James P. Freeman: The indomitable spirit of my Cape Cod aunt

On the Cape Cod National Seashore.

On the Cape Cod National Seashore.

My aunt, Irene Doane, lived a life that was uniquely Cape Cod -- where she lived her entire life -- but also recalled, in many ways,  the broader America of the 20th Century… full of ups and downs, hopes and heartbreaks, and vast change during her nearly 90 years on the Cape.

She was born in1927, in the Roaring Twenties,  which Scott Fitzgerald dubbed “The Jazz Age,’’ two years before October 1929 crash that led to the Great Depression. And like many Americans of that generation, her character was cemented by the Second World War. These events guided and informed her patriotism, independence, indomitable spirit, and, as would be evident later in life, her survival instincts. With gusto.

These traits were validated when she met my uncle, George, who himself embraced many of these values. Just as he had landed on the beaches of Normandy during D-Day, he landed in her heart. For 50 years as a married couple. It is hard to believe that he died almost 20 years ago. Yet she fought on with her own brand of style and swagger.

When I moved to New England permanently, in late 2002, I got to know her much better. When I was living in Orleans that first winter; we had dinner together nearly every two weeks. I still marvel at her love of nature (it was merely coincidence that she lived on Chick-a-dee Lane and that the state bird in Massachusetts is the Black-capped Chickadee) and her dedication to the many social organizations -- her extended family – the guilds, lodges and women’s groups, not to mention aspiring public officials.

These were the days of real, actual human interaction, before the days that my generation would think of social interaction as the digital space of Twitter and Facebook. Coffee at her home base, “The Homeport,” in Orleans, will never be the same. Sunday suppers will lose some of their charm.

I will miss her at family gatherings like Christmas and the Fourth of July, where she was always checking on the family. And the stories. The Freeman gift of gab. One in particular is priceless and was recalled by a 1955 Cape Codder column entitled “Scuttlebutt.”

“George and Irene Doane of Orleans recently turned in their Ford for a new model. Last week Irene drove the new car to the center to do her marketing. She came out of the store loaded down with the makings for a good chicken dinner. And over in the parking lot sat the old Doane car, having been purchased by someone else. Well, you guessed it! Irene marched right up to the familiar vehicle, opened the back door and deposited her groceries on the seat. Then she went back to do some more shopping. Later, half way home in the new car, she noticed that there were no groceries on the back seat. Realizing what she had done, Irene hurried back to the center. But the other car had pulled out. Needless to say, George didn’t have chicken that night.”

We do not know God’s plan but in a way, God’s plan was entirely fitting this time, in that she passed away as fall began. With the approaching explosion of colors, a reminder of one of the thousands of rich, elegant bouquets she made down the road at Thayer’s Florist Shop, her passion and vocation.

The following passage from Gladys Taber’s My Own Cape Cod, captures beautifully her fondness for nature, literature and storytelling. Even in her last days she was sharing stories.

“Summer slides so gently into autumn on Cape Cod that it is easy to believe there will be no end. Day dreams toward twilight, skies are sapphire, the tide ebbs quietly. I begin to think time itself is arrested and the green leaves will stay forever on the trees. Gardens glow with color, with the roses and with carpets of zinnias and asters….

Times have changed but the Harvest Moon of September exerts the same magic, shines so bright. The fishing boats that are at anchor in the channel nudge the piling softly, perhaps dreaming of tomorrow.”

Our tomorrows will be a little sadder now that she has departed us. But we are comforted in knowing that she will see George soon and that means there will certainly be a good story somewhere too, a story, no doubt, rich with New England humor, imagery and traditions. We can all dream about that…  

James P. Freeman, a former banker, is a New England-based essayist.