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It wasn't until my 91-year-old aunt's funeral that I truly appreciated how inspiring she was

A woman as a bride, middle-aged mom, and nurse.
Lesley Challen was a devoted wife, mother, and nurse.Courtesy of Phil Challen
  • My aunt, Lesley Challen, died in late 2023 at the age of 91.

  • I watched her funeral online because I couldn't be there in person.

  • The eulogies praised the strength of her character and made me fully appreciate her legacy.

I was never particularly close to my Aunt Lesley — whom I called Auntie Lesley — mostly because we lived a 5-hour drive from each other, and I saw her only occasionally.

Somewhat selfishly, when we met, I enjoyed being spoiled by her. She had three sons and sometimes said she'd have liked a daughter, too.

She once took me and my sister to an English afternoon tea at an upscale hotel. We went shopping, and she bought us jewelry as a special treat.

I certainly admired her — she was disabled and had been a single mom for nearly 50 years — and I told her so in 2018 when I saw her for the last time.

Still, it wasn't until I watched Lesley's funeral in December 2023 that I truly realized what a great role model she was. I couldn't be there in person, but I felt inspired when each of my relatives gave a eulogy.

Here are some aspects of her personality that I'd like to inherit.

She never said, 'Why me?'

My uncle Geoffrey died suddenly when Lesley was 44. She went on to raise my cousins, aged 16, 15, and 11, alone.

Then, in 1981, at the age of 50, she had an accident during a night shift as a nurse. It resulted in a cerebral hemorrhage and paralysis. She used a stick, followed by a wheelchair.

Still, as her eldest son, Nick, said at the funeral, "She never felt self-pity and made the best of things."

His brother, Phil, made a similar observation, "Looking back, none of us can remember a single occasion when she played the 'Why me?' card and moaned about fate. She just accepted what life threw at her and got on with it."

She overcame obstacles

Lesley learned to write with her right hand following the accident. She had to retake her driving test. She passed with flying colors in an adapted car. She gardened a quarter of an acre of land from her wheelchair.

"There's nothing in life that can't be got over," she told people.

She traveled the world, visiting countries as far afield from her native England as Australia, New Zealand and America. Long-haul flights were never an issue.

An older woman with three men who are her sons.
Challen with her three sons whom she raised as a single mom.Courtesy of Phil Challen

In 1988, by coincidence, we happened to be on vacation in San Francisco at the same time. We went to the Japanese tea garden — yes, there is a theme here — and she whispered the stages of the tea ceremony in my ear.

Lesley stayed curious until the end. She studied at the University of the Third Age, a network of learning groups in the UK. It helps older people share their knowledge, interests and skills. She spoke passable French and played Scrabble to keep her mind sharp.

She was the life and soul of the party

My cousin mentioned my aunt's love of poetry at the funeral and her entertaining rendition of poems.

She could reel off the Alfred Noyes' ballad "The Highwayman." She knew Lord Byron's "The Destruction of Sennacherib" word for word. She took center stage to tell ghost stories around a campfire.

I realized that Lesley's performances had entered family lore. I know some of the words in those poems but had forgotten that my aunt introduced me to them as a child.

It has inspired me to learn them by heart. I'll recite them to my children, hoping they'll pass them on through the generations.

She enjoyed the finer things in life — but stayed grounded

Lesley was always immaculately dressed, favoring cashmere scarves with a stylish brooch. Her eyebrows were groomed, and her skin was glowing. Phil told me that she swore by facial scrubs from Sweden.

"I want to look my best," she said when I complimented her on her outfit on that final time we met.

She spent the last five years of her life in a senior living facility that was more like a 5-star hotel.

A newlywed couple in a black and white photograph.
Geoffrey and Lesley Challen on their wedding day.Courtesy of Phil Challen

But it never went to her head. Lesley was 7 when World War II broke out. There was rationing. It was a time of make-do and mend.

She followed the same principles when her eyesight and hearing began to fade. "As she aged, her 32-inch television became unusable," Phil said at the funeral. "But, when I suggested she buy a larger TV, she insisted there was nothing functionally wrong with her old one."

He summed up his mother's character as "adaptable, resilient, capable, remarkable, and complicated." While I'm sad that I only fully recognized her qualities after she died, she has taught me a lot.

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