Patricia was a spirited, seventeen-year old beauty with blond hair and blue eyes. My grandparents had high expectations for their youngest child, especially after the tragic death of their son and the grief that haunted them. Instead, she disappointed them by eloping with a farm hand that worked for my grandfather. He was what my mother referred to as a shanty Irishman. He was old enough to be my aunt’s father and he was a widower with a baby daughter. The story whispered between my mother and grandmother was that he had caused his first wife’s death by failing to heed the doctor’s advice to avoid a life-threatening pregnancy. He was a big, lazy, boisterous, barrel-chested man, content with his own ignorance. My mother said he had killed a recalcitrant horse with a single punch to the head. I only remember that he always smelled like manure and that no one could ever unravel the mystery of my aunt’s romantic attachment to him.
Despite her family’s disapproval, my aunt defiantly raised five daughters in near poverty on a Wisconsin farm. My uncle was no farmer. My father said the cow shit was so deep in the barn that you could hit your head on the ceiling. Everyone expected that one day my aunt would finally have her fill of a very hard life. A devout Catholic, she remained with her husband to the end when he succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease. I suspect she was probably tempted a few times during her life to change course. My grandmother and mother always hoped she would come to her senses one day. In the end, no one or nothing could dissuade my aunt from the path she had chosen in life.
My grandparents and mother have been gone for several years, but my Aunt is still going strong at 82, living alone, unbroken, proud, and unafraid on a Wisconsin farm with a dog and a couple of cats. She is happy. We have never spent enough time in each other’s company over the years to fill a week, but this holiday we talked by phone for over an hour. We both laughed when she told me she doesn’t understand why she can no longer lift an 80-pound piece of farm equipment into her truck. We may be bound by family history, but mostly we are bound by her improbable, unfathomable, defiant romance.