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The Greatest Great Aunt

She should have been 76 years old yesterday.

If she’d been born 30 years earlier — before smoking became something women did as often as men — or 30 years later — after smoking ceased to be the thing to do for every young person, she likely would have reached the age of 76.

We’re a long-lived bunch in my mother’s family — as long as cigarettes don’t enter the picture. Once they do, … well … she should have been 76 years old yesterday.

She appears in the Texas birth index as Marianne Cottrell, daughter of Clay R. and Opal Cottrell, born 6 July 1936 in Wichita County, Texas.1 The index doesn’t indicate if that was an original birth record or a delayed birth certificate. I’d put my money on a delayed certificate, since I think her birth name was Mary Ann, the way it appears on the 1940 census, a census entry for which her mother was the informant.2

It doesn’t matter, really: by the time she was 14, everyone, including her mother, was spelling it Maryanne,3 and by the time she was grown it was always the more elegant Marianne.

And elegant she was — when she wasn’t being impish or sassy or brash or impish and sassy and brash.

She was the little girl in the sundress, with the big smile, in the middle of her mother’s garden in Midland County, Texas.

She was the pigtailed face of mischief peeking out from behind her brother Jerry on an Easter morning.

She was the glamour girl graduating from eighth grade the same time her older sister was graduating from high school.

She was the one who went to help my mother when I was born, the one who insisted that her pink Lincoln Continental be the wedding car for family brides, the only one with the sass to own a pink Lincoln Continental. And she was the only one with the sass to get away with calling my brother Paul by his childhood nickname of Butch.

She was the one who could hardly ever tell a joke because she’d get herself so tickled at the thought of the punchline that she’d start to laugh — and her laugh was so contagious that everyone laughed and the joke just didn’t matter.

She was the one who was once asked by the child of one of my young cousins, “Are you my Great Aunt?” She leaned down and smiled and said: “No, darlin’, I’m your GREATEST Aunt.” And she was. Oh yes she was. She was the one who bought the kids ice cream when the parents said no. The one who didn’t just encourage mischief, she was part of whatever mischief anybody was up to.

She was the one with the biggest heart. She was the one who cared for my mother, her older sister, when Mom was diagnosed with cancer. She never missed an appointment Mom had at the University of Virginia Hospital cancer center; she made everyone — including the staff — feel better.

She was my mother’s nurse in her last days. And she cared for my Uncle Billy, her oldest brother, in his last days.

And then it was her turn to be cared for, by her daughters and her granddaughters. And her turn to be the one we lost.

We have lost so many to cancer caused by smoking. My grandfather, Marianne’s father, in 1970. Uncle Monte, her big brother, in 1994. My mother in 1999. Even my cousin Bobette last year. And Marianne. Smiling, laughing, loving Marianne in 2007.

I was privileged to deliver one of the eulogies at Marianne’s funeral. It didn’t begin to capture the many flavors of the mischevious imp who graced our family with her presence. Her youngest sister Trisha wrote the last lines:

From her dancing eyes, bouncing pigtails and mischievous smile, through her years of laughter and love, she inspired us to fun and flair. She had a heart as big as all outdoors, and never knew a stranger. She was smart and funny and had a zest for life and love. She never took herself too seriously, and never let us get away with taking ourselves too seriously either. She was always there when we needed her. She made us laugh.

Damn it all, she should have been 76 years old yesterday. Damn damn damn


Tombstone photo courtesy of Paula Williams.

  1. “Texas, Birth Index, 1903-1997,” index, FamilySearch ( : accessed 6 July 2012), Marianne Cottrell, 1936.
  2. 1940 U.S. census, Midland County, Texas, Midland City, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 165-3A, page (illegible)(B) (stamped), sheet 7(B), household 161, Bobbette Staples; digital image, ( : accessed 6 Apr 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T627, roll 4105.
  3. Handwritten note by Opal (Robertson) Cottrell, 21 March 1951; digital copy in possession of Judy G. Russell.
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