The Last One Standing

This Tuesday, January 26 at about a quarter to two, Great Aunt Harriett Hansen died. She was 92 years old.

I left Colorado from 2002-2012, but when I returned I deeply cherished her friendship, regardless of her issues with memory. I’d take Aunt Harriett to her favorite restaurant, Abe’s, a Mediterranean joint, and she would always go out of her way to flirt with the Greek brothers who owned the place. She had a set routine upon entry that was fun to watch. The brothers would greet her like royalty, with kisses on each cheek and hugs, and lead her over to their mother who was always sitting in the corner of the restaurant playing cards or crocheting. Aunt Harriett would chat her up a bit, and proudly introduce me to her every time (usually as her granddaughter).

Everyone has “that person” in their family. That elderly relation who is fiercely opinionated and independent, sometimes unaware of how her opinions positively or negatively affect others, and other times keenly aware of it. That was my Great Aunt Harriett. But she was also that person who insisted that family stories never die, that roots are never forgotten. That songs are never forgotten. She was a complicated woman, but from my perspective as the granddaughter of her sister, she was just wonderful. She came to my birthday parties when I was a toddler and entertained me and my friends with her homemade sock puppets, singing songs like the “Billy Goat’s Gruff” to a wide-eyed crowd of 4 year olds. When our family took the pilgrimage to the mountains to pick wild huckleberries each fall, it was her and her sisters who were the most competitive about picking the most berries; the most passionate about defending their berry patches from perceived rival foragers. Her and her sisters were stinkers. They loved to play tricks on everyone and I think the only holiday greater than Christmas in their minds was April Fools day. It was Aunt Harriett that would not only sing the “Easter Bonnet” song from that movie with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, but every year she would make herself an elaborate Easter hat, gluing plastic Easter eggs and purple flowers all over the brim, and then going out in public. Every single time. As I became a teenager and could drive I would go to the family cabin in the mountains in the summertime to visit her, and I’d drive up to find the door wide open, classical music dancing out from inside, swirling around the aspen groves. And she could make that awkward old organ in that cabin sound like church music, working those old reluctant foot pedals like a boss, even in her later years (they were stiff!). Her love of music encompassed her entire existence, and she was always playing the piano or the violin, or singing a song, for anyone who would take the time to let her perform. Even when Alzheimer’s kept her from recognizing people, a song could be mentioned and she would magically conjure up the melody. She loved taking photographs. When she realized she could make photo collages at Kinko’s she went to town with them, making one for every occasion and making sure every person in the family had a copy.  Well into her 80s she went to the pool once a week. She’d never miss dancing on Wednesday afternoons. She was involved in the historical society in Eldora, Colorado where her mother and brother built the family cabin after her father died. Her beloved Denver Danes group was ALWAYS a priority for her. And at 87 years old she played her father’s violin at my wedding. 

She was the youngest of her family, with 4 sisters and a brother, and all her life she felt she had to be bold and strong-willed to be heard. Her parents were Danish, and she was born in one of those Scandinavian enclaves in Iowa, where all the mailboxes say “Hansen”, “Rassmusen” and “Jensen”. She and her siblings went to Danish Folk School, in fact, and their first language was Danish. Their father was a violinist, and when the family of 8 moved to Denver in the 20’s they formed a family orchestra- ALL her siblings played an instrument. Later she actually went to Julliard to pursue studies in violin, and became an exceptional musician. She was under 10 when her father died, and it was one of quite a few tragedies that impacted her greatly. She got pregnant as a teen, and had to give up what would be her only daughter for adoption, something that haunted her well into old age. She lost the first love of her life to WW2, another demon that always followed her around. But she managed to find her prince charming, and got married in Denmark on the isle of Mon, where her parents met and fell in love. She visited the family in Denmark often through the years and encouraged the younger generation to do the same. Thanks to Aunt Harriett and her sisters, cousins on both sides of the Atlantic have maintained relationships, and that is so very special to me. She had three sons, 9 grandchildren and 9 great-grandchildren. She had friends she met in the 1930’s who remained so close throughout her life that their families became part of ours (and they still come to our family events).

Aunt Harriett was feisty, and ornery. She was funny. She loved Victor Borg, Lawrence Welk, and pairing the colors purple with red. She was stubborn about staying in her house till the very end. She was bold and unapologetic. She was the Last One Standing.

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