2016 has been a rough year so far. Today one of my favorite people on the planet was laid to rest. I’m wearing a pair of little angel earrings she made herself and it makes me feel she is near.
My mother’s sister, Aunt J was Mom’s complete opposite. Mom was always so serious and “adult” while Aunt J was the fun one. She believed playing with her kids (and everyone else’s) was more important than housework, long before it became a “thing”.
One of the stories I heard from my mother’s childhood was of a time that Aunt J, five-and-a-half years’ my mother’s junior, was chasing Mom for some reason. Apparently they had gotten into an argument and Aunt J, always the scrappy, little fighter, wanted to hit my mother. My mom got to the house first and quickly closed and locked the door. Aunt J was so angry she kept telling her to “open it or I’m going to punch your face through this window!” My mother was apparently feeling quite brave and taunted Aunt J from the inside saying she wouldn’t dare. Sure enough, after a minute or so, Aunt J punched out the glass window of the backdoor and hit my mother in the nose! Feisty, little thing she was… always!
She was my first babysitter, watching me as an infant while my mom worked, and in later years, I would tease her that she was the reason I was overweight. As the story goes, my mother would drop me off two small jars of baby food, one for lunch and one for dinner. She refused to believe my aunt that it wasn’t enough as I would eat both at lunch. So Aunt J began giving me mashed potatoes and other table foods very early on because I was cranky if I wasn’t fed (some things never change…).
While I was growing up, Aunt J taught me some “inappropriate” songs, songs my mother didn’t approve of. As kids, we loved them because they were gross or “naughty”. We’d be in the car for one of our long rides from Massachusetts to Tennessee and Aunt J would lead us off with “Great big gobs of greasy, grimy gopher guts” or “3, 6, 9, the goose drank wine” and we would sing them for hours (or at least it seemed that way). She sang songs about lost loves, old country & western (back when the western was still included in country music), and gospel songs.
She had an affinity for costume jewelry, especially rings, the bigger the better, and loved to scour flea markets and estate sales for giant, flashy jewelry. On most people, these pieces would look gaudy and cheap. On Aunt J, they were exactly right as they suited her personality – bright and shiny and able to catch your eye. Despite the fact that she had the figure of an 8 year old boy, she would put on a bikini or halter top in the Summer and strut. She believed she was beautiful and so she was. She was the epitome of self-confidence, and I always envied her for that.
She had the biggest heart of anyone I know. She “collected” children. Despite having five of her own, her children’s friends also became surrogate kids and she would lecture and comfort them right along with her own. Aunt J knew no strangers, only friends she hadn’t met. But once she did meet them, they became fans.
A lifelong smoker, Aunt J’s health has been failing for the past several years. That didn’t stop her, my mother and their two living sisters (a fifth passed away from liver cancer in 1990) from spending every morning (and sometimes more often) on the phone. There would be two-way conversations, three-way conversations, house phone / cellphone conversations with both phones on speaker so everyone could hear each other. Two would talk and then disconnect the call to talk to another one. The sisters often lamented that they’d love to get together in person again, but that it was unlikely they would be able to, with Aunt J in Maine, my mother in Massachusetts and Aunts G and S in Tennessee.
Last year, our teenage son had the opportunity to study astrophysics at the PARI observatory atop a mountain in North Carolina. We were planning a road trip to drop him off and then head up north for my brother-in-law’s anniversary memorial service for his passing. I spoke to my husband about how it would be nice if we could find a way to bring G and S up north with us, then pick up Mom and bring all three of them to visit Aunt J. He looked at me like I was crazy. We were already looking at a long trip from Florida to New England, but when he saw how important it was to me, he didn’t hesitate further.
We didn’t tell Aunt J we were coming, just in case it didn’t happen. The morning we were driving up to Maine, Mom got on the phone and said “I’m coming to see you, J. Don’t worry, I’ve got a ride. I’ll see you soon.” She didn’t say a word about me or my two aunts being with her. When we pulled into the driveway and went into the house, I tiptoed into the living room and said hello. Aunt J was shocked and she hugged me and cried. She also started hyperventilating, which was concerning because she was on oxygen. I told her “Aunt J… I have another surprise for you, but you have to promise me you’re going to be OK before I can tell you about it.” She finally agreed that she would “behave” and her two sisters from Tennessee stepped through the doorway. There were hugs and tears of joy all around. I told her I had to leave, but I would be back “in a few days” to pick them up. She looked at me with the sweetest expression and tears in her eyes and said “don’t hurry”.
I left the four sisters together for the next several days where they talked and laughed and caught up with each others’ lives (although with all the talking they did on the phone every day I wonder how much “catching up” there really was to do). When my husband and I came back to collect everyone a few days later as promised, Aunt J wanted to give me something. She asked my husband to “stand guard” at the door, we pulled out her jewelry and went through each bag and box and piece where she kept insisting that I needed to pick something. I told her I couldn’t take her things, and she told me to “hush and take something! If I want to give it to you, I’ll give it to you!” At her insistence, I finally picked out a few pieces, including the earrings I have on today that she crafted herself. Nobody said no to Aunt J!
When we finally left that day, Aunt J just kept crying and hugging and thanking us for “bringing my sisters to me”. That trip was the kind of thing my husband did for me (with me?) that made him so special. He saw that it was important to me, and so it became important to him. Given how things ended up less than a year later, I’m so thankful we followed through with the plans. The sisters all have such wonderful memories from that trip and wasted no opportunity to thank us for doing it. The thing is, it wasn’t that big a deal; it wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t difficult, either. It took a little work, but the reward of seeing Aunt J’s face when her sisters walked through the door (and vice versa) was priceless and worth every second.
Aunt J kept calling me her “angel” during that visit, but she’s the one who has earned her wings. And she deserves them. Wonder what the other angels will think of gopher guts?
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