This week, I am taking a short break from writing about my own travels to give tribute to my Grand-Aunt Wally. Wally died last week at 98 years old. She was my travel inspiration. And so I was moved to write this post in memory of her.
The photos in this post come predominantly from my visit to Germany in 2014. There I met her half brother, Ludwig, who showed me these photos during my stay with cousins in Rohr.
In this post, I write a little bit about what Wally meant to me. I describe some of the adventures she took part in and I discuss some of the words of wisdom she gave me about life and travel. I hope that her words and her life will inspire you as she inspired me.
Who is Wally?
Wally is my maternal grand-aunt. Her given name is "Walburga" but it was changed to Wally when she came to America from Germany.
As my maternal grand-aunt, Wally is my grandfather's sister. You may recall that I mentioned her in my post about my trip to visit my grandfather's childhood home in Germany. My grandfather died before I was born and so Wally was the closest person I had to him. She was his last living sibling in the USA.
Wally was born in Germany on the family farm in 1920. She grew up there, working on the farm until she was 17. I was lucky enough to get to see this farm in 2014 when visiting relatives who still live there.
Wally recalled to me how she once walked my 17 year old grandfather to the bus stop when she was 9. They took his suitcase on a sled across the snow down to the bus stop where she waited with him until he left for the USA. She would not follow him there until 8 years later in 1937.
Wally became a US citizen in 1946. She worked primarily as a domestic in NYC and Florida. In NYC, Wally was very active in a German Catholic women's club and other organizations. She met her husband, George, at a Kolping dance in Brooklyn—they were married in 1944.
Wally had two daughters. She outlived her eldest daughter Imelda. Irmgard, who still lives in upstate New York, took care of her mother in the last years of her life. Irmgard is another avid traveler and supporter of my travels and this blog (Hi Irmgard!).
I learned early on that Wally was quite the adventurer, even in her elder years.
Easter at Wally's House
Growing up, my parents, my brother, and I would drive over an hour from our rural upstate home into the urban neighborhood of Yonkers on Easter Sunday. We would park on the street outside a red brick home with only inches of space between the houses.
We'd usually be greeted at the door by Wally's daughter Imelda. Rich smells of sweet ham and savory turkey would be in the air as we'd ascend the stairs.
Wally, in a housedress and apron, would immediately emerge from the kitchen, arms wide open and a huge smile on her face. "It's the Rikka from America!" she would say in her German accent and hug me into her bosom.
When we visited, it was always just Wally and Imelda. Her husband, George, died in 1973. So she was a widow for 45 years! When I was in Germany, my cousin showed me the town where George was from. This is his hometown view:
Sometime after arriving at Wally and Imelda's house, Wally would always hand us a big Easter basket with money and candy inside.
In the basket, there were big, chocolate candies wrapped in ladybug foil. I learned on my visit to Germany—when my relatives gave one to me—that it is a German brand of chocolate called Riegelein.
Between servings of lunch and dessert, Wally would share photo albums depicting her travels with Imelda over the past year. She would tell stories about the people they met, locations they visited, and tours they went on.
I was always so impressed with all she did and experienced, even as a woman over 80 years old.
Visiting Wally in 2017
Last year, I visited Wally with Lisa, Christoph, Irmgard and her husband Tom and daughter Irena. It was an awesome visit—we had over an hour to spend with her just sitting and chatting.
This visit was especially meaningful for Lisa who had not seen Wally since she was a very little girl.
Knowing Wally was already 97 years old and recently declining in health, I decided to audio record our visit with her. I think it's so important to get oral histories from our elders.
The process was informal. I merely pressed record on my phone. Periodically, I would ask intentional questions of Wally to get her telling of stories I had heard over the years. Otherwise, the conversation was free-flowing and natural.
Wally had many stories to share and I am so glad I saved her voice and perspective on life and travel. You will see quotes from this audio recording throughout the remainder of this post.
Wally was a firm believer in carpe diem, or, as she said in German, "Aufgeschoben ist aufgehoben!" The direct translation, "Postponed is cancelled," basically means do it now or it won't ever happen.
This live-each-day-to-the-fullest mentality was how Wally always lived her life. She rarely said no to an adventure.
For instance, in Florida in 1942, Wally took the opportunity to pose sitting on the back of an alligator like a modern day Steve Irwin.
There's a photo of this somewhere that I will add to this post when I get it. Instead, I'll share the photo below of her (on the left) playing the mandolin. Wally was a part of a women's band in Flushing, Queens. Eventually, she got a job through an agency playing in Manhattan.
UPDATE: Here's the photo of Wally back in 1942 on the back of an alligator in Miami! (OK - it looks like it was a fake alligator! LOL!)
I asked Wally about memories of my grandfather.
She recalled one time he picked her up on his motorcycle and went for a ride down East River Drive in New York. She remembers being scared for her legs because of all the traffic.
During her later years, Wally managed to visit every state in the country. She explained, "We traveled a lot because of the dancing group Imelda belonged to. We went to every state. Every year somewhere else."
On one of these occasions, Wally went white water rafting with her daughter. Family thinks she was about 75 years old when she went on that trip. When I asked her how old she was when she went rafting, she said "Old enough to know better." Wally always had a great sense of humor.
After she returned from rafting, she recalled saying, "That was a great idea but it was much faster than I expected!"
In the photo below, Imelda is in the back and the poofed up rafter next to her is Wally. This is my favorite picture from all of her travels!
Wally loved taking photos and would make sure to take as many photos as possible. This is why I have such great photos to share with you about who she was and what she did over her lifetime.
Documenting through photography was very important to Wally. Whether it was the places she toured or family visiting, there was a picture for every occasion.
When we visited last year, I mentioned to her that our visit was like a mini-family reunion happening and she immediately said, "You have to take a picture!"
A friend of hers used to accuse her of never looking at the photos she took. She said, "They say I take photos and never look at them. I say 'It's not so—I always look at them!'" In fact, she displayed a large collage of numerous photos on the shelves in her room at the nursing home.
In the end, Wally died surrounded by photos of the people she loved, the many places she traveled to, and the adventures she went on throughout her life.
Wally's Wisdom and Living in Her Memory
Hearing Wally's perspective on life and travel was so meaningful to me—even more so now that she has died.
Like me, Wally was always driven by a desire to have new and exciting experiences. This extended to moments like playing cards which she found boring. She said, "My neighbor's kids always wanted to show me how to play cards. I said I'm just not interested." She agreed with me when I said cards are boring: "Yea, there's nothing new."
I said, "I'd rather travel." She started giggling in agreement.
Wally wisely acknowledged that travel costs money that not all people have. But she warned against saving too much and never enjoying life as a result. She said, "You have to save money but you have to spend a little money for yourself too because time goes very fast."
Wally chose to spend some of her savings on travel. I do, too, because I want to look back as a 98 year old at all the photos I took and recall all the adventures I had, too. I want to look back with no regrets, feeling very satisfied that I did all I wanted to do. Wally reminds me to continue this—to say yes to a life of travel and to live life fully each day between travels.
Wally reminded me that a part of living life fully is worrying less. During our visit, I asked her to reflect on why she thinks she has lived as long as she has. She was 97 at the time, so I asked her "What's your secret to 97?"
She said, "There is no secret. Just live and don't worry about it. Some people worry themselves to death. George was one of them—he always worried. I'd say 'worry when it happens,' then you have plenty of time to worry. Why worry before it never happens? Then you worried for nothing."
Exactly. Travel more and worry less—that's my life mantra!
Thanks for your words of wisdom and thanks for being you, Wally—I love and miss you lots!