Tuesday, November 1, 2011


My aunt Sis Armstrong had another, given first name, but absolutely no one called her anything but Sis. I suppose that's because this late-blooming, intrepid traveler felt like kin to so many people. Sis passed away the other day, an unconventional person from a conventional background, who had an insatiable curiosity about the great world.

Sis didn't travel seriously until late middle-age, but by the time advancing years kept her from the road in her early eighties, she had seen first-hand parts of the world she only glimpsed in photos and dreams during her younger years: Spain, London and parts of southern England, Italy, much of Canada and the United States. In her later years, she typically traveled on customized tours with the estimable group Elderhostel, where professors and other experts gave talks and led tours of places visited.

She traveled independently, too, especially after she retired from a career in retail and work for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. A working-class woman who didn't go beyond high school and lived her whole life in the small city where she was born, she largely educated herself.

At age 70, Sis and my mother - who, at the same age, had never been on an airplane - flew from Pennsylvania to my home in California. Once on the ground, they trekked all over San Francisco on the city's less-than-stellar public transport system, never deterred by unknown territory or inconvenience. Sis walked right up San Francisco's famous, and steep, hills with robust strides.

When she was nearly 80, Sis went with a group from her church to the Lakota Sioux reservation in South Dakota, where she served as an unpaid volunteer teacher, building bridges between cultures. Inquisitive, intelligent, fearless and possessed of a keen social consciousness, she was a remarkable woman in many ways. Engaged with her community, she was known to many, a beloved figure. Sis was one of life's true travelers.

Rest in peace.

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