Farewell my great aunt, you were the best human
I didn’t know Adam Larson from Adam before Monday night.
My guess is I’ll probably never meet the young man, but on one of the worst days of my life, the software engineer perfectly described my favorite aunt.
His Facebook post nailed it. From the start, too.
“The best human I’ve ever met died last night.”
The best human, that’s a perfect description of Caroline Pelzel, the last of her generation in our family to grace this Earth. Sometime early Monday morning, she passed. And when I found out a few hours later, I wept. Cried like a baby. Bawled my eyes out.
I know most of you never met Aunt Caroline, although if you came to either of my sons’ graduation parties, she was hard to miss.
From the time I found out around noon until around 9:30 Monday night, I was in a fog. Oh, I called Josh, Noah and Abby. Ditto for Robin, the mother to my children. But when someone so beautiful and so special dies, one that represents the last of my aunts and uncles … well, it’s just going to be a crappy day.
When I got home, I made supper — well, actually I heated up supper — and sat down and scrolled through Caroline’s Facebook page and read tribute after tribute.
She deserved them all, for her life was a wonderful adventure, one that saw her touch the lives of so many.
Caroline was an oopsie baby; she was born during my dad’s junior year of high school. Her three older siblings were gone from the Fenske home before she was 10, but Dad always told me that she was the coolest little sister a guy could have.
She graduated from Mankato High, got married to David and had two girls — Carinda and Tina. They traveled the world, for her husband was a career Army guy. From Brussels, Belgium, to Washington D.C. to Indianapolis to Fairbanks, Alaska to God knows where else, she spent more than 20 years as an Army wife.
Shortly after the family moved to Duluth, David and Caroline split up, and she came out as gay, which made for one hell of an interesting family meeting with her mother, my grandmother. She also earned a college degree — the first Fenske to do so — in social work and spent 20 years working with the underprivileged and forgotten kids in St. Louis County.
What made Caroline special to us — my cousins and me — though was she was always there for us. When our parents died, it was Caroline who made sure we were OK, that we had the love we needed. When we had kids, she celebrated more than we did, if that was possible.
“I always was a great aunt,” she would say, “but now it’s official, I’m a great aunt!”
She loved us fiercely, and I think with apologies to my mom, Lorna and Judy, she was all of the cousins’ favorite aunt. Her heart was as huge as her laugh, and the best thing that happened to us was Caroline’s retirement in 2010. It gave her and her partner, Logan, the chance to travel, and oh my God, did they seize the opportunity. Those two and their little R-Pod camper went everywhere for anything and everything.
She was Josh’s and Noah’s biggest fan. Driving through Iowa in October 2015, she called, found out that Josh was playing in a playoff football game and immediately set the navigation device to take them to Garner. OK, so she didn’t have a winter coat and it was 25 degrees, snowing and windy as all hell, but her great nephew was playing.
A few years later, there was Caroline standing with her two great nephews at the state track meet, beaming not just because Noah had medaled in the shot put but because she was with her “giant great nephews.”
She showed up for both of their graduation parties, parked the R-Pod at the Boy Scout Campground and went to work — always with that “Fenske laugh.”
Caroline was so much fun, so damn quirky, and she took “never met a stranger” to an extreme. She loved anyone and everyone. God, I’m going to miss her. She was always just a phone call away in the good times and the bad times, and her love was so damn unconditional.
And she had a great, albeit at times twisted, sense of humor.
Willie died in 2002, my dad passed away in 2004 and Lorna died in 2006.
On Jan. 1, 2009, at about 12:01 a.m., I was sitting in my home in Forest City when my phone rang. It was Caroline.
“Well, I made it,” she said.
“I broke the pattern.”
That she did, and truth be told, we all thought she’d outlive us all, but on Monday morning, while at my cousin Angel’s house, she left us. Like I said, I was devastated. So, too, were Robin, Abby, Josh and Noah.
After a long day at work, one in which I will admit that I was far from productive, I went home and started reading those tributes that poured in from all over the country from all types of people.
“The best human I’ve ever met died last night.”
And then I read Adam’s story. He met Caroline when he was in foster care.
“I’d met social workers plenty before. They came and went. But Caroline was more.”
He detailed how my aunt became his mentor, friend and grandmother, how my aunt taught him “how to eat” at Olive Garden before his first formal dance in high school, how my aunt bought him a new Abercrombie shirt because he was teased for “wearing the only one I had too many times in a row,” and how she took him to something called Dances for Universal Peace — that was very Caroline by the way — when he had no home to celebrate Christmas.
And Adam shared how Caroline always advocated for him — taking on his mom, her administrators at work, teachers, police and even himself.
“No one could do what Caroline could. She was truly special in the depth of her empathy and compassion.”
He pointed out that Caroline didn’t just do it for him but for dozens of her “grandchildren” and that people like him grew up to be better just because my aunt had touched their lives.
“Watching her interact with others and seeing how she cared for me taught me tolerance, patience, kindness and love. Fierce, unfettered, unconditional love. For yourself and for those around you.”
I’m sorry folks, this got long, but Caroline Pelzel was more than a great aunt. She was an extraordinary woman, and I guess my message to all of us today is this: Let’s be like Caroline.
And I’ll let Adam Larson finish this column, because even though he is a software engineer these days, he’s one hell of a writer.
“Knowing she’s gone hurts, but I feel oddly at peace with it relative to other recent hardships. Caroline lived fully and uncompromisingly. If her life wasn’t full and fulfilling, then it simply isn’t a possibility.”