Monday, May 11, 2020

Memories of an Aunt Who Lit Up the World with Her Trademark Joie de vivre

If we were given the chance to choose the day on which we departed planet Earth, and only the day, and nothing else, one wonders what day we would choose. As I pondered the phone call I’d received from my cousin, Craig, letting me know that my Aunt Beatrice had transitioned into her “next place” of afterlife, Heaven, I had to stop and think about how amazing it was that she was going to get to spend her first Mother’s Day in 56 years with her own mother, and rejoin the company of her older sister, my Mother, who helped raise her as a young child. Not thinking back on those left behind who would miss her terribly, I focused instead on what life had to offer her, at long, long last.

[Left: Aunt Bea and Mom, 1988, in Houston]

When you reach the point in life where medical issues overtake your world and pain and suffering are a regular expectation of each new day, to quote Aunt Bea, “It stinks.” She admonished all of us from time to time: “Never get old. It’s a bore.” I used to laugh when she said it because she herself was laughing. Her trademark laughter was good enough to yank you out of whatever crummy mood you were in and jerk you back into a better frame of mind.

All of 86 years ago, when Bea was born in 1933, in St. Louis, Missouri, she was born at home, the way most babies of the day were. Hospital deliveries were still coming into being. The world as we knew it then was in the midst of the worst year of the depression. There was 25% unemployment and Hitler had just come into power. There was a drought in the Midwest, times were tough everywhere. My Mother was only 10 years old when her baby sister was born, the sixth child of her family to arrive, but one who’d been many years following the first group of five children. Her brothers had brown, blond and red hair, and she took after her brother, Douglas, whose trademark red hair and green eyes set them apart from their sibings, but only slightly since they all resembled one another in many other ways.

A truly sensitive creature, Bea grew up empathetic towards any living creature God created, as well as giving friendship, love and time to all the people in her world. She was a delight and especially did her older brother Douglas use some of the money he made from delivering prescriptions on his bicycle for Walgreen’s Pharmacy, a chain founded in neighboring Chicago in 1901, to buy his baby sister lots and lots of penny candy, and she’d squeal with delight when he came riding up, a little sack in his basket just for her. Going through school, she was a beautiful girl, with long red tresses and Mom spent hours helping her style her hair just so, and delighted in shopping with and for her as she dressed for school. In fact, Bea was Mom’s “practice run” on raising me, I do believe. We’d compare notes from time to time and I must say that Mom was consistent, if nothing else, ha.

When Bea married and eventually became a mother to Craig and his sister Cynthia there were two children who were adored, loved, and who formed the world around which she orbited. She loved being a mother and she had a “day job” to boot while they were in school. During the years when the entire family got together at our grandparents’ home, there was always a lot of laughter, good food, and many happy memories were created.

Fast forward to when my grandmother became a widow at an age far younger than she’d expected. I’m blurry on the details of exactly when, but Bea and her family moved in with Grandmother to make sure she wouldn’t be alone and to help take care of her. Both Bea and her husband Roland were devoted to her and she stayed young by having Craig and Cynthia around the house with daily updates from school to report. She was a good babysitter until the parents got off work and she felt needed, the most important factor of all.

Grandmother died in1974, and Bea and Roland bought the house as their homestead so Bea had only lived outside of the home she was born in for a very short time, relatively speaking. This home was the smaller of the homes my Mom and her siblings had grown up in. They’d had a much larger house before the depression but my Grandfather found his salary cut in half one day so the family had to move.

It was a typical midwestern house with two stories plus a basement, and it backed up to where a giant hospital complex was slowly overtaking the neighborhood. For the past 30 or 40 years, the family could have sold the house but Bea refused. She was determined to stay in the home she was born in, even though living primarily on the second floor of the home where the plumbing necessitated such was to the consternation of each family member who knew how hard it was for her to navigate stairs. There were some points on which she would not budge. Her rules. Her way.

As time went on and her children became adults she was blessed with two grandsons, Andrew and Aaron, and her world propelled back into massive joy once again because she loved little children and loved being a Grandmother. She loved the name too, and didn’t need another moniker, happily accepted Grandma or Grandmother as he own mother had been called.

As is typical in our family, not every family member is in sync with the lives of the others. Geographical distance often makes it an impossibility to stay connected and then time does some more separating and people get busy with their own lives. In 1988, I decided that what my Mom needed was to see her sister in person, and since she was not a fan of airplanes if she didn’t have to travel, Aunt Bea was willing to come to Texas. I decided to make it a surprise for Mom’s birthday.

