There are many stories within a life story. When I reflect on the life of my beloved cousin Caron Hill Roudebush, I remember so many stories of her dance through life with humor, strength of spirit, unconditional love for family and friends and joy in each day.
There is the story of her birth on May 7, 1940, in the sunny front bedroom of a house in Burlington, Kansas. She was the first child of Evelyn Curtis Hill and Elmer Hill. Their landlady had welcomed them as a couple but said she didn't like to rent to families with young children. Caron's birth changed her mind: she fell hopelessly in love with the winsome dark-eyed baby girl and happily helped to care for her. The family would eventually move to Kansas City, however, where Elmer was hired as a mechanic for TWA. Her mother, who had a brief career as a teacher before her marriage, was a loving stay at home mom to Caron and her younger brother Jack.
Caron spent many happy days of her childhood visiting our grandparents' farm in Toronto, a small eastern Kansas town that was still thriving in her childhood. Caron had so many memories from those days, far more than the rest of the grandchildren who were born after World War II. She was the only grandchild to know and love her Uncle George. They played together on the farm and he adored her, writing to my mother that she was "the cutest, most beautiful little girl ever." Caron went to the train station with our grandparents to see him off to war in July 1944. She and Grandma burst into tears as he boarded the train. They held each other on the drive back to the farm, weeping together as Grandma moaned "I'll never see him again." Four months later, George was shot down over Germany, dead at the age of 24. Decades later, the memory of Uncle George waving and blowing her kisses through the train window as she cried would still bring tears to Caron's eyes.
As we played and danced, sharing secrets, stories and dreams throughout our childhoods, Caron was so much more than a cousin to me. She was like a wise and affectionate older sister who told me she loved me every time we talked and, throughout my life from childhood to my ungainly teens and all the decades beyond, she told me that I was beautiful.
She was the beautiful one, though, even winning a local beauty contest. And she was popular in high school with a great group of friends who called themselves The Divas and vowed to be friends for life. (They kept that promise!) But the most beautiful aspect of her life -- a wonderful love story -- began at the end of their freshman year when she and Bud Roudebush discovered each other.
She was giddy in love when she came to spend the summer of 1955 with us in California, to help out after my sister Tai was born. She wrote to Bud every day as I hung over her shoulder. Sometimes, but not always, she would let me read his replies. Once she wrote him a note with all the words for "Unchained Melody", a hit song that summer: "Oh, my love, my darling...I hunger for your touch." We eagerly awaited his reply and laughed when it arrived: 'Caron! What happened to you? Did you fall on your head or something?" Even though the memory of that unique mail exchange faded for them, "Unchained Melody" became their special song for decades to come.
Caron's high school days were a blur of parties and dances and just hanging out with Bud and The Divas. She begged her parents to let her drop out of school and get married. They insisted that she finish high school and attend a secretarial course first. She and Bud were married on February 15, 1959. After a tour of duty with the Air Force, Bud worked as a surveyor while Caron was a stay at home mom to their children Cescilie, Aaron and Jason. She returned to work as a school secretary to help pay for their college expenses. Even with the inevitable challenges of life -- raising three bright, lively and resourceful children, then watching the nest empty -- their love only grew.
As Caron and Bud danced and loved and grew through all the transitions of their lives together, Caron never stopped exploring, learning and triumphing over obstacles along the way. After her kids finished college, Caron began taking classes at a local community college, finding herself drawn to a scientific curriculum. She had a perfect 4.0 gpa and was surprised when her advisor told her that she had earned enough credits for her Associate's degree. That graduation was very special to her.
"Imagine!" she told me. "I'm smart! In high school, I was too focused on being in love and getting married to care about academics. I wouldn't change a thing, of course, but it's nice to know officially that I'm smart!"
She was also graceful and strong, studying Hawaiian dance, exercising daily and giving her eldest grandsons a run for their money in basketball sessions. When I visited in 2007, Caron, 67 by then, was nursing a broken arm, suffered when she leapt into the air to make a successful jump shot and then fell during a fiercely competitive basketball practice with her teenage grandsons. She had just as fiercely fought and won a battle against breast cancer some years earlier and now she glowed with good health. She was dedicated to healthy eating, exercise and lifestyle changes, having given up her longtime smoking habit as she entered midlife.
Bud, in the meantime, focused on his long-time interest and talents as a photographer, particularly enjoying capturing Caron's growth from teenager to grandmother with special love. He also took some breathtaking photos during their travels -- to see hot air balloons in New Mexico, ride a train through the Rockies, explore the Egyptian pyramids on the backs of camels and the beauty of the countrysides and capitals of Europe during several trips abroad. Winning a small state lottery in midlife had enabled them to plan for both financial security and fun. We all rejoiced in their good fortune, happy that they had a chance to travel the world together while still healthy and active.
