be nice, but not all that much. Whatever plans you had made for that night, I’m glad they worked out so you could be with us. Second, to get on record that I don’t want to be like a ship that passes in the night, and to underscore my sincere hope of seeing you again. Third, and a little more definitely, to remind you that we spoke of seeing each other when you come to the Bay Area March 6. I’ll put this as gently as I can: that I’ll be very disappointed if we don’t. And I do realize you are coming up here for other reasons, so this makes me a little pushy, doesn’t it? Nevertheless it’s a chance I have to take.
I would really like you to have dinner with me if you could, but this being a family affair for you that seems rather unlikely. I’m going to leave this all to you. I don’t know much about lady bankers, but I suspect they have brains and ingenuity, besides being magnetic and beautiful, so they ought to be able to figure out almost anything. One alternate to consider: letting me take you to my church Sunday, with brunch afterward and early return before your family misses you.
Meanwhile if your ears burn now and then or your glasses unexpectedly fall off, resign yourself: it just means you’re being thought about ——
My apartment was getting a thorough cleaning when the postman arrived and needless to say, everything stopped as I read and reread your wonderful letter.
I too was happy that my weekend plans failed to materialize and I was able to meet you and be with you that enjoyable evening. I had hoped you would call the following day before your departure but as this didn’t happen, I consoled myself with the thought that I would probably see you in San Francisco.
Cal telephoned me at the bank Tuesday and had me transact some business for him and your name came up in the course of the conversation. He said you’d journeyed homeward around noon after waffles and a pleasant morning. I was glad to hear you arrived safely without too much delay. Some day I hope to hear your rendition of “Joey” and the results of your recommendation to the National Safety Council. You’re fun, as well as nice!
All is clear for Saturday evening, March 6, and I would love to have dinner with you. I must confess that I arranged this before your letter arrived. No definite plans had been made by the family and I discouraged them from making any that included me. So you see – lady bankers are ingenious if not all the other nice things you said about them.
I’ll be thinking of you and looking forward to seeing you,
I adored my Tante Rigmor. I respected her as I did my mother and followed her around like a little sister. Having no children of her own and although she was 2 decades older than I, she delighted in my antics, laughed at my jokes and taught me how to dance, encouraged me to take shorthand (“so you‘ll always have a good job!”) and defended me when I got into trouble with my parents. Holidays were more festive because she was there, overnights were more fun because we giggled over the silliest things, and breakfast at her house always tasted better than anywhere else!
When I was in my teens she moved back to my hometown and our relationship grew even stronger. I was always on the lookout for a single man to sweep her off her feet, and she returned the favor as she sought out young men for me to date.
The night she met my future husband – the very first night I dated him – she pulled me around a corner in the hallway and said, “Now that’s the kind of guy you want to marry!” As usual, she was right…. and I married him.
One weekend she cancelled a visit out to our home due to a blind date that a customer of hers had set up. Of course I was terribly disappointed but we sort of had an understanding that a date took precedence over just hanging out together. I had set her up with a doozy once, and when she reciprocated, I got the measles. It was like a contest and now that I was married her dates were serious priorities to me!
Rigmor, Dear ———
Having heard your voice last night it’s a real temptation to call you now. It’s 10:30 pm; I just got back from another one of what promises to be a long series of meetings as we launch this complicated process of procuring a new pastor. Tonight we just listened to the rules to be followed, and it took 3 hours. I’ll try not to let it dominate my correspondence, because as important as it is, you and I have infinitely more important matters to cover.
Were you really here just four days ago? It seems like weeks. I remember how slowly the time passed years ago, when I was waiting to turn 16 and get a driver’s license. It’s like that again. The timepieces have all abruptly turned ponderous, and the calendar seems frozen! My mind can make a 700 mile round trip, including a substantial stopover between tick and tock. There’s an overall diving sensation, and an uneasiness that I’m reaching the point where I’ll scream to equalize the pressure. Or is that the bends? and another thing: I babble a lot. Dear Abby….
When in the world do we ever get to just talk? We need an aimless walk, or to sun ourselves. Some Sunday afternoons, that’s what we need. There are so many lovely things to share. I think I find myself feeling a little lonesome.
So write, please. Write about the weather, the work, the incessant Santa Barbara sunshine, what they said, what you said, what you should have said, etc. I’ll be a good listener; I’ll hang on every word – because I crave contact, even on paper. Does it begin to come through that I miss you very much?