I will always remember the day that I told Mom I was taking her to lunch but to get dressed up for a nice treat. Both those gals always dressed to the nines in those days, whether or not it was casual Friday in some office. They were raised to dress for the airplane; heck, so was I. Today you see kids traveling in glorified pajamas but…I digress. At any rate, I don’t think I’d been able to come up with any other present before or since that brought Mom as much joy as seeing her baby sister once again. It had been 14 years since my grandmother’s funeral…but it might as well have been 41. It was just too long between.

There were tears, squeals of joy, and I couldn’t stop smiling…as an only child, I’d never known or experienced what it was like to have a sibling, but from my POV, it was awesome to see. We drove across town to meet up with Virginia, another sister, and then we were joined by youngest sister, Sharon. There were enough photos taken that day to fill scrapbooks for years. Bea stayed with us for two weeks and I delighted in having her with us in College Station as it intersected with a program that one of my graduate classes in educational administration was having.

The class was Educational Futures and the instructor was an inspirational critical thinker who had each of us planning what our futures would be like, as we saw them, 20 years hence. We could invite guests for our presentation, and I had two of my buddies coming to participate in my segment (my script called for guest stars)….so I invited Mom and Aunt Bea to see what I’d cooked up. It had been a good 30 years since any kind of elementary school program, ha, and it was a hoot to have them there.

Following the presentation, Aunt Bea rushed up and told me how proud she was of me, that she loved my presentation and that I was “simply wonderful!” I said, “Thank you so much but do you know why I can do what I do?” She said, “No, darling, but you’re just grand at it!” I laughed and said, “Don’t you remember when I finished my undergraduate degree that you told me you’d have been proud of me even if I flunked kindergarten?” She paused and said…”yessss.” I said, “Well, with that kind of unconditional love and support, I don’t fear failure!” She seemed moved by the revelation but I was perfectly serious. Mom, of course, was proud but she stood back and let her baby sister have center stage with my time, as she would.

That would be the last in-person visit between the sisters for the next 16 years, but not the last communication. In the weeks, months and years that followed, the girls exchanged notes, cards, gifts, cassette tapes with recorded messages that brought delight between the sisters upon each hearing. Many tapes were recorded over as the messages went back and forth. I wish they could have had Facetime back then but they were happy for whatever technology offered them at the time.

In 2005, for the first time, I could no longer take care of Mom in my home. Her health required more intensive care and I couldn’t lift her by myself when she needed assistance. It was the toughest decision that we made but we made it together, to make the move to a local nursing community. And Aunt Bea roared into the next gear and made sure Mom felt vital, active and not like a burden that needed managing, the way she’d felt.

Instead, she helped Mom understand that I loved her enough to find her the very best place for care and reassured her that whenever I could I’d be there. She convinced her to help me help her. Aunt Bea did all of that, and I never expected to need it, but when it was needed, she was right there and knew exactly what to say when I didn’t. Of course, I was present at the senior community three times a day and on every shift. It was only 3 months that passed before Mom passed away, but every day was made pleasant because of Bea’s help. Bea called her at least three times a day as well.

Bea and her daughter, my cousin, Cynthia, came to see Mom there in March for a week, and that made Mom so happy. In April, Bea came back on her own, rode the bus all the way from St. Louis, and was with Mom during what would be the close-to-final days of Mom’s life. Bea had a hard time, too, seeing her first hero beginning the transition, so the price she paid was bigger than she’d imagined. But that’s what love is, and that is what—sometimes—families do for one another. It all depends on so many variables as to what is or is not the relationship between siblings. Suffice it to say that “your mileage may vary,” but in this case, the sisters were faithful presences to other all of their lives as best they could be given time and circumstances; they did their very best.

Many of the cousins have their own memories of Bea…she was an advocate and hero to my cousin Diana, she adored the next-gen grandchildren, too, but especially to her grandchildren and great grandchildren. Her children were always, in her retelling, doing fabulous things, she was always so proud of them, and they brought her great joy as they took care of her during her lifetime. Her husband Roland and she cared for her widowed mother-in-law in their home practically all of Bea’s adult life. Her mother-in-law lived to the age of 106, so there was really not much of a time that Bea and Roland had their very own home together, no empty nest, per se. Bea wouldn’t have known what to do with an empty nest; such a foreign concept would have confounded her.