By 2010, Caron began to experience unmistakable symptoms of COPD. As her condition worsened, Bud finally retired to take care of her.
As her dependence on him grew, he was careful to honor her independent spirit. One morning when I was visiting in 2013, Bud, Caron, her brother Jack and I were sitting around having coffee, talking and laughing. Bud finally looked at Caron and said "You know, Caron, I'm enjoying our conversation so much that I'd like to go into the bathroom with you when you take your shower so we can continue our talk. Would that be all right with you?"
She smiled. "Why yes," she said.. "I would like that very much!"
We all knew that Caron couldn't shower without Bud's assistance. Yet, he always made it her choice to have him accompany her.
We talked a lot about the past -- our past, our mothers' pasts -- during that visit. I teased Caron gently about the many artifacts from the old farm that had landed in her home: our grandparents' bed in the guest room, the small children's chairs on the hearth that had once belonged to our mothers and then later to Caron and Jack when they were small.
We had made many trips back to the tiny town of Toronto by then. Our last trip there together, in 2013, brought up wistful memories: the ice cream parlor where grandma would take us for special treats and the small town library where our Great Aunt Floss held forth as librarian, story teller and town news conduit, the hardware store initially owned by Uncle Elmer's family. The hardware store, the library and the ice cream parlor were all shuttered by 2013. In fact, all of the town's storefronts were empty. Toronto School, a magnificent brick building, stood gleaming in the late spring sun -- but it had been empty for years. Caron, Jack and I looked at each other and sighed.
On our journey to Toronto that year, we drove through Burlington and parked in front of the house where Caron was born. It had held up well and sported a new coat of paint. Caron looked at that house, at the windows of the front bedroom where her life began and she sighed once more. "So many memories," she said quietly.
In these later years, Bud has taken over the housework and cooking as well as caregiving. But Caron's mind was sharp and she was fully engaged with family and friends. Reading my memoir, "The Crocodiles Will Arrive Later", shortly after its November 2020 publication, Caron told me that she wasn't shocked to read about the terror and chaos caused by my father's mental illness and alcoholism, but she found it immensely sad that my brother, sister and I had lived through so much pain. "I hope you know that you had no part in your father's unhappiness no matter what he told you," she said. "We're all responsible for ourselves. We decide what kind of life we're going to have, what kind of day we're going to have each morning when we get up. And I hope you know, too, that I love you very, very, very much!"
I told her that I loved her, too, and was so proud of her for making it to 80 -- something she had not been sure she could manage. It was an age landmark that had eluded our mothers and their sister Ruth. My mother died at 67. Aunt Evelyn and Aunt Ruth had passed away at 79. I told Caron that she was an inspiration.
Being an inspiration took a toll: Caron was in and out of the hospital four times in the past year with a variety of health crises, including a coronavirus infection that was not Covid-19, but that proved a grueling ordeal nonetheless. "You kicked the coronavirus' butt!" her son Jason told her as she left the hospital. Caron laughed ruefully and replied "But I think it took a big bite out of mine!"
Through it all, Bud has been by her side, holding her as they listened to their favorite music and danced in their hearts with a lifetime of warm memories. Bud never complained, only expressed his joy and good fortune in spending so many years with the love of his life.
During the challenges of the past year, the Garth Brooks song "The Dance", especially the last two lines, held special meaning for him:
My life is better left to chance.
I could have missed the pain, but I'd have had to miss the dance.
They danced an imaginary dance as they held each other, quietly celebrating their 62nd wedding anniversary on February 15.
Time moves on steadily, relentlessly. And there are so many losses along the way.
Jack recently returned alone to Toronto to walk the deserted streets we ran through joyously as children, fully immersed in the delights of a town where everyone felt like -- and often was -- family. Now the small family farms have been gobbled up by sprawling factory farms. A dam project 60 years ago that was supposed to make Toronto a water wonderland and tourist destination simply devoured more farmland and devastated the local economy. Now the town's demise is nearly complete. Jack walked past houses and stores that were not only shuttered but were also collapsing. He was astonished to see that Toronto School is being demolished and its bricks sold as souvenirs of a past we'll never see again.
Caron's joyous dance through life, ended on February 26. She took her last breath, gently, quietly, with Bud holding her hand.
The pain of her loss is great. We will miss her forever. But there is music in warm memories and warm memories in music. Oh, what a dance of joy, love, laughter and courage Caron's life turned out to be!