Friday, March 6, 2015

Laura Shirley Brunton Atterbury August 10, 1925-March 1, 2015

My Aunt Shirley died last Sunday, after a long decline into Alzheimer's disease. As some of you may have experienced in dealing with this disease, much of one's thought and attention become taken up with the illness, and for me at least, the end of that concern has drawn a veil back from her life as a whole, most of which was quite unlike the past few years. As I was lucky enough to have known my aunt my entire life and to be able to call her one of the foundational figures in it, I thought I might take a little time here to jot down some personal thoughts that are not going to find their way into her more formal obituary.

My mother and her sister grew up living a fairly privileged life in Santa Monica, especially considering that much of the country was, during some of it, experiencing the more devastating effects of the Great Depression. My grandfather was truly a self-made man, having grown up very poor, but, by dint of hard work, become a lawyer in Los Angeles. I won't say he and my grandmother provided their daughters with every luxury, but they certainly provided them with every opportunity they could manage.

My mother was no slouch academically, but my aunt was the scholar in the family and went on to Pomona, Radcliffe and the Sorbonne. She early on showed an aptitude for both language and music, and maintained her interest and study of both. Even in middle age she would spend her Saturdays taking the bus across L.A. to study with her beloved piano teacher Erica. She wasn't too keen on performance, but submitted to the ordeal occasionally and at the end of her active life regularly played for retirement home audiences in a more informal way.

She had a keen interest in all the arts and literature, which she readily shared with us. Lest I give you the impression that she was overly serious, though, I must hasten to say that she was among the funnest people it has ever been my pleasure to know. She could tell a good and funny story herself, and she saw the humor in many, many things. She is one of the few people I know, for instance, who consistently laughed out loud at comic strips.Even as little children we didn't laugh as much.

She had a great capacity for friendship. She was the kind of person who could meet someone on a plane or a tour and become friends for life. As she didn't like to drive, she rode the bus to work in downtown Los Angeles for many years, and had a whole host of friends from that part of her life alone. She and her friend Ross were both opera fans, for instance, and somehow even I came to know of Ross's passion for the Ring Cycle.

For as long as we lived in Southern California, we would frequently visit my aunt and uncle's apartment in Westchester, where we were endlessly entertained. I think it can go two ways with childless aunts and uncles--they can find their siblings' children incomprehensible or they can embrace them as their own. We were a happy but somewhat chaotic family and I'm sure they sometimes must have felt that they had witnessed a rampage after our departure. But we would go into the spare room and bang away at the piano, look out on the world through a pair of nice binoculars, fumble around with the concertina and pretty much whatever else took our fancy. I don't remember there ever being a 'hands off' feeling when it came to their belongings. In the evening my aunt would sit down at the upright piano and play tunes from a songbook she had and we'd all go sailing off on "Camptown Races" or "Frankie and Johnny" or "O, Dem Golden Slippers" together. As I've implied, she could have been a highbrow, but she liked highbrow, lowbrow and pretty much all the brows in between.

The Grahams are a liberal Democratic bunch but my mom and Shirley grew up as staunch Republicans. My dad's point of view wore away at my mother's stance till she had come round to some of his thinking, but my aunt remained a Republican till the end of her life. What I am struck by in my aunt was her ability to hold her own position and yet still get on civilly with people who did not hold it. Unlike our family, she did not really enjoy talking about politics. She did not relish the battle. I think she valued people on other terms than their positions.

Aunt Shirley was a very loyal person. Some of her decisions in life might have struck people as adding difficulty but I'm sure she didn't view it that way. As I've said, she didn't like driving, but she inherited a big old Packard Clipper from my grandmother and though life would have been easier for her with a smaller car, she kept the Packard in excellent condition and drove it to Santa Monica for church every Sunday for years. She and my uncle, who died early, had bought a house in Oceanside, and it had been their dream to retire there. So, although she had many friends in Los Angeles, she decided to move down there in loyalty to that shared dream. Her nieces have sometimes lamented that decision, which made it hard to visit as much as we would have liked, but I don't think my aunt ever did. She of course went on to make many friends there. There are some people who are at home everywhere.

I was talking to a mutual friend of my aunt's and mine to let her know of my aunt's passing and she said, I would come away from talking with Shirley and feel I had such a black heart.' This wasn't because my aunt felt that way about her. It was because my aunt lacked the snarky, sarcastic and cynical quality that so many of us have nowadays (I include myself.) Being in her company had a way of making you realize that that wasn't always a gift, it could be a limitation.

My aunt's first and best friend was her big sister, my mother, or 'Caro' as she called her. My mom sometimes felt guilty about not being as attentive to an adoring younger sister as she might have been when they were children. But their friendship only grew stronger as the years went by. Toward the end of their lives they would call each other frequently, seeking help with the crossword puzzles they both liked to do. If perchance there is a heaven, I have an image of it now. They are doing crossword puzzles together, but now both of them can see, hear... and remember.

I'll add some other photos as they become available.

Updated to add a link to her obituary in the Los Angeles Times


  1. What a nice tribute. So sorry for your loss. She sounds like a wonderful woman.

  2. She was indeed, Kathleen. Thanks for reading it.

  3. Thanks Seana. This is perfect, and beautiful -- I couldn't have said it better myself. And for that reason, I'm sharing this on my Facebook page. Give captives everything we know to be true and lovely about Aunt Shirley, all that we nieces could learn, and maybe did learn, from her.

  4. I'm not sure about the captives part, but I'm glad it meets with your approval, Julie. And of course there was much more to her, but this was my impromptu response after thinking about her these last few days.

  5. What a wonderful appreciation she had of life, and you had of her life. Something to be mindful of myself. Thank you for sharing this reflection on her.

  6. And thank you for taking the time to read this, Helen. Yes, we were very lucky to have her in our lives for as long as we did.

  7. Seana

    Both my grandmothers died of Alzheimers. I found it to be the most frustrating, degrading and troubling of illnesses. If there is a God I'm going to want an explanation for this. It just doesnt seem fair to rob someone of their personality, their humour, their smarts and their dignity before finally killing them. If it starts to happen to me I'm heading to Switzerland.

  8. I hear you, Adrian. I think the hardest part must be where you still know what is going on and that you can do nothing about it.

    That said, though, I found that in my aunt's case, some aspect of her personality remained in tact, which I am grateful for. I know it isn't always the case.

  9. This made me very happy in your sadness. I'm sure my mother is in that heavenly club of crossword puzzlers, and my favorite great aunt, too. It's a wonderful visual on a dark, drizzly day. I would love to meet Shirley!

  10. Thanks, Nancy. I am pretty sure they would all get along famously.