An extraordinary life: Aunt, caregiver, spy passes away

Tom WestMy aunt, the spy, passed away Nov. 3. If she knew that I had referred to her in that way, she would have been mortified, but the characterization is no less true.

Occasionally, I would tell people about my aunt, using that introduction just for the shock value. They often thought I was kidding. Who, after all, has a “spy” for an aunt?

Aunt Millie was 98 when she died. She graduated at age 17 as the valedictorian of her high school class in 1930. She then attended the University of Minnesota and earned not only her bachelor’s degree but her master’s four years later — with a double major in French and English.

She never married, and when I once asked her why, she said with perfectly good logic, “Because nobody ever asked me.”

Other than nurses, most educated single women back then became teachers. She was no exception, teaching high school French and English. In between, she attended college classes at the Sorbonne in Paris, in Mexico City and in Montreal.

Then World War II broke out. Her three brothers all joined the Army, so she went to Washington, D.C., to help out in the war effort.

My cousins, siblings and I had always been curious about what she did for the government. From the time she arrived in Washington until she retired from government service in 1970, she worked for the National Security Agency. She never told any of us about what she did, so she took her secrets to the grave.

A year and a half ago, she fell and broke her hip. It was left to her nieces and nephews to clean out her apartment. On her book shelves were a number of language books, but they weren’t your typical French or Latin textbooks. Instead, the books had titles like, “Swahili Made Simple,” “Elementary Swedish,” and “Arabic for Beginners.”

What we did know is that she spent a year in Myanmar (then known as Burma) to study the language.

A few years back, my sister-in-law was watching TV with her and a picture of a tank came on. My sister-in-law said she always wanted to ride in a tank, and my aunt replied, “They’re very rough.”

My sister-in-law asked how she knew that, and my aunt replied that the generals often took her for tank rides while she was in Burma.

Then, a couple of years ago, a cousin and I asked her what language she studied in Burma. She asked my cousin to get a book off her bookshelf. The book claimed to consist of the Bible verse John 3:16 in all the languages in the world.

I don’t remember the name of the language she pointed out to us, but it consisted of broken circles. Think of the letter “C”, but one letter has the opening to the right, the next to the left, the next to the top and the last to the bottom, and other letters have tildes or accent marks off of those same variations.

We also knew that she didn’t want her parents to worry. She wrote them faithfully every week — except when she was out of the country. Then, she wrote her weekly letters in advance and had her sister, who also lived near Washington, D.C., mail one each Tuesday to her parents.

While cleaning out her apartment, we came across her personnel papers. Her government job classification was “crypto linguist.” I’m only speculating, but to me, that means she took coded messages and translated them into English.

She told me once that intelligence work was a little dull and a lot of hard work. It was mostly searching for needles in haystacks. When something bad happens, like 9/11, many Americans first want to blame other Americans. We expect to be protected, and get angry when we aren’t. My aunt was one of those people on the front lines, protecting us as best she could.

She was absolutely non-judgmental. Her job was to dig out the facts of the world, not to spin them into a worldview that fit some politician’s agenda. I have no doubt that every American over the age of 41 today was somehow safer because she was on the job.

The most popular image of a spy is James Bond. My aunt was the antithesis. Although she did not look like Angela Lansbury, she had the character and demeanor of Jessica Fletcher in TV’s “Murder She Wrote.” Inquisitive. Unfailingly polite. Honorable.

Up until five years ago, she also smoked a pack a day and usually had a Rob Roy cocktail just before dinner. That was as flamboyant as she ever became.

The closest she ever came to saying something critical was the day she told me that people under age 30 are uninteresting. When I asked her why, she said, “Because they haven’t lived long enough to know very much.”

Within my family, however, she was dearly loved by young and old alike for her devotion to family. After she retired from government service, she went to live with her parents. Over 10 years, she took care of them until first my grandfather and then my grandmother passed away. Shortly after my grandmother died, her youngest brother suffered a stroke that left him crippled and unable to speak. She took him in and cared for him for almost five years until he died.

A year later, her only remaining sibling, my father, retired with my mother to Colorado. My aunt went along and lived in a senior citizen high rise, one floor down from them. I was certain that my aunt would outlive my father because I think she saw her mission in life as taking care of her family. Alas, it was not to be. My father, younger by two years, survives her.

She was not only one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, she was also one of the most selfless. I could not let her passing go by without telling the world about this extraordinary person.

Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Peach. He may be reached at (320) 352-6569 or by e-mail at tom.west@ecm-inc.com.

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