An Aunt Passes

April 22, 2009


I have three aunts on my father’s side: Diana, Naomi, and Henriette.

Diana, is most like my grandmother Agnes, a horrible narcissistic woman who may have ruined my father. Diana is in now a sanitarium with Alzheimer’s disease.

Henriette, the youngest of my three aunts, is still active and energetic in his 80s in New York City. She makes calendars to sell featuring reproductions of fine art she pulls from the Internet.

I bought her a computer and a fine printer so she can make her calendars. She has been paying me back at $30 a month. Her last check arrived Saturday. She proudly told me that she is half way to paying me back.

She also told me that it was sad about her sister, Naomi, thus informing me in this off-hand, roundabout way that Noami had died

Naomi was a force or nature. All of my three aunts were narcissistic personalities like their mom, but all of them turned out a little better than Agnes.

Naomi studied to be a ballet dancer. She reached the apex of her career when she danced in the chorus line of a road company production of the musical Oklahoma. She moved to California (I suspect to try and get into the movies), but then she divorced her first husband (whom I never knew).

One day she was at a party and she met Donald. Donald was about ten years younger than Naomi. He was an engineer and a cowboy from a California high desert pioneer family that owned a ranch near Hemet, California.

As soon as he saw Naomi, Donald asked her to dance with him, even though he could not dance a bit and Naomi, a ballet dancer, danced very well. As they stumbled around the dance floor, he told her, “I want you to marry me.”

Isn’t that one of the most romantic stories you ever heard?

So Noami married him.

Most of the time, Donald was very quiet. As a product of a cowboy family, he was the strong, silent type. Although he didn’t say much, when he did speak, it sounded very profound. Naomi sometimes said, “Donald is very deep.”

As one of three narcissistic sisters, she had met her match and brought out the best in each other and counteracted each other’s worst tendencies.

Their two daughters, Joanna and Valerie, turned out very well. I always thought of them, the product of a Chicago Jewish family of alternative health nuts and a California high-desert pioneer ranching family, as an example of “hybrid vigor.”



They lived in Fullerton, California for many years. Naomi ran a dance studio for during most of that time, teaching children to dance ballet and to tap dance. Donald went back to school and switched from being an engineer to being a chiropractor.

After a while they decided to become citizens of the world. They moved to England, then Sri Lanka, then India, and then to Australia. We lost track of them and they lost track of us. Donald became a professor of chiropractic at an Australian college. Valerie became a chiropractor like her dad, and married an Australian chiropractor.

Joanna, like my brother B, was good at learning languages. After becoming fluent in French and Spanish, she said, “Those were too easy. I am going to learn Chinese.”

Joanna moved to Taiwan and became fluent in Taiwanese Chinese and Mandarin Chinese. She started working as a translator and international deal maker, helping American companies and Taiwanese companies set up business arrangements. She met and married Kenny, a Taiwanese businessman. They started a company called Graco which makse baby furniture and baby strollers. They became millionaires. (Most of my relatives remain poor all their lives, but my cousin Joanna became a millionaire and my mother’s brother George Perle, an obscurely famous composer did pretty well also, being awarded a Pulitzer Prize in composition and a MacArthur Genius Award, honors which also pay pretty well.)

Similar to her parents, Joanna had two daughters. The youngest was born almost deaf. Joanna took her daughter to Australia, where she was the first Taiwanese child to have a cochlear implant. Joanna was so grateful that her daughter learned to hear that she decided to use her millions to set up a foundation so every deaf child born in Taiwan who can be helped by cochlear implants gets one and follow-up training. Unfortunately, Joanna died of breast cancer some years ago, but her foundation lives on. Her two daughters attended the “American School” in Taipei, Taiwan. The school built a library and named it the “Joanna Nichols Memorial Library” after my cousin.

