PHYSICALLY AND emotionally rocked from the ride down the apple orchard’s hill, I turned around on my sled to look at my aunt, who had been seemingly close behind me the entire time.
Aunt Maria was sprawled out across the snow, bundled in a puffy jacket with her New Balance running shoes facing up and her sled slowly sliding away from her grasp.
“I think I hurt my back!” she attempted to exclaim over bouts of her own boisterous laughter. “I’m so old!”
I could hardly contain my giggles as her dogs, Bubba and Cleo, draped their furry bodies across ours, her short, dark brown hair reflecting off of the shimmering, white snow.
Each year of my life, I yearned for the opportunity to visit her and my uncle Ted’s cozy bungalow in Homer, Minn., just outside Winona, with its magical view of the Mississippi River. Despite our difference in age – Maria was in her late 40s and I wasn’t even a teenager at the time of the sledding mishap – we were the best of friends.
Our friendship was cut short, however.
My aunt, Maria Faust, died of ovarian cancer on Dec. 11, 2011, at age 52. I was in eighth grade. The woman who was beautiful in every single way, with a vivacious laugh, lovable personality and passion for just about everyone and everything, was no longer with us.
The times I spent with Maria are some of the most memorable moments of my life. The activities we experienced – playing Scrabble, walking dogs – and the lessons I learned from her are all permanently engraved in my mind. The most important thing we ever did together was bird watching.
Armed with a small, flimsy bird book and a child-sized pair of black binoculars, we would watch for the vast ranges of birds that dotted her bird feeders, in plain sight only feet from the dining room window. Maria and I would look out for new, intriguing birds that we hoped to see, and even tally the number of certain birds we witnessed every day.
We scolded the bluejays as they knocked the poor, helpless grackles about the bird feeder. We marveled at the immense talents of the red-bellied woodpeckers, pecking away at the dozens of trees that surrounded the house. We looked for barn swallows and cardinals, who brought more joy into our lives with their elaborate color and spirit. Bird watching was special to us, in every aspect.
Maria also was an active fixture in the city of Winona for more than 20 years, particularly with local arts. She spent a great deal of time volunteering for the Minnesota Marine Art Museum and the Winona Arts Center, and supported the Great River Shakespeare Festival. Maria even had her own newspaper column, titled “From the Seasonal Kitchen.” In her memory, my uncle, Ted Haaland, Maria’s husband, organized the annual Maria W. Faust Sonnet Contest after her death, and it has become an international event, encouraging writers in every corner of this world.
Nevertheless, Maria was a fairly simple human being at her core. I like to think I’ve tried to entertain that personality trait myself, in an attempt to have a better life. After all, she was the happiest person I’ve ever known in my life. Her laugh always shook her whole body, causing her stylish earrings and fit figure to swing all over the place. People were drawn to her, both for this wonderful laugh and for the charming smile that followed it. Who wouldn’t want to experience that zest for life?
All I want is to show her the human being I’ve become. I want to tell her about everything I’m doing with my life and all I plan to do in the future. I want her to know I see the good in every person I meet, just as she did. I want her to see the maturity she helped me develop, the things I do for others and the confidence she helped build in me. I want to tell her I am incorporating greens more and more into my diet, as she begged me to do, but I still can’t seem to digest those dreaded beets.
When I look out my window, I often see evidence of nature’s bounty: a little chickadee perching on a wobbly branch, or a small robin digging hopefully to find a worm in the drenched, soggy ground. These instances we witness every day are often overlooked. But I can’t overlook them. To me, every seemingly insignificant moment that nature brings me each day reminds me that Maria is watching me.
I am thankful for the person she helped me become through the years, and for the memories we made. There is so much sadness in the world, but Maria taught me that there is always something beautiful to appreciate. Maria may be gone physically, but the values she instilled in me as a young child will remain for the rest of my life.
If only she could see me now. I know she would be so proud.