Saying goodbye to a beloved generation and a dear lady whose heart made it so

Rick Norton
Posted 3/18/17

“If I were given the opportunity to present a gift to the next generation, it would be the ability for each individual to learn to laugh at himself.”

— Charles M. Schulz

American …

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Saying goodbye to a beloved generation and a dear lady whose heart made it so


“If I were given the opportunity to present a gift to the next generation, it would be the ability for each individual to learn to laugh at himself.”

— Charles M. Schulz

American cartoonist

Creator, “Peanuts”



Not long ago, my mother’s side of the family — the Densons of Starkville, Miss., and later Booneville — did what every family does, or will do.

We bid goodbye to the lone survivor of a seemingly forgotten generation.

Sarah Lorene Denson Wax, 92, was our family’s elder statesperson. In prior years, Aunt Rene had stood at the gravesites of her own parents, J.D. and Flora Denson of Booneville ... who were my beloved grandparents. She had endured the loss of her husband — Uncle John Irving Wax — and she had wiped away tears of loneliness at the passing of her three sisters: my Aunt Jewell of Waco, Texas, and Aunt Ruth of Macedonia, Miss., and their husbands; and her baby sister — my mother — Rose Pauline Norton, and my dad.

All were members of The Greatest Generation.

Aunt Rene was our last.

And now, those of us who loved her, those who cherished her counsel and those who never will forget the warmth of this Southern lady of grace are left to tell her story among our newest generations. Many will remember her because we are many.

My mother’s family — many of whom over the years have stayed true to their Magnolia State roots, and God Bless them all for that — are what I’d call age diverse.

We are Baby Boomers.

We are Generation X.

We are Millennials.

We are everyone, we are everything who will come next.

Ironically, and sadly, there are Denson family members whom I’ve never met. These would be the great-great-great-grandchildren of Mamaw and Papaw Denson, and the great-greats of my long-lost uncles and aunts. Who’s to say? There might even be another generation of “great” somewhere in there of whom I am not aware.

That’s because I haven’t seen most of these loved ones in years ... too many years. We used to do family reunions every three years, and I missed too many of those because of work and distance. In time, we moved them up to every two years when we began to think the unthinkable ... that Aunt Rene’s days on this earth, and in this life, were numbered.

I missed the last two reunions — the first one because of work, the next one due to serious health issues involving my best friend in West Tennessee. He is my father-in-law, a gentle 82-year-old who came into my life more than 40 years ago. The other day, this wise old owl from a little town called Greenfield made a great discovery. It is called Facebook. It’s a story for a future telling.

Although I’ve missed too many Denson family reunions in recent years, I know I am forgiven. That’s because in the Denson family, the reunion rule is simply this: Come if you can. If you can’t, all will be understood and everyone will still be loved. That’s what I remember about my mother’s side of the family. When we were kids, our love for one another was unconditional. When we grew up, nothing changed. The love remained. Only our smooth skin, clear vision and dark hair faded.

The loss of our family’s beloved matriarch came as a reminder: Family ties live forever though stretched thin by the course of time and distance apart. And how we keep those ties bound has changed, as well. I learned of Aunt Rene’s passing by way of social media ... not the traditional phone call from the years of our past.

It’s a different world we live in — sometimes for the better, sometimes not so much.

Yet, regardless of the world and the changes that make it whole, it is we — its inhabitants — that make it turn.

I’ll never forget Aunt Rene because — like other aunts and uncles and granddads and grandmoms whose memories frame a quiet corner of my heart — she was special in my childhood. But I’m not sure I ever told her.

Aunt Rene always gave the most gentle, yet the warmest, hugs whether the occasion was a weekend trip to see her folks in Greenwood, Miss., and later Booneville, or whether it was one of those crowded Denson reunions that featured some of the Deep South’s finest cooking and lighthearted games of pitching washers.

Aunt Rene always gave support, from the days that I was a mischievous little boy yearning for her attention, to my college years when her soft eyes saw a potential I could never imagine, and to my life as an adult when I looked to her for answers to unasked questions.

Aunt Rene always told the best stories of a day gone by when she and her three sisters were the apples of my papaw’s eyes, and when they first discovered love — from brave men in uniform who later became their husbands, the fathers of their children and the grandfathers of a new generation.

Aunt Rene always baked the sweetest, most mouth-watering pan of apple crisp. Whether it was the dessert’s taste that lit up my tastebuds as a boy, or the simple fact that it came from her kitchen, I cannot say. But it is a part of my past, one that will include her with every telling.

Aunt Rene always loved a hot game of Rook, a card game that became a big part of weekend visits ... especially the older folks who best appreciated the simple joys of life.

Aunt Rene always spoke softly, while adding her expected voice of reason to any discussion whether such debate included matters of the heart or the mind, and regardless of our age or mood or mindset.

Aunt Rene always reminded us of the need to do good in life, to be fair in our approach and to give the benefit of the doubt even when such a gift was not deserved.

Aunt Rene always encouraged reading the Bible, attending church and learning from their lessons, whether such tutelage served to guide our life or balance our living.

To this day, when I think of Aunt Rene I think of angels. In life, she held such allure; at least, to a gap-toothed boy who looked to her for a kind of understanding that parents could not give. In death, nothing has changed. I’m still gap-toothed. I still look to Aunt Rene’s counsel. And I do it as a measure of faith, because that’s what she taught. And that’s what her life was all about.

Every family should have an Aunt Rene. Mine did, and we are blessed for our good fortune.

But now we say goodbye, not just to a soft and gentle soul whose love gave heartfelt meaning to life, but whose generation taught us a little something about ourselves: that being, though unfamiliar roads make us feel lonely, there is great comfort in knowing we are never alone.

After work the other day, I crossed an empty parking lot as the calm of dusk brought meaning to another day. Peering up at a soft cluster of puffy clouds, I smiled at the memory of my parents.

“Mom ... Dad, I hear you’re sharing some space with Aunt Rene now,” I offered. “You folks enjoy the reunion. And when you get the chance, tell her I said ‘Hi.’ And tell her I love her. I love you all.”

Two steps later, I stopped and I looked up again.

“Oh, and tell her thanks ... thank you for everything.”

Laughing at myself, at the thought of talking to clouds, I wondered who was watching. Then again, it didn’t matter. What mattered was who was seeing.

My family had said goodbye to a generation. That was vision enough.


(About the writer: Rick Norton is an associate editor at the Cleveland Daily Banner. Email him at


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