LAYERS OF CLAY
The deepest layers of Clay were formed over the longest time by the two women who raised me, my Mom and Aunt Dorene, known simply as “Aunt” for as long as those of us who knew her can remember.
Aunt Dorene died on January 3, 2020 after a brave fight. I shared this eulogy at her funeral and hope these words honor her memory.
Thank you all for coming today. We’ve enjoyed hearing all your wonderful memories of Aunt over these past couple days.
There’s a lot of joy in these memories. It’s okay to laugh. It’s good in fact.
I’m having a flashback to a couple times I was speaking at church on Wednesday nights and Aunt was falling asleep while I spoke.
Then again, she once slept through a rock concert while the spotlighted lead singer walked up the aisle and stood right next to us.
You’d think she would find my words today a bit more interesting, since they’re about her, but she’d probably hate that we’re making all this fuss over her.
“Don’t do anything special…” I imagine she’d say if we asked her.
We’ve been reflecting on all the amazing ways she enriched and shaped our lives. As we honor her memory today, I would like to share a few of the things she taught all of us.
We always had cats around when I was growing up. A lot of cats. When my favorite cat Dusty died on Route 50, Aunt and I ended up in the car together as she drove me back home. I was trying to be tough.
There’s this instinct we have to not show emotion or be vulnerable. Crying sometimes feels like weakness, especially for a young boy trying to figure out who he is. I always remember what Aunt said to me as we turned back onto Allegheny Avenue in the old station wagon.
“It’s okay to be sad,” she said. “It’s okay to cry.”
So, we should all remember that our grief is natural and okay too.
At the same time…
Don’t whine. Don’t complain. Because “Who ever said life was fair,” “It is what it is,” and “You’re not the only tin can on the dump.”
She always modeled these ideas, especially through her sickness. The woman never complained. She was so tough.
Of course, she was kind and compassionate, always willing to take in strays. She was particularly fond of cats and animals, but Lord knows how many charitable organizations she supported.
They all wanted to mail her stuff, certain that Dorene Miles couldn’t resist a good cause. You wouldn’t believe the number of free “gifts” she received. The woman has more calendars than a Hallmark store.
But she even took in stray humans.
She was selfless and cared for others her whole life. Our presence here is just one powerful example of that. It’s occurred to me this week that she was the age I am now when she took us in.
She loved her family so much. One of the greatest things my sisters and I can be proud of is how proud of us she was.
She also loved sports. Baseball was her first favorite. She was a long-suffering Pirates fan who grew up on the voice of Bob Prince. She memorized stats and collected cards, always disappointed when she got some Yankee bum like Mickey Mantle instead of her favorite Pittsburgh players like Frank Thomas.
She helped get us all to practices and games, lobbed countless pitches our way, and encouraged us to keep our eye on the ball at the plate and our bodies in front of those scary ground balls when playing the field.
One simple moment that sums up life with Aunt happened on the morning of February 12th, 1990. It was a Sunday. She opened my door to wake me up and said, “Hey Clay, someone knocked out Mike Tyson!”
“Who?!” I asked as I came to.
“Buster Douglas. Never heard of him, but how about that? Now time to get ready for church.”
Sundays were great days for church and sports.
In terms of her teams, like the Pirates, Steelers, and Penguins, she knew they would “always find a way to blow it.”
She still defended her favorites, constantly reminding us that those American League guys would never have hit all those home runs if they had to play in Forbes Field. “457 feet to dead center!”
She often said you can’t win ‘em all. But even if her team did, she’d remind us that “even the clock that’s stopped is right twice a day,” and “even the blind squirrel finds a nut.”
During her recent hospital stay, she called me “procurement” after I brought her Chapstick and the good hand lotion from the nurses station. She asked where I got that skill from.
But she must not have been thinking about November 10th, 1989, another Sunday when we had a rare outing to a Steelers game. That was quite a treat, my first football game. So special, in fact, that three of us went to Three Rivers Stadium with only two tickets in hand.
Aunt sent Mom and I into the stadium to take our seats in peanut heaven. The nosebleeds. In those days before cell phones, we arranged to all meet up a little later. By the time we saw Aunt again, she had negotiated a box seat endzone ticket with a scalper and found enough empty seats for us all to get the big upgrade. She was resourceful.
The Steelers were not that day by the way. They did find a way to blow it as Ditka’s Bears won 20-0. But I had a blast.
Yes, we laughed a lot. At museums, in parks, at picnics, during 7th inning stretches with peanuts and Cracker Jacks, at the farm, around horses, at church, and during ten thousand family dinners.
Aunt was funny. She loved a good gag gift, sometimes literally.
For many Christmases she would wrap small gifts and hide them around the house for a couple generations of kids to seek out. We still laugh about the fake vomit she hid in the piano bench one year.
She loved a good adventure. Plotting out family trips with Mom, she would trace our route in highlighter on maps. We sought out those red dots on the map that indicated historical sites and loved stumbling onto hidden gems around the country. She loved learning about history and all the stories buried within those red dots.
There are so many things we could go on about, but I’ll finish with one more thing she loved sharing with all of us, which is Star Trek. She was a purist who insisted that Captain Kirk is the true Star Trek Captain.
The first film I ever remember seeing in a theater was Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock. I love how that film begins with a funeral but ends with a resurrection and reunion.
And during our last hangout together in Dallas a couple months ago the last film we all watched together was Star Trek 4, her favorite one, called The Voyage Home, which seems like an appropriate title for today.
In closing, I share these lessons that Aunt shared with us…
It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to cry.
But don’t whine. Don’t complain.
It is what it is. Because you should be thankful for what you have, and you’re not the only tin can on the dump, after all.
Don’t be picky. Just add salt. But more importantly, never skip dessert.
Root for your team, even if they’ll always find a way to blow it. Because you can’t win ‘em all.
Just care for people. Take in strays. Be selfless.
And follow those red dots. Go on adventures with the people you love. Discover hidden gems. Capture memories. Laugh easily. Cherish those people who have helped shape you. Learn their stories. Remember them always.
And, of course, live long and prosper.
I hope you got to know “Aunt” a bit more through these words. If you feel inclined to make a donation in her memory, please check out Guide Dogs for the Blind.