Rigmor, dear ————-
Not that it’s doing you any good but I just thought you’d like to know: Last night, tired after a long day of intrusions into my thoughts of you, I double bolted the door, put a pillow over the phone, and in the quiet at my desk wrote a rambling but affectionate and well-meaning letter to you. Sealed it, patted it, and put it out to take down and mail this morning. Walked down to work, reflecting on you every step of the way, the letter clutched cunningly in my hand as I purposefully strode past all the mail boxes en route in favor of the office mail chute, which is picked up earlier. Up the elevator to the 15th floor, and to the glass-fronted chute, and with a wistful smile, slowly released it into the slot. And in that first split second of it’s fall, seeing that I had forgotten to stamp it.
Dear, dear Malcolm -
Both letters arrived and I thrilled when I read the first yesterday and laughed at the second today. Fortunately I have an understanding postman who advanced the postage and I think he deserves a promotion. I can visualize the stricken look on your face when you saw the letter fall. Seems to me I once saw a movie with just such a situation for the opening shot and the whole plot centering around that letter. As I remember, it had a happy ending as did this. No matter what we do these days we seem to have everything going for us – Right?
I miss you so very much and I have the same diving and screaming sensation but in addition, I’m not sleeping as well as I used to. Do you suppose I’ll recover or will it get worse? Dear Ann Landers….
……… Does all this bore you? I’m making noises when all I want to say is – miss you, miss you, miss you. The next three weeks will be long ones, I’m afraid, but they can’t possibly be as long as last week. I’m getting stronger every day. Yes, I am!
I didn’t get to meet Malcolm for quite some time. In fact, my aunt didn’t even describe him to me for weeks, but there was something distant in her demeanor. Her voice had an unusual timbre, she seemed almost breathless, and I knew this was someone very special. Another thing I knew was that at this moment in time, there was a new priority in her life. I had been around when she had dated other men but this time something seemed very, very different.
Malcolm was very active in his church in San Francisco. He had many experiences in his life from childhood, through WWII as a navy pilot of a TBF Avenger, through a failed marriage….all culminating in a search for peace in his life, and this he found through his faith in God. He had such a commanding presence and was so articulate and witty that he was often asked to speak in public. He made it appear so natural and simple, and it was many years later when I came to understand how much preparation and trepidation went into every thing he was willing to put his name on.
The funny, loving letters went back and forth from San Francisco to Santa Barbara and within three months there was a proposal and a beautiful diamond ring on Rigmor’s beautiful hand:My darling, I just can’t begin to tell you how happy I am and I know I’m the lucky one. I wake up in the morning, gaze at my ring and take great joy in knowing it belonged to your mother, then bounce out of bed and wander around in a cloud all the day long. How I do love you!
The day before the wedding, Mac and Rigmor were invited to lunch at my parent’s home. Bob and I had made the trip over from the desert and were anxious to finally meet this man who had swept my wonderful aunt off her feet. As usual, Mom and Dad had the house shining clean, the back yard patio was set for company and all we had left to do was wait. And then the plumbing backed up in the main bathroom! Mom went into a tizzy, Dad hauled out the snake and tried to remedy things, but to no avail. Mac was due to arrive at any moment!
I had imagined Mac in my mind many times and when I heard a car door slam, I looked outside to see a man walking into the yard. He had a long, equine face, with thick glasses sitting low on his large nose. He was dressed rather oddly for a man who was hoping to impress people, and I must admit, I was very surprised that Rigmor could be so attracted to this man. I opened the door and said, “Malcolm?” The man looked back at me rather quizzically and said, “No, my name is Herb. You got a sewer problem?”
I just wanted to hug this man! I was so relieved that he was not the special one we were expecting, however he did turn out to be the man that solved the biggest problem of that day!
Malcolm and Rigmor arrived shortly after Herb’s truck drove away and they practically floated down the stairs into the patio. What a handsome couple and obviously quite smitten with one another. Malcolm shared just enough about himself to draw us in but when he left us that afternoon there was a bit of mystery that left us wanting for more. But deep down inside I was thrilled that this was going to be my new uncle.
Rigmor Riis Poulsen married Malcolm Johnstone Miller
Saturday, June 12, 1965
Trinity Lutheran Church in Santa Barbara, CA.
before 24 witnesses.
It was a simple wedding. Rigmor wore a beautiful knit suit and I still remember the setting as they stood in front of the family and close friends. There were lots of joyful tears shed that day!
They settled in easily in San Francisco in a lovely apartment on the Marina, overlooking the San Francisco Bay. Rigmor was hired at a large bank and she and Mac continued their love affair in the cosmopolitan metropolis of the West and life was good.
