Jeff’s Aunt Jeanette London Lowen, of blessed memory.
Jeff’s Aunt Jeanette London Lowen, of blessed memory.

Dr. Jeff London writes about the legacy of his Aunt Jeanette London Lowen.

My Aunt Jeannette London Lowen passed away in 2019 after living more than 100 years. Now that I’ve had some time to reflect on her life, this seems like a good time to write about her legacy.

Aunt Jeannette (let’s call her AJ) led a most interesting and colorful life. I could write a book about her life and only scratch the surface. She was certainly a survivor of many of life’s challenges. But the time that had the most impact on me, my wife and my siblings, somewhat surprisingly, was the last few years of her life, especially the last three years, after she went into assisted living.

Prior to that time, AJ had lived independently in Florida for almost 50 years after retiring from her job as a social worker in Berkley schools. But inevitably, as happens to all of us, her health began to fail, and she could no longer care for herself. 

And that’s where this story begins.

Dr. Jeff London
Dr. Jeff London

I need to give you some backstory first. My aunt, who was born to immigrant parents in 1918, was always a unique person She had strong Jewish roots, yet led a mostly secular life. She went to college, unlike most Jewish women of her generation. She had her own unique sense of style, including bright vibrant colors to match her personality. She helped out in the family delicatessen, but was clearly more interested in intellectual pursuits. She felt a strong Jewish identity, but her Jewishness was more culturally based.

She was married four times (twice to the same man). Her parenting style always seemed a bit haphazard. My siblings and I always looked at AJ, her son and daughter with mixed feelings of uncertainty, fascination and some envy. 

AJ had moved to Florida with Les, her third (and fourth) husband. They lived in a senior complex, and became very involved with various classes and discussion groups. AJ published many philosophical articles for journals of free thought and even authored a few books, including one titled Imagine, related to the message of the popular song by John Lennon.

Her husband, Les, passed away a few years after their second marriage, leaving AJ to fend for herself. She developed a pattern of going in the late morning most days to her favorite diner and sitting for a few hours, researching and writing her articles and books.

She increasingly relied on the help of her daughter Kathy, who was by then a nurse living in New York City. More than ever, Kathy became her mother’s lifeline and primary support. AJ also would visit Kathy in NYC many summers, taking in the culture (especially opera) and vibrancy of a city that she loved. Wherever she went, my aunt would fend for herself and had a knack of finding people to help take care of her, especially as she aged, even in the hustle of Manhattan. 

And then, abruptly, when my aunt was 85, her beloved 55-year-old daughter Kathy suddenly became ill with pneumonia and died. 

Response to Death

We all assumed that Kathy’s death would hasten the death of our aunt. But that’s not what happened. Don’t get me wrong — she was overwhelmed by the loss of her daughter. But instead of giving up on life, AJ somehow found a way to maintain the connection to Kathy by writing to her and talking with her on a daily basis.

My aunt also rededicated herself to examining her own life and times in her writing. And she soon reached out to my sister, my brother and me, helping us to define specific ways to become more involved in her life. 

We had interacted with AJ periodically, but after Kathy’s untimely death, my wife and I began to plan visits to Florida each winter to see her. My sister, brother and their spouses, began to join us when they could. We also began having more frequent phone contact with AJ. The results were surprising and even life-affirming.

We didn’t come up with a new plan right away after our cousin’s death. To be honest, we all worried a bit about being drawn into feeling overly responsible for my AJ. But, with our aunt’s help, we realized that we were needed, and my sister and I agreed to keep in touch with her much more frequently.

I found our phone calls mysteriously rejuvenating rather than depleting. We would catch up on each other’s news, but we also talked about world events, and I was amazed at my aunt’s unique way of seeing life through her 90 plus years. She was thrilled about Barack Obama’s election and what it said about our country.

We discussed conversations she recalled from many years ago. She recalled things I and others had said (that I usually didn’t remember saying) that had stuck with her and helped her get through tough times. She always had a way of helping me feel appreciated and of teaching me about “finding the love in a room.” After about 20 minutes, she would say “I’ll let you go.” I almost always felt surprisingly energized by these interactions.

A Pilgrimage

With my aunt’s failing health, the logistics for our visits became more challenging, but seemed even more important. Our visits felt like a pilgrimage to our aunt. We would have long conversations about life and people.

Often, my brother or I would bring a guitar and we’d sing together as a family. After she moved into assisted living, we interacted with my aunt’s Jamaican caretakers. We watched with amazement at how much love they showed my aunt and how much she knew about each of their personal lives. She knew how to engender a loving community around her, and these special people responded in kind to my aunt’s curiosity and caring about them.

Even though her vision and hearing were gradually failing, she never gave in to despair. She just seemed to persevere. And she talked about the continued value of her written and verbal communication with her departed daughter. 

My siblings, spouses and I always felt emotionally replenished by spending time with my aunt. AJ’s way of looking at life served as an enduring legacy. She helped us to be and to feel useful to her. And we always left feeling uplifted. 

On her 100th birthday, her assisted living facility held a special celebration for my aunt, coordinated with our yearly visit. My brother and I each wrote a song for her, and there was a party outside which included her caretakers and fellow residents. It truly felt like a celebration of her life and her way of connecting with people.

Inevitably, my aunt’s health continued a downward slide. At the end, her grandchildren came down to bury her in the Florida Jewish cemetery she had chosen to rest in peace. My siblings and I did not attend the funeral. We felt we had said what we needed to say while she was alive. 

Instead, we headed down to Florida for our yearly visit a few months later. We made a stop at her assisted living home, and we expressed our thanks in various ways to those who had cared for our aunt so lovingly. We decided that AJ would have been okay with that. 

My aunt taught us many things. If you are caring and curious about the people who surround you, they are more likely to care about you. Help people to know what you need and what you can do for yourself. Death does not end a relationship. 

One of the challenges of aging is to continue to find purpose in your life. And maybe the most important message is: If you look for it, you can almost always find “the love in the room.” 

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