Great in so many ways

And the precious gift she gave me…

To be present in this miracle of life and death:  what a gift that is!  I received this gift, and it came from my Great Aunt Mary.  I invite you to come along as I tell you something of this remarkable woman.

Meet me in St. Louis

Mary Hemp Knapp, was born 123 years ago on July 29, 1899, the second child to Estela and Lewis Hemp of St. Louis, Missouri. 

Arch of St. Louis
St Louis, Missouri, Gateway to the West

I knew her as Great Aunt Mary, the younger sibling of my paternal grandfather. She lived in St Louis, Missouri and I in the small town of Macomb, Illinois. She would arrive for visits with her favorite brother, Joseph, and his family once a year or so.  I always had a deep curiosity about this tiny-framed woman who did not look or dress like the average woman in town.

Little did I know what a great gift she would give me later in life.

She would sometimes arrive dressed in a smart suit with small dead animals (I think they were foxes), draped around the neck of her jacket with their mouths clamped on their tails. My sister, Peg, and I would sneak into the room where she hung her jacket to touch the animals and make sure they were not still alive because their eyes were always wide open! I found it was a little scary but at the same time interesting.

A historical moment

Her table manners, of which mother didn’t approve, had the European influence in the way she used her knife to move things around on her plate. I tried to copy her action with the knife many times but could never do it the way she did.

The European influence and other influences came from her many trips around the world on PanAm airlines in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. But the trip most amazing and inspiring to me was an earlier one in Paris, France at LeBourget Field, on May 21, 1927.

Believe it or not, she was there for one of the most amazing feats in aviation history. 

Spirit of St. Louis banner
Banner commemorating famous flight of Charles Lindberg

Aunt Mary and Charles Lindberg “The Spirit of St. Louis”

Here she welcomed ‘The Spirit of St. Louis’ airplane and Captain Charles Lindbergh as he landed his plane to complete the first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. Her travel to Paris for this event was by ocean liner although air travel was to follow shortly as she was becoming a true adventurist!

This very short petite women married Churchill Knapp, better known as Chaunce, who happened to be the tallest man in our family. Rumor said they dated for eleven years before the Catholic Church finally gave permission for marriage.

You see, the rumor had it that Aunt Mary was married once before. To a man who ‘took off ‘ with her money.

In spite of the Married Woman’s Property Act of 1870, which protected the assets of a woman in the UK, at that time in the US what belonged to a woman still tended to be turned over to the ‘man’ upon marriage.

He ran off with her money

Aunt Mary, who was determined to set this right, made many trips to the Vatican in Rome. She had private audiences with more than one Pope. Finally, they gave her the permission she needed to marry again.

Rumors again said there were many gifts given to the church before it became known that the first husband had lied about being a baptized Catholic.

We’ve come a long way in our understanding, don’t you think?

And yet I find so much to learn from her, as she lived in her context and times.

Great Aunt Mary and her classmates. She is in the first row, first on the left

As a young woman she attended Maryville University founded in 1872 by the Religious of the Sacred Heart, an order established in France and dedicated to higher education for women. The school was located in South St Louis and Mary became a devoted student of the Sacred Heart Order.

A move to California

Moving on to more current times:

As you can see Aunt Mary was a devout Catholic: she practiced her faith and attended mass every day.

This brings us to the City of La Jolla, California where she and Uncle Chaunce moved from St. Louis to live closer to her brother, my Grandfather, following his retirement.

Did I mention that the Knapps had no children? But, as they aged, they would occasionally have visits from nieces and nephews who came to enjoy the California climate and their company.

At the Knapp’s residence, they could pick fresh fruit off avocado, orange and grapefruit trees, not to mention enjoy the 5-acre flower garden which was always in bloom.  

The garden could compete with the Missouri Botanical Gardens of St. Louis which is where Aunt Mary learned how to garden as she grew up across the street, on Flora Blvd, from Shaw’s Garden in St Louis.

That was the name of the Garden in those early days.

Garden view in St. Louis
The Japanese Garden lake at The Missouri Botanical Garden (Shaw’s Garden)

The story really begins here

This is where my story truly begins when as a middle-aged married women I entered into their lives with visits at least twice a year. The first time my husband Bill and I went to visit them, we discovered my uncle was not well.

I returned a month later to find he had Parkinson’s disease and recently had surgery to insert a feeding tube so that he could receive nourishment. It seemed that he could no longer swallow food on his own. The worse part I witnessed was that the gardener was the person who administered the food into the tube.

Realizing this was not acceptable, I called a family meeting with the older generation. We decided to hire a nurse to take over his care. We did just that.

But after my uncle’s death, guess what we discovered?

The nurse was named in my uncle’s will! To receive a tidy sum, for only three months of work plus a huge salary.

I could write about that experience in detail, but I really don’t think you, dear readers, would find it believable.

My Uncle died shortly after we discovered he had Parkinson’s and my Aunt became our sole concern. The court decided she should be in the care of my Mother and myself jointly, Mother being a member of the older generation, and I being available and the oldest of the following generation.