When my husband had come home from his tour in the Air Force, we moved to the San Francisco area and settled with two small sons in the east bay. Mac and Rigmor were getting tired of the big city and with retirement in sight moved out to the suburb of Walnut Creek. This brought them closer to our area and we were delighted because we would eventually be able to travel back and forth on BART without having to deal with the horrendous traffic on the freeways. But before BART ever reached our neighborhood, our family’s biggest dream came true. My husband got a job in Santa Barbara, and we were able to move back home. Over those years in the '70s and '80s, we made frequent trips to visit both Mac and Rigmor as well as another dear aunt and uncle who lived about an hour away from San Francisco.
Our little family benefited so very much from those relationships. I learned to be a better hostess, learned cooking skills and decorating style, my husband learned to be a better host and our sons were read to from the great classics, taught specific manners and skills and best of all, we laughed and laughed and laughed. Our entire family with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins coming together for holidays and special occasions were always looked forward to and cherished, but the times we spent with these two sets of aunts and uncles were priceless.
Mac was very active in his church and once he retired he was able to expand his hobby in photography. He was a voracious reader, and a true jazz devotee. Both he and Rigmor played the piano, and he also played the guitar. He gave our sons a taste of all those things and those lessons have served them well. Rigmor and I would dance in their kitchen, often collapsing in giggles after hearing the remarks of those observing. The
years passed and we never expected what was yet to come.
We drove up to visit Rigmor and Mac for the weekend. We had a pleasant dinner sitting around the table afterwards reminiscing about old times. The next day we drove to to Jack London Square in Oakland for lunch. As we walked along the water I noticed Rigmor was leaning in an awkward manner with a strange gait as she walked. I was alarmed, suspecting a stroke, and sidled up to Mac and quietly convinced him that we needed to get her to sit down and assess the situation. We went into a restaurant and as we cooled off a bit and talked together, he seemed much calmer than I, so I tempered my anxiety. After we got home and Rigmor went to take a rest, he shared that same thing occurred earlier in the week when they had been out for a walk. He agreed to make an appointment that week with their physician.
I sat quietly, enjoying the ambiance of the restaurant and the company of my husband, daughter-in-law, and my Tante Rigmor. There were some children there, but I didn’t know their names, only that they belonged to our group and that I loved them. Suddenly they all got up and left the restaurant. For some strange reason all the contents of my purse were scattered over the table and I hurried to pick them up, along with some boots that were on the floor. I rushed out the door onto a street in Chinatown in San Francisco, but they had all disappeared. I ran up a hill and got to the top and then headed down a busy street toward the lot where our car had been parked. There was the Woolworth store and an old hardware store, so I felt that I was in familiar territory. When I got to the bottom of the hill, I turned around and behind me were my mom and that same aunt, walking arm in arm. They both looked so beautiful, all dressed in black, with lovely jewelry and a lilt in their steps. I had felt so alone, and they seemed so happy and I screamed out at them, “Why did you leave? You didn’t tell me you were going to leave!! Why didn’t you tell me you were going to leave?” My voice sounded strange and strangled and I awoke in my bed, sobbing the same thing, over and over again. It had been
Even today as I remember that dream, I feel a deep sadness and tears come easily because I am still living the nightmare of those two wonderful people in my life leaving me without telling me they were going to go. The problem is that they continue to leave me. My mother has vascular dementia and my aunt has Alzheimer’s Disease. The sadness remains, but being able to confront them in my dream has eased all the sorrow that I have pushed down inside me as I watch their slow, unintentional departure from my life.
The descent into dementia for my mom probably began many years ago. She would experience periods, sometimes as much as a few days, of dizziness where she would have to go to her bed. Now, many years later, her physician suspects mini-strokes were occurring at that time. Before my father died, he told of bizarre behavior that she manifested, usually in the evening hours. We later came to know the term “sundowning” and understood it was something totally out of her control.
After Dad died, we placed Mom in a wonderful facility that helped her with her personal care. I would drive up to visit her every week and find that during the evenings she had moved her belongings, stashed her jewelry in strange places, wrapped her wedding rings in tissues and thrown them in the trash, and dismantled items such as scrapbooks and necklaces, as well as tossing any number of things down the toilet. The staff was wonderful, particularly the cleaning lady, who rescued those wedding rings time and again before I finally had to take them away from her.
