By Leslee Smith
(This was an entry in our ‘Who Inspires You’ contest’)

Leslee and her Aunt Carol

The person who inspires me is someone who has lived a life with blessings and challenges, has gone on to bless others and always grown to meet and exceed those challenges.

My aunt, my favorite uncles’ wife, grew up on a farm in South Dakota, with hard work her daily routine. She never complains about what she didn’t have growing up, but lives in the present to the fullest.

My aunt Carol is the prettiest girlfriend my uncle ever dated. I was a child when they first knew each other and, because my uncle Vern was so special, who he dated was a subject of great interest to me. (I was also a very snoopy little kid – there aren’t many still around to confirm that fact, so I must tattle on myself.) She remains a beautiful woman, married to my uncle for over fifty years. I don’t ever think of her age, and it doesn’t matter, because she seems so ageless to me. She is always interested in what is happening in the lives of her family and friends and the world around her and though she is a grandmother, she is not a stereotypical older woman. She is very classy, stylish, youthful, and always looks lovely.

She came to Bismarck and found work as a young woman, and after marrying my uncle, stayed home to be a wife, homemaker and mother to their two wonderful children. Their door was always open to me, even in the first apartment they lived in just blocks from my childhood home. Carol never seemed to resent me popping in, and she always talked and listened to me as if what I would have to say was as important as anything any adult would offer.

Through the years their homes have always been immaculate, and decorated with an eye to beauty, but also to comfort and a feeling of welcome. The essence of hospitality, she is a wonderful cook, offering both a feast to the eye and the palate. I have fond memories of Christmases celebrated with our families gathered, and she would bring the “Christmas Punch” – a seasonal lime green foamy beverage in a glass punch bowl that signaled the festivities had begun. It was non-alcoholic, and mostly, I think, for the children, but she wouldn’t stint on lovely serving dishes for us.

Carol was a traditional homemaker of her time, with the separation of responsibilities that represented that era. She cared for the home, was a wonderful wife to her husband and a great mom to her kids. After their children were grown, Vern and Carol had years of traveling to far-off wonderful places. They enjoyed their grandchildren as they grew up, attending all their activities and being their biggest fans. As they moved away from home, they have kept in touch via the Internet — doing things (skyping!) a farm girl would never have imagined. But along with those unexpected benefits, came all-too-real life challenges. Carol has had health issues that she faces head-on, and our dear Vern began to show signs of Alzheimer’s. Gradually all the responsibilities shifted to Carol’s shoulders, along with caring for her husband in a very pro-active way. Carol’s mother also moved to Bismarck during that time, and Carol included her in her families’ life and cared for her needs.

Carol reached out for support from experts and from her family to care for Vern in the most loving, respectful way, always including him in every family gathering, to our everlasting gratefulness. She became an advocate not only for her husband, but a compassionate public advocate for Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers. My own mother, Vern’s loving older sister, was aging and became confined mostly to her home, and Carol made it a point to get brother and sister together for gin rummy, peppermints and coffee regularly. She was also a faithful encourager to me as I waded through the maze of caring for my elderly mother and struggled with my own inadequacies. Carol has been at the heart of family reunions, drawing our extended family closer as we are becoming smaller. She has a delightful sense of humor, and has always approached life with such a positive outlook. Her honesty and laughter has put things in perspective again and again. Her many friends attest to her amazing positive outlook.

With the passing of Carol’s mother, my mother, my mother’s twin sister, and finding a safe placement outside of their home for her husband all within a year, she has again and again been the source of gentle strength for those around her, and found the way to mourn the losses and continue living a meaningful life.

And just since I began writing this, Carol, after a sweet evening with her beloved Verner, tucking him in and kissing him goodnight, got her last smile from him until she embraces him again in heaven. As always, she has led us through this painful time, with her loss so profound but open and honest in her grief, drawing her loved ones together and showing us the way to walk through life with love, tenderness, strength, and faith. She has no time for regrets, only gratitude for what life has brought her. My affection and admiration for her know no bounds and I am so grateful to have her as a model for my life.