Old home in Missouri
Great Aunt Mary’s house across from Shaw’s Garden in St. Louis

My dear mother moved into Aunt Mary’s home in California to make sure she had the best care possible.  Four months or so later, Mother got pneumonia and had to return to St. Louis to recover. My youngest sister and I took turns in her absence.

My sister Connie called one day to say, “I think Aunt Mary is dying”. I asked if she had gotten up out of bed. She said yes. Then, I said, she wasn’t dying!

The joy of a new day

You see, she had a strict routine of rising each day, and with total surprise would say:

“Ohhh, another one. I had better get going.”

This was her attitude each day upon opening her eyes and finding she was still alive at 93 years of age and get going she did! She did her bathing and dressing on her own, complete with stockings and small heels. Then off to Mass she would go; and finally coming home to a very big breakfast! She loved to eat and always cleaned up her plate.

This routine continued for a few months, everything moving like clockwork in the household. Latisha and Maxine were her two wonderful nurses, and were with her at all times. She seemed happy with their company as well as the many visits of relatives and friends from the church. Great Aunt Mary no longer went to Mass each day. But did receive communion during the week by some of the faithful parishioners.

Then, life quickly changed! Connie called to say she was sure Aunt Mary was dying. She had not gotten out of bed that day. I immediately made my airline reservation and was off for California! The moment I entered the house I felt the tension within as Latisha took me to her room.

Here comes the rest of this story. I ask the readers to keep an open mind and listen to my words. I cannot prove what I am about to say. But to me it is truth!

The room was crowded, but they were invisible

As I stepped across the threshold into Aunt Mary’s bedroom, I was aware of the room being full! I felt as though I was passing among a crowd and should have said, “Excuse me, excuse me” while going toward her bedside. I felt some sort of presence, hard to explain, but very real.

Latisha said, “Mary, look who’s here!”  Then, she turned her head in my direction and gave the most angelic smile I had ever seen!

I greeted her with a kiss and then called the nurse and my sister into the next room. We agreed that it was time. She was in the process of leaving this world.

Latisha said that she recognized me; therefore she couldn’t be dying. I explained that she didn’t really see me. Rather she saw the others that I felt were there but could not see with my eyes.

We called her doctor who came to the house to examine her and said she seemed fine. But maybe I was right and we could only wait and see. He said she was not in any pain and that was reassuring.

Ready for leaving this world

After he left, we all agreed that we wanted one thing for Aunt Mary. We wanted her to take charge of how she wanted to leave this world. I said if she wanted a T-bone steak then that is what we would give her. The next call was to the priest of her parish who arrived to check for himself as to her condition.

I suggested that some of those from the parish who gave her communion might want to come to say prayers. I knew she would love it, but she also would want silence. They knew that they were not to try to talk or interrupt her silence in any way. Many soon arrived and one by one they went to her bedside to say prayers and to sing hymns softly.  

A small votive candle

I bought a small votive candle at the grocery store that first night. Who could have known how significant that candle would be for us later!

Small votive candle
A small votive candle

I lit the candle and placed it on her bedtable. I asked the nurses to make sure the candle didn’t go out.  There was an extra candle next to it on the table. It was one of those things we do without thinking. It just seemed the right thing to do.

Anyway, the days seemed to pass slowly and she appeared to be very peaceful.  Most of the time she was sleeping, resting or preparing for something.

On the fourth evening, I was in the living room with Uncle Chaunce’s cousin, Cappy. We talked about going out to dinner. But, at the last minute, I asked if she would mind if I stayed at the house instead.

The end of a life on earth

She agreed and I remember turning on the news when the nurse came in to say, “it has started.” I knew what she meant: the death rattle and the end of a life on earth. I went into her room and, oh, it felt so crowded! As if many people were there. But it was just this petite woman in her bed. I went to her and said how grateful I was to have had all these years with her. I told her how much I loved her.

Then I said:

“They are all here for you now, so fly little one!”

I heard the sound of her last breath like a sigh and then the candle went out. The nurse let out a yell and the room became cold and empty!

It was as if her soul flew out of her heart and blew out the candle. She then flew away with all the invisible loved ones that had come to accompany her. What a happy homecoming! Whew!

A life well lived!

Dear readers, as I said, I cannot prove this to be the truth. But I can say that it is one of the greatest gifts I have received in this lifetime.

To be present in this gift of life and death

To be present in this miracle of life and death has taught me so much. We have a deep relationship with the unknown whether we are conscious of it or not. We should never fear it.

Life is a process and a continuing transformation. We are all a part of that process in the way we decide to live our lives. This small little soul lived her life with strength, commitment, and perseverance. And she always had her arms wide open to receive whatever came. I think she would tell us to embrace life and always be grateful for each day that comes! She gave us a great gift with her example.

Mary Hemp Knapp died in La Jolla, California on March 9, 1994 at 94 years of age. She was born in St. Louis, Missouri on July 29, 1899.

Her body was on view in her parish church for two days prior to her burial. Many of her fellow parishioners came to pay their respects. What a gift to have known her.

A spokesperson from the Church said, “You know, she was a saintly lady”.

A saintly lady, indeed.