A few Sundays ago, my family gathered at the local funeral home, reviewing the directives Aunt Lois had put in place years ago. A thousand miles away, I sat, expecting my sister’s call so that I could finalize my flight plans. In that brief exchange, as they sat around the director’s desk, Anne paused long enough to say, “Oh, and Aunt Lois has down that you will be giving her eulogy.” Anne, in a calculated moment of clarity, did not give me the luxury of time to respond, so I am fairly certain that my shock and panic were evident in both my “what?” and subsequent “okay.”
Arriving in my hometown days later, the pressure continued to mount, and people continually asked if I had written it yet. While the answer was always “no,” the truth is that I didn’t quite know what to say. My aunt was a woman of few frills, and if we had been taught anything in our lives, it was that family was private. This merely meant that I had to straddle the line between honoring her memory and obeying her rules, a position I never imagined finding myself in.
It would be midnight, mere hours before her funeral, when I would open up my laptop and start to write. Although 10 am the next morning loomed over me, I needed the space and quiet of the night to find the words I needed to match the pride and pain my heart was experiencing.
Lois Woodland Taylor was the first born child and only daughter to James Edwin and Eurice Harper Woodland. Lois spent much of her early years on her family’s various farms in Upright where she was known for her role as incredibly responsible older sister to her two cavalier and often unruly brothers, Jimmie and Stuart.
Relying on my training, I manipulated words and erased lines until I came to the point I needed to make, the one that focused on my aunt’s core. Finally, the words found their way to the surface, and as I wrote, I realized that in many ways, I wasn’t just writing her eulogy; I was writing to honor the past and the generations of women like her whose lives provided the foundation of not only my family but also of who and what I am.
I once wrote that I come from a long line of women with backbones made of steel. Women who, in the face of some of life’s most difficult moments, maintained their poise, their dignity, and most of all—their pride. There is no woman who embodied this idea more so than my Aunt Lois.
Days later, my sister, niece, cousins, and I would tackle the challenge of cleaning out literal generations of family detritus that my aunt had stored in her home. She was the last of the “old” generations and the keeper of my family’s stories—both physical as well as metaphorical. We would take turns hauling everything from handmade handkerchiefs and bonnets to family Bibles and forgotten Tootsie Rolls to their respective resting spot, waiting to either be taken away by the trash collectors or to be distributed among family members.
One afternoon after a particularly difficult morning, we took to our vehicles, determined to sit down and have a civilized lunch together. To an outsider, I am sure we looked like nothing more than a group of women catching up over crab cakes and salad, ones who talked a little too loud and who, if you looked closely, had clothing coated in dust and sweat. In reality, we were three generations of a family tree that had become so twisted and distant that it felt as though we’d never find common ground again.
At an unassuming café in the middle of my small hometown, I realized that I was witnessing my aunt’s legacy in action. That in her quiet way, she had helped to form each of us from the very same mold from which she’d been forged. As moments of reflection were balanced with laughter, I knew that this was what my aunt would have wanted—to know that her strength had been passed down and that while we each now assumed the position of matriarch of our own family branches, it was my Aunt Lois who had equipped us with the tools to take on those roles. That within each of us lived our own private struggles, but that when we most needed it, we each knew how to dig down and find the strength and fortitude to do what was best and right. We knew how to laugh and how to grieve, but most of all, we knew how to be the women our family needed.
Just like her.
Seated around this table, we were able to bridge the gulf that had divided our family for so long, and while the wounds we each carried will never fully heal, I’d like to believe that we were able to find that place where scars don’t hurt nearly as much as they once did. That misunderstandings and oversights were finally laid to rest when, because of her, we had the chance to address the familial skeletons we’d been taught never to expose much less acknowledge.
Of the many gifts Aunt Lois left to each of us, I believe that in her death, she gave us back the one thing we needed the most—our family. And while it may not be an heirloom piece of furniture or a family lineage traced in a book hundreds of years old, it is something that is far more valuable than any tangible thing she could have bequeathed to us.
Lois Woodland Taylor, the beloved aunt of Jane, Anne, Amy, and Edwin (and their families); great aunt of Shawn, Ashley, Bryce, Kyle, and Alexis (and their families); great great aunt of Jacob, Layden, and Penelope; the reigning matriarch of the Harper and Woodland lines; and the last of her generation, rests peacefully alongside her husband and son, her brothers, and her parents.
My aunt, a woman who would spend her life protecting, guiding, and loving her family. My aunt, one of the strongest and most dignified women I will ever have the honor of knowing.
Simply put, she was our Aunt Lois. And for that, we will always be grateful.