For as long as I can remember, my aunts on my mother's side - Lenore, Mary Nell, Nada, and Dora Lou - have been a part of my life. But none more so than Lenore and Mary Nell. When I was little and we lived on Frizell Ave. in North Highlands, they lived just down the street. I can remember a day - I couldn't have been more than 5 or 6 - when I was playing outside, and was afraid to go back inside through the front door because there was a big daddy longlegs just sitting there on the front doormat. So I walked over to go through the garage, and there was a big wasp flying around the garage door, and I panicked and ran down the street instead, to spend a little time with Lenore and Mary Nell.
When we moved to Fair Oaks, Lenore and Mary Nell bought a house in the same development, and ended up living right across the street from us. So from that time on, as long as I lived in that house, a day never went by when I didn't see one or the both of them. They were the default baby-sitters for my brothers and myself, and they took the time to do things like teach me how to play Scrabble (they never let me win, until I earned it), and teach me how to play blackjack (slapping my hand when I tried to pick the cards up and away from the table, and staring me down sternly if I did something stupid like hit when the dealer had a 6 up, or split eights). Being teachers, they took a great interest in our education, and held us to a standard that seemed unfair at the time but at least for me, helped shape the kind of student and worker I would become. Outside of my mother and father, there's little doubt in my mind that Lenore and Mary Nell were the most important influences in my life, up until the point I met and later married my wife, Debra.
While they could be stern taskmasters - I remember Lenore editing a paper I wrote in 8th grade to shreds, after it had received an A+ from my "real" teacher (it was about Watergate). But they also knew how to have fun, and how to share it with us. For my parents, Tuesday was bowling night, which meant that for us it was McDonalds night - and Lenore drove us to pick up dinner every time, always letting us buy an extra bag of french fries to eat on the way home. And when we would take our annual vacation to Lake Tahoe, Lenore and Mary Nell would always take my brothers and I to see a show at Harrah's South Shore Room, where we saw acts like Sammy Davis Jr., Neil Sedaka, Rich Little, Mac Davis, and even The Captain and Tennille.
They were also big sports fans. The first Rose Bowl I remember seeing (1969, USC vs. Ohio State) was at their house, as was the first Super Bowl I remember seeing (again 1969, the legendary New York Jets-Baltimore Colts matchup). I watched golf at their house, I watched tennis at their house, I watched Super Bowls at their house, and back in the days before we had cable, I even watched Sunday Night Football on ESPN at their house, at least when the 49ers were playing.
Lenore died in January 2004, and Mary Nell died early this morning. The last conversation I had with her was on Tuesday afternoon, when it was apparent that her time was almost up, and she mentioned Tiger Woods' most recent victory - so a sports fan she remained, to the end.
When you've known someone for your entire life, or at least what you can remember of it, it's almost impossible to comprehend that they're not going to be around anymore. For me, that's how it is with Lenore and Mary Nell. I don't know if there is a better place where people go after their time in this one is over, but I do know that if there is such a place, there are few people who deserve to be there more than the two of them. And while it sounds like a cliche to say that their memories will live on in those of us who remember them, it's absolutely true. And in truth, it goes beyond that. As you go through life, you are shaped by very few people. Lenore and Mary Nell are on that short list for me, and I know that they are responsible for parts of the person that I am today. Good parts.
I'll miss them, but I'll never forget them.
The Russell sisters, aka "The bevy of Beauties:"
Top row: Nada, Tomella, Dora Lou
Bottom row: Lenore, Mary Nell