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Akst: Aunts Elaine and Margaret would have approved

Aunt Elaine and Aunt Margaret were two of the wisest people I have known.

Elaine taught high school math; Margaret began her career in public relations and later became a librarian. Both lived frugally in New York.

So frugally, in fact, that after careers in rewarding albeit low-paying professions, they retired while still fairly young.

After retirement, they both pursued their passions in life: golf and travel.

For about 30 years, Elaine and Margaret traveled all over the world. They visited more than 130 countries on every continent except Antarctica. They visited many countries multiple times (and, of course, all 50 states).

Their travel habits matched their lifestyle. They traveled inexpensively, often on cargo freighters. Once in the 1980s, their freighter carried weapons to El Salvador.

At places they visited, they tended to avoid the touristy locales, preferring instead small villages and towns where they met people and saw how life really was. They didn’t drink, eat at fancy restaurants or buy many souvenirs.

Often, golf was involved. Their motto was “Follow the sun.” They played on sand courses in the Middle East. They played everywhere golf is played.

When they tired of globe-trotting, they traveled America in a custom-­built RV that housed them, some essentials and their clubs.

The golf thing is amusing, but what fascinates me is the travel. I believe Margaret and Elaine gained more and deeper knowledge of human life on a global scale than any fantasy team of presidents, priests or sociologists you could assemble.

The travel bug bit them early. In 1951, as part of her first PR job (marketing Tide detergent to Europeans), Margaret got the chance to travel to London. Elaine went along.

While waiting to cross the English Channel from England to France, the two attended a needle arts show. They met Queen Elizabeth. They were in the receiving line, shook hands with the queen and were mortified they were the only two ladies not wearing evening gloves.

They bought small motorcycles and rode them through “the free countries” of western Europe. They garnered a private audience with Pope Pius XII.
I forget how that happened.

I’ve never met or heard of anyone who lived as profoundly as Margaret and Elaine. Forrest Gump’s life seems boring by comparison.

But time caught them, and eventually they established a permanent base. They settled down at a wonderful retirement community near Albany, N.Y. They were politically conservative and donated money to various causes, most involving children or Native Americans.

Margaret died in 2007 and is buried in Utica, N.Y. Elaine died last year and is buried next to Margaret. They had carefully planned and paid for funeral arrangements long ago.

By this point in the story, perhaps you suspected a continuity flaw.

Elaine was my father’s sister, a biological aunt. “Aunt” Margaret was the only title I had heard since childhood. She was of no biological relation to me.

Elaine and Margaret loved each other and spent more than half a century together. And though conservative, I think they would have approved of Illinois becoming the 15th state to legalize gay marriage.

I know I do.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter (@jasonakst).

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