Dorothy Sill Tyler
By Rev. Dr. Jennifer Davidson, Professor of Theology & Worship
It was the kind of thing that only a six-year-old would notice. We were all standing in the foyer of our home saying goodbye to the family who had come to dinner that night. Animated grown-up conversation danced above my head as my grandparents and aunt and uncle were putting on their coats, getting ready to head out into the frigid winter night. Someone asked my Great-Aunt Dot a question that required her to add up a couple of numbers. I don’t remember the specific question or the precise math problem she needed to solve on the fly. What I do remember, plain as day, was what I observed at exactly six-year-old eye level—my Aunt Dot silently counting out her answer on her fingers, pressing each finger ever so slightly into her leg to keep track of the numbers in her head. Aunt Dot smiled at me and winked. I breathed a sigh of relief.
In my little kid mind, I had already determined that I was not a numbers person. Math, even simple addition and subtraction, did not come easily for me. Numbers were frightening imps with minds of their own. Every individual number up to twenty had its own personality, I thought. Twos were congenial and easy going. Nines were cantankerous and fought against being added to or subtracted from anything. Most of the teens felt similarly about being deployed in any math problem—they just wanted to be left alone, for crying out loud. If someone asked me to solve a math problem, my brain turned to static. Only counting on my fingers could save me, but I thought it was babyish and that I was dumb.
Until that night. My Aunt Dot, clever and quick witted as she was, filled my heart with acceptance and comfort when I saw her silently counting out her numbers on her fingers. A grown up, and not just any grown up, but Aunt Dot, still counted on her fingers. Well, I will too!
It is a simple story about a woman who has made all the difference in my life. It is one of those moments that carries no historical weight or importance to anyone but me. Almost no one remembers my Aunt Dot anymore. She married when she was well into her forties and did not have children of her own. You will not find her in a history book or celebrated on a saint’s day. But she has inspired me for as long as I remember, and I have lived my life trying to be like her. Not because she counted on her fingers. But because she lived in a way that glorified (that is revealed) God to me.
Graduated from high school in 1936 (I still wear her class ring to this day), Aunt Dot was one of the few women I knew who went to college. And she was the only woman I knew who had gone to seminary. She was devoted to her faith early on and went on to work as an editor for the publishing arm of American Baptist Churches. (It was at the denominational headquarters in Philadelphia that my Aunt Dot strategically introduced a lovely young photographer in her department to her nephew who worked in the art department. The two eventually married and became my parents.) Aunt Dot wrote poetry and gifted me poetry—A Child’s Book of Poems was my go-to reading whenever I was home sick in bed. And, gosh, could she laugh. I can still hear her laughter echoing in my memory and it makes me smile.
Though she had never smoked a day in her life, Aunt Dot died soon after being diagnosed with lung cancer when I was 12 years old. Her death was a devastating loss to me, but I soon felt that her spirit was my companion. I was a Christian myself when she died. I knew that people said I should try to be like Jesus. But that felt like a goal that was very far away for me. Instead, I began to pray that God would help me be more like Aunt Dot. So, I wrote poetry. And I went to Eastern College because I knew she had attended Eastern Baptist Seminary. And I went to seminary in part because I knew she had. And I continue to seek to live from my faith in joyful ways (with lots of laughter), because that was how Aunt Dot had lived. Oh, and I still count on my fingers.