Remembering Aunt Lettie Ann (1942-2019) and Uncle William “Doc” Cook (1941-2015)

Uncle Doc (William Cook) and Aunt Lettie Ann at their home in 2009.

My Aunt Lettie Ann Cook passed away on May 17, 2019. I flew to my hometown to fulfill her request that I speak at her funeral and serve as a pallbearer. Her husband of 54 years, William Cook, who I knew as Uncle Doc, had preceded her in death in 2015.

They were both good people, who I and many others miss. I am reminded of fun-filled childhood pool parties at their house–one being particularly memorable during which I used a snorkel face mask for the first time and I played with my cousin Mark’s bad-ass Boba Fett action figure. That was probably around 1981. Or, learning from Aunt Lettie Ann how she made ceramic sculptures. Or, learning from Uncle Doc how to melt lead for my pinewood derby racer, use a scroll saw and drill press, and work with wood to make storage chests and other things. Or, enjoying cookouts featuring Aunt Lettie Ann’s great home cooking at their house after they moved from Brunswick to Hortense. And above all, reveling in their open door hospitality.

Uncle Doc died suddenly in 2015, and I was regrettably unable to return for his funeral. Before Aunt Lettie Ann died, she asked my dad to help me fly down and speak at her funeral as I had done for my Granny Ellis in 2012. The week before last, I said these words for her:

Remembering Aunt Lettie Ann

My dad tells me that my Aunt Lettie Ann had asked him while she was still lucid that I speak at her funeral. I’m saddened that it’s on this occasion that I am speaking with you today, but I consider it an honor to do this small thing for her.

I wanted to begin by sharing with you a seemingly mundane yet meaningful dream that I had three weeks ago, the night after I learned Aunt Lettie Ann was back in the hospital. To be honest with you, I don’t put much truck in dream visitations or other forms of clairvoyance, but this dream’s timing and content unnerved me.

The dream begins with me standing in the foyer of Aunt Lettie Ann’s fine house on Baker Hill Road. I see her descending the steep stairs slowly and carefully with her hands clutching the railing, but her face is beaming, and she says that she’s so glad to see me. After sharing a big hug, she tells me that I need to eat. Leaving me to sit at the extended dining room table with low sunlight entering the windows, she fusses in the kitchen to quickly prepare something for me. Then, while plying me with her delicious home cooking, she asks, how are you doing, how’s my sweet pea—that’s Yufang, my wife, what are you both up to? Answering her questions, I never got to ask how she was before I was suddenly awake.

That dream lingered in my mind throughout her ordeal. I hoped that it was more like a good memory than a kind of goodbye. I can say that it brought back many happy memories of Aunt Lettie Ann showing her unconditional love and care, such as birthdays and Christmases, visits to see her when I was at home from school or work, and times that she hosted me when Uncle Doc, who you might have known as Bill or Wilbur or grandpa or dad—helped me on Scouting projects. And, it reminded me how she demonstrated her love and care in other ways, such as wanting to know how you are and what you’re up to—listening equally about your triumphs and failures, your good health and bad, and even your daily trifles—before sharing her own, in which she emphasized the positive over the negative and made light of her own troubles; needing to take care of you and make sure that you’re comfortable and well fed; giving deeply personal gifts—in fact, thinking to get Christmas presents for our cats Miao Miao and Mose who she didn’t even have a chance to meet; and above all else striving to make you feel loved and special. However, Yufang told me that it is more than that—the feeling of being loved by Aunt Lettie Ann remains with you even after you say goodbye and you carry her love with you wherever you might go next. I think she’s absolutely right.

I share with you all a tremendous sadness that Aunt Lettie Ann is no longer here to love and care for us. I know we will all miss her great big hugs, her delicious cooking and get-togethers, and her looking out for us. However, I am deeply heartened to know that her love is still all around us, because we each carry it in our hearts and memories. I encourage you to cherish Aunt Lettie Ann’s love as a celebration of her life, an enduring remembrance of who she was, and a reminder of the kind of person who we should all strive to be.

On Watching Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness: Mourning and Loss

Yufang and I saw Man of Steel, the latest reboot of the Superman film series, last week. We both enjoyed it and we might see it again.

As I was telling my SF students this morning, I liked how Man of Steel reconnected to Superman’s science fiction roots by treating Superman’s source material with respect and solemnity. Man of Steel is about aliens, evolutionary biology, hatcheries, high technology, artificial intelligence, spaceships, and civilian-military discourse. In this one summer blockbuster, Zach Snyder combined some of the most significant, contemporary SF film themes into a mostly cohesive narrative.

However, Man of Steel, like Star Trek Into Darkness, does a poor job of dealing with the effects of collateral damage, death, and mourning. The climactic battles of both films offer up what Susan Sontag identified as the “imagination of destruction.” Buildings fall and people die.

In Star Trek Into Darkness, Khan arranges terroristic attacks early in the film, single handedly destroys platoons of Klingons, and crashes the Vengeance into San Francisco. Admiral Marcus relishes his attack on Kirk’s Enterprise. In the end, we have a one-year anniversary memorial followed by Kirk getting back into the saddle of the Enterprise wagon train to the stars. The effects of loss are either absent or extremely muted.

In Man of Steel, Kal-El (Superman) battles General Zod through Metropolis. Before this fight, General Zod’s “world engine,” begins destroying Metropolis and the planet Earth by bouncing gravitational waves through the core from an inhabited part of the Indian Ocean (we glimpse a fisherman) and Metropolis. After this considerable devastation–including the witnessing of smashed civilians fleeing their doom, buildings crumple, shatter, and fall from the force of Kal-El and Zod’s incredible fight. Kal-El stops Zod by killing him in what seems to have been an instance of “suicide by cop”–Zod slowly threatening to kill the cornered family in the train station as a means to force Kal-El to follow his destiny as humanity’s protector. What of the family that Superman saves by killing Zod? What of the people that died in Metropolis (and Smallville earlier in the film)?

If we are going to take these films more seriously as they are being presented as serious films with significant stories to tell, should we not also demand them to consider the weight of loss that occurs on the screen? In these films, I believe that we should attempt to grapple with the hard issues of loss and mourning that happen in the real world. Spock loses Kirk (temporarily–Kirk comes back in the same film, unlike Spock in Star Trek II) and Kal-El loses his human and Kyptonian fathers, but these microcosmic losses pale in comparison to the deaths of unnamed persons trapped in the carnage of the Starfleet heroes and sons of Krypton. I am glad that Hollywood is treating these stories with respect and seriousness, but I hope that we will one day see films that acknowledge the debt of loss and come to terms with the mourning of tremendous loss created by the “imagination of disaster.”