In our lifetimes we find people in our path who are our advocates, with unconditional enthusiasm, love and support for our success, true kindred spirits of the creative soul, and sometimes they are not even related to us directly. For all the lives she touched in her career work, whom we didn’t know about but existed anyway, for the childhood faithful friend she kept all of her life, Janet, and whom she got to see usually once a year, for her sister-in-law Maxine, who was like another sister to her, and for all she loved who were fortunate enough to see her in action—we all learned how to give and receive love. No phone call is complete without exchanging “I love you’s,” and no family gathering takes places without hugs and kisses. It’s just the way we all are and again, your mileage may vary. James Taylor described Bea best with the lyrics, “Shower the people you love with love, show them the way that you feel. Things are going to work out fine, if you only do as I say to you. Shower the people you love with love.”

As I write this tonight, the tail end of Mother’s Day, I have to smile to think about the first Mother’s Day in heaven for Bea. There had to have been massive rejoicing as family members gathered round to welcome their baby sister into the world they now live in. No matter what it looks like or how inept I am at imagining it…one thing I know for sure….there is great joy for Bea tonight as she is no longer in pain. I choose not to feel a loss as much as I choose to be grateful for her release from the bonds of earth.

Ha…she’d have been proud of me if I’d have flunked kindergarten….now that, my friends, is unconditional love in a beautiful box with a bow all over it. Happy Mother’s Day, Aunt Bea, and tell everyone I said, “Hello” and give them my love. We’re all doing fine down here, and we’ll keep going on as we’re supposed to. I know you will.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Album Covers, Mothers, and Remembering Days Gone By

Last week, longtime family friend, Jeffrey, nominated me for the 10-day album cover challenge—you know the one where you post only the album cover without a word of explanation—just the album cover. For someone who always feels motivated to explain (to perhaps prevent ridicule, anticipating it in advance), I knew it would be a challenge but I accepted. For so many years of my early life, I can remember being made fun of. My mother told me to ignore it if people made fun of me. I said, "okay" and never worried about it again. In fact, I got good at ignoring it.

I was 18 months younger than most of the kids in my class. Please understand, I was far from a prodigy, nowhere near one. It’s just that to repeat kindergarten to get to the acceptable age of entering first grade would have been a waste. I’d started learning phonics and loved reading. And so began my time in a school whose motto was “for those who can meet the challenge.” Custom made for this one…I was a challenge all right. My mother had told her family for years that she wanted five children. After all, she was one of eight children and she loved the entire concept of a large family, and she even mother-henned the youngsters who came after her. She had two older brothers who adored her but inevitably she was the one worrying about the rest of her brood.

And so I found it amusing one day when I was about age 13, I quizzed her about wanting five children. I said, “Are you disappointed you just had the one child? Would you rather have had all five?” Without hesitation she answered, “Honey, you were my five.” And she smiled sweetly. Oh dear. I guess I was. Sorry, Mama. But no matter what my question du jour was, she had an answer….she must have developed that practice after some initial field training because my go-to question was always: “What are we going to do next, Mom?” And, she always had an answer. It might, “go to the grocery store” or “we’re going to get Aunt Emma and Charlotte and bring them to the house,” or it might even be, “we’re going home so you can get a nap.”

As long as I had an answer and knew what to expect, I was fine. It was the unknown that used to bother me. I liked to plan. I was an organized little kid and nothing made me happier than a new binder, a package of loose-leaf filler paper (narrow-ruled please), a new package of Bic pens (oh, I had much to learn about pens, but…that would come), and a pencil protector. In my first seven years on earth, I’d undergo many changes in my routine, if you could call it that. Expecting the traditional two-parent household was something I never expected because my parents divorced when I was five. It was far from acrimonious, fortunately, and it didn’t leave me scarred. It simply prepared me to always have a Plan B, and the option to fall back on it if Plan A went south.

Then in the two years that followed, I lost my godfather and my grandfather, all by the age of 7. Expecting to have the advocacy of the elder statesmen in my world went flying out the window, too. So, I started to search for others in whose continuity and consistency I could place my trust. They were there, in family and extended family, so I cannot claim there was a void. And, it was in how my mom prepared me to say goodbye when those we love on Earth transition into the next place, which she called Heaven. I learned about how to attend a funeral, and from my mother I learned to be brave at all times, and to have faith, and remember the ones we loved always.

Over the years, I’d be attending the funerals of mentors, teachers, and even classmates all too soon, but I was never afraid to go in a funeral home. Another place I was comfortable was in hospitals, both in waiting rooms and in the patients’ rooms. One of the two men who started the school I attended from grades 1-12 vowed to be a parental influence on me from the day I walked into the admissions office with my Mom. Timing was right for both of us, as it turns out he’d been caregiving for his mom, and she would come to pass away shortly after my arrival there. My parents’ divorce had occurred a few months before I’d entered school. Void filled.