My aunt Naomi, as I’ve said, was a force of nature. She was a person who engaged in relentless self-improvement, studying yoga, becoming a vegetarian, and following just about every plan she could find intended to defeat death and decay. I think she really hoped to live forever. She told me once that she died on the operating table during heart surgery in Taiwan and had the “going toward the light” experience that many people who have Near-Death Experiences report.

However, it discouraged her greatly when her daughter died before she did. Eventually, Naomi and Donald moved to Australia. Her hips gave out and Naomi the ballet dancer and relentless physical fitness follower became a cripple in her last years, cared for by her younger husband, my uncle-in-law, Donald.

In her last letter, Henriette informed me that Naomi died recently. I hope Aunt Naomi found the light she was going for.

10 Responses to “An Aunt Passes”

  1. What an amazing life. Thank you for sharing her story, and I’m sorry for your loss.

  2. woo Says:

    my condolences, too, Mr Random. You certainly have an interesting family.

  3. modestypress Says:


    Thank you.


    “May you live in interesting times” is not a Chinese curse, though it may be indeed be a curse. In a similar fashion, I am not sure that growing up in an “interesting” family is a blessing, on balance.

  4. I hope that Naomi is en pointe in her version of Heaven.

    You really do have an interesting family. And yes, that is a very romantic story.

  5. Tom Ashby Says:

    I knew both Naomi and Joanna from “Business & You” seminar held in Taiwan from 1989, where Naomi and I were classmates (Joanna had previously attended). As you say, Naomi was truly a force of nature and both mother and daughter had such beautiful hearts. I also met Donald a few years later (’96) when the graduates were putting on the seminar and he treated my friend’s bad knee–so gracious and caring.

    I visited the library recently (not having visited for more than 15 years) and can say it is truly breathtaking–first class. They are both missed.

  6. modestypress Says:

    Tom, thank you for dropping by and sharing a memory about the Nichols.

  7. Liz Says:

    I took ballet from Naomi. She had a huge old house next to her dance studio in Fullerton. I loved her. I remember the signed photo she gave me after I was able to do a headstand. She was a wonderful teacher and role model. She was a important part of my life in the 1960’s. I am sorry for your loss. I wish you the best. Liz

    • modestypress Says:

      Hi Liz. As I just said to somebody else, or am repeating to you (I am senile) I come from a family that was quite brilliant and quite crazy. I am proud to be able to be mediocre (if now senile). As I often tell my daughter, “Choose your parents carefully.” She till visits me willingly. Fortunately, she takes after her mother more than she does me.

  8. Naomi was my first ballet teacher–from the time I was five, until I was 15, and Joanna was my childhood friend. She, Wendy Miller and I were ballet school cohorts, and used to prank Naomi when we could. Agnes controlled the front desk at the school, wearing a series of dramatic, and sometimes downright strange hats. Naomi, Donald, Joanne and Valerie lived in a large two-story home next door to the studio I have a picture, of the house and studio if you would like it), and as kids we ran in and out of it.

    As you say, Naomi was a force of nature, and way ahead of her time. She was vegetarian and ate only organic produce. My father, who was in the wholesale produce business paid for my ballet lessons with organic fruits and vegetables.

    Naomi was one of the most important influences in my life. Her kindness, patience and ability to teach children were remarkable. Every year, her students put on a full-length ballet. She encouraged my talent and pushed me toward becoming an apprentice at Western Ballet Company, the precursor to Los Angeles Ballet.

    My love of dance has stayed with me to this day. At the ripe, old age of 63, I still take 4 professional level ballet classes a week. I will always remember and love Naomi for the wonderful person and mentor she was.

    • modestypress Says:

      I just got around to reading your comment about my aunt Naomi, and about being one of her ballet students. Everyone in my family is crazy and brilliant. (Neither comment is a joke nor a brag. It’s just the way it is. I am the most mediocre (and slipping into senility). I consider mediocrity to be an accomplishment. I guess this comment won’t get to you. That sucks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s