Mom had a phone in her room and each night she would call me, sometimes several times, asking me when I was coming to take her home. She would forget how to use the television or the radio, but she always remembered my phone number and how to use the phone to call me. She would be ready for bed and the door to her room would be closed and she would nearly convince me that she had been left alone in her building and everyone was gone. Many nights I would hang up the phone, weeping, feeling like I had let her down and experiencing such sadness that she felt so alone in her strange new world.
One night Mom called in a frantic state telling me that there were two men in her room fighting. It took me some time to realize she had a western on the television and her reality was far different from mine. Another night she told me a man had come to her room with all these beautiful dolls and, because we were now leaving the shopping channel on for her, I realized exactly what she was watching. I asked her if she would like to have a doll and she eagerly said, “YES!” So I purchased a baby doll for her and she named her Tootsie and she was a wonderful companion to her as she traveled down this unknown path into a world of her own. For a time she would dress and undress her baby, but that changed. But she loved that baby and spoke and sang to her and the wonderful staff treated that doll as though she were a real child. It was comforting to know that if Tootsie was missing, everything stopped until she was found!
Mom managed in that facility for nearly a year until she began wandering, became incontinent, and plugging the toilet was beginning to wear on the staff. It was a terribly hard decision to make, but we agreed to have her moved into the part of the facility where she would have 24-hour a day care. Surprisingly the move was quite easy on her and proved to be a wise decision. She had good stimulation as well as better companionship. She played bingo, attended hymn-sings and musical programs, did artwork and crafts, and was much happier with all the people around her. She welcomed my visits, but forgot that I had been there as soon as I left, which made it easier to tell her goodbye and walk away.
In the meantime, after being involved in an automobile accident and receiving a blow to her head, my Rigmor began to lose certain words and memories and, with her awkward gait, was eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. It was interesting to watch her try to understand the scope of this diagnosis. They would come to visit my mother and Rigmor would sit quietly and observe the behavior of my mother. My sweet, kind aunt’s personality began to change and you could see the disdain in her attitude toward my mom. I know it was not intentional, and merely the disease, but it saddened me to watch her become angry and somewhat agitated, as my mother, seemed to become more gentle as her illness progressed.
Mac tried desperately to manage his wife’s illness on his own, and they moved to an apartment in the complex that housed the skilled nursing facility that cared for my mother. He struggled so hard for so long, and couldn’t bear the thought of letting go, but he finally understood what a toll it was taking on his health, obvious by the circular pathway he had worn in the living room rug as he paced hour by hour, fretting over all his responsibilities. And that moment did come when Mac was no longer able to care for Rigmor on his own.
The day finally came when my mother and her youngest sister became roommates once again. We didn’t know what the response would be on the part of either of them, but things seem to have worked out fine. I would watch them interact and although on some level I think they understood that they were sisters, I think my aunt remembered my mother as one person and her roommate as another.
My favorite times were when I would visit with them and bring photo albums from their past. They remembered those days and those times and we would giggle and point fingers at the pictures that brought back some memories from the darkness in their minds. We looked at the old cars from the 40’s and 50’s. We talked about old friends, and although they couldn’t give those people names, those faces did seem to ring a bell. Sometimes they wouldn’t remember my name when they first saw me, but they would
grin as soon as I said it aloud. If I brought a friend with me they would not know that name, either, but they recognized it as someone they loved. And they knew the family; they just didn’t seem to know who belonged to whom.
My grandmother suffered dementia from several strokes and I was always fearful of visiting her in “The Home.” As an adult for eight years I came to cherish my time with these two wonderful people in “The Home.” I came to know and care about other people in the facility as well. I learned you don’t have to know “the right things to say”, only to be there. It really isn’t hard to put yourself into their reality. I didn’t correct their misconceptions…I didn’t judge their strange behaviors…I didn’t mind touching their wrinkled hands or stroking their weathered brows or wiping a chin. So many others don’t have someone who takes the time to go and visit them. I considered it a privilege to be allowed in their world. And I was so thankful for the wonderful staff who tended to the needs of them all.
Yes, Mom and my aunt left without telling me they were going, and I went along with them for as far as I was able. The ride was bumpy and the future seemed pretty bleak, but I determined I was going to enjoy them for as long as I could. I did have a hard time imagining my reality without them.
After eight years of dealing with dementia, my mom, my Tante Rigmor, as well as Uncle Mac all died peacefully of natural causes. Mac died several months before Rigmor, and although she was crippled and bent and bed-ridden, two days before she died she sat up as best she could, smiling at the opposite wall as though she was seeing someone standing there. The nurse said she did that until the moment she died.