And yet, there were several instances I observed (without my mom seeing me observing them) that showed me that not all was right with the world. It was the 1960s, and women were second-class citizens back then. Women could not apply for credit in their own name, usually, and even if they wanted to sign a document for which they were fully qualified, a husband’s name was always required as co-signator. Today’s newest adults still appear shocked that such was a reality for the generation that came in their grandparents’ generation, but it was a different world back then, too.

The local pharmacist wanted to shut down the monthly “tab” that we’d had for 5 years simply because my parents divorced. I do recall hearing him say, “But who will be responsible for this bill each month?” and my mother saying, “I will, because I was the one who was working to pay for it every month before it.” He had no snappy comeback answer and her determination convinced him he needn’t worry that it would be paid. He was paid and he never had to worry. I do believe that she told him that I would be asking him to buy a small ‘ad’ in the school yearbook in a few weeks and she’d appreciate his careful attention to my request. Mama was something else again. Did I mention she was Irish? Well, there’s that and several other genetic heritage combos in the mix but…just the Irish part explains everything.

Mama taught me never to fear hearing the word, “no.” There were many things we could not afford when I was a child but I was always to tell her what my wishes were and the item would go on her list. Then, if and when we could afford it, she would get it if I still wanted it. My grandmother chastised her for being so brutally honest about finances with me as a “child,” but Mom overrode her mother’s protests, explaining that I would adapt better if I heard “why” the answer came back “no,” rather than feeling negated. She was right. I needed to know “why” and “what was next” as my earliest precepts. Mama could do pretty much anything she put her mind to. She could reupholster a chair, put down a new tile floor in the kitchen (although at age 10, I got pretty good at it myself and sat her in a corner while I finished up under her watchful supervision), she painted the entire outside of our one-story house and for a woman who hated heights to be up on a ladder, you just had to know Mama. No one else there to do it, she just accepted it and got it done, with not one complaint.

She even, to the shock and awe of our next door neighbor, changed the spark plugs in our old Ford Falcon one day, without the proper tools, and the car started and ran fine. I thought my neighbor was going to faint as he said, “But you have to have a kit and a timing light to know where they go in” and Mom’s answer was, “Well, I looked at how they were set, lined it up in my sight, and put them in the way I thought they were before. He gave me this smile like “Your Mom is extraordinary” and he went home telling his wife, with whom I’d been visiting, how he’d never seen anything like it before.

I loved talking with grownups, neighbors and parents of my classmates….in fact anyone who was a good 20-25 years older than I would qualify as fascinating. It was a good thing to keep me from getting bored, I think, so Mom encouraged me to learn from everyone around me. And I did. Now, back to the album covers. In posting the album cover for day 3 this week, and the approaching date of Mother’s Day, I dropped into Memory Lane, forgetting for a time as the breeze blew past me, sitting on the wall of my flower boxes outside my home. The sun was out, the wind blew gently, and the locusts or some other creatures were making gentle noises in the trees outside.

How had I come to pick Skeeter Davis’s album, “I’ve Forgotten More Than You’ll Ever Know (About Him)” for my day 3? It started like this. Recorded in June 1962 at the RCA studios in Nashville, produced by Chet Atkins, with Floyd Cramer on piano was a two-minute song called “The End of the World.” The artist who sang it was Skeeter Davis.

Part of it was the sorrow-filled strains of the steel guitar and the countenance of the lovely young woman singing, “I can’t understand, no I can’t understand, how life goes on the way it does.” I was five years old and I got it. The spoken part of the song “Why does my heart go on beating, why do these eyes of mine cry?” That part just ripped my heart out as I was the most literal little child you’d ever met. I felt her pain as she sang and the words seared through me as I felt so badly for her pain. Every time I heard that song on the radio, I’d just break down and cry.

Usually, I was a happy child and laughter was my normal response to life, just as my Mom’s was. But not when this song came on. Mom was usually good with using logic with me, as I had to work my way through things. Things I did not understand then, as still today, make me cranky when they don’t make sense. If it defied logic, it disturbed me. Mom tried more than one time to explain that Skeeter really was not unhappy, she was not crying and that it was “just a song.”

I wasn’t having any of it. I countered with, “She would not be saying those words if she didn’t mean them. She is in pain!” And so it went for a while. That song would be around for a total of nine months as it eventually reached the #2 spot on Billboard’s chart by March, 1963. But somewhere in the middle of that, Mama found the solution to my woes.

Turns out the Grand Ol’ Opry was coming to San Antonio’s Municipal Auditorium and the entire big league “A” team was on board. I believe the bill included Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Locklin, Little Jimmy Dickins, Miss Minnie Pearl, and Skeeter Davis herself would be appearing. The tickets were $3.00 each and friends, back then, a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese was $.25 and a loaf of bread was $.22. The average wage was $4,400/year or $84/week. The tickets at $6.00 was substantial.

The first thing Mom did was buy the tickets. Next, she began her quest to locate where Skeeter was staying in San Antonio. Mama should have been a private investigator (but she trained me well, haha) as I heard her dialing all the hotel switchboards and asking for her, and explaining why she was trying to reach her. As fate would have it, Mama eventually found the right hotel and was put directly through to Skeeter when the operator heard the “why” behind the call.

It only took about three minutes before I heard Mama saying, “That is wonderful. I appreciate this so much.” What “this” turned out to be was our arriving early, long before the show started at the Municipal Auditorium. This event is marked in time as amazing as Mama was early, something she wasn’t very good at sometimes. If it was important to me, she was early or on time, but the rest of the time, not as much.

I was wearing a little white sailor dress, my little white hat, matching Mary Jane shoes and gloves, if I can recall. I had my little autograph book in my hand, and we entered a side door where my mother gave her name to the security guard and we were ushered backstage and for the first time, the other side of the stage was revealed to me. I loved it. I loved the lights, the ropes and pulleys and curtains and massive ceilings. It seemed very, very big to a little girl. That, I thought, was where all the magic happened.

We were shown to Skeeter’s dressing room and I rushed up to her and she had open arms waiting for me. I turned around and looked at Mom, and said, “She’s okay! She’s not crying!” And it only took Skeeter a few minutes to explain how these people came to write this song about a sad experience, but it wasn’t hers personally. She liked the melody and how the band played it and whenever I heard it in the future, she wanted me to remember how much she liked how the band played it for her. I promised I would.

Before I left, her manager came by to bring her an 8x10 b/w photo for her to give me. She signed it right in front of me, dedicated it to me, and she signed my little autograph book, which I still proudly have today. Music fans don’t always get the chance that I did. I realize that. An entirely new world opened up to me that day in 1962. I saw the lights, the glamour, the glitter, of the behind-the-scenes things you do before the magic happens.

As I sat with mom in fabulous general admission seats (they’d saved us two really great ones), and the band began to play “The End of the World,” as she sang my mother witnessed a miracle. It was the first time I’d ever listened to the song and all I did was smile. Before she sang she introduced the song and how there was a special little girl in the audience who thought that she was sad when she sang it, but she reassured me that she wasn’t and she wanted all the little girls to know that, too. And that was the very first time I’d ever had a song dedicated to me from the stage. It would not be the last. I think I was on Cloud 9 for days, but the reality is that I’ve been on that same cloud for about 58 years now, as the real hero of the story, Mama, showed me many things that week. She showed me how important it was to be receptive and attuned to the people in the world around you, to try and anticipate their needs, and do what you could, if you could, to help them.

I also learned not to take “no” for an answer if it was something I really, really wanted, and to be sure, I never have as I was fortunate to learn that early. And, from Mama that day, I learned how to love someone and then watch with pride as their world turned on its axis and everything wrong was made right again. Not once did she ever tell anyone of her contemporaries or colleagues what she had done for her daughter. That was just what being a Mama is all about in her book. Mama being Mama, she won my respect and love every single day, no matter what she did, or didn’t do. Fearless, faithful, faith-filled, and full of love and a sense of humor that would not quit, I grew up learning from the best teacher I could hope to have. I still learn from her today as I process the how and why of various life lessons and reasons she had for doing things her own way and walking her own unique path. Turns out, I’m a lot like she was.

My experience is not unique, though. Not by a long shot. Every one of us has a mother or mother surrogate or advocate in our lives who would walk through fire for us. We have unconditional love and understanding from doing absolutely nothing to earn it other than being ourselves. It’s easier to see, when you’re an only child, and you have one parent who is your world, but you can look to your left and to your right and see how a woman with 12 children worked on campus for 30 years and all of her children went to college and graduated, because they wanted to do right by what their moms had done to give them goals and let them dream.

Every parent who brings a child into this world is blessed with a chance to make right what may or may not have been right in their worlds growing up. For those of us who did not have children of our own, I’ve been abundantly blessed with the love of others who share theirs with me. Plus I have a fur baby that I’m part-time supervisor and Mommy #2 for. I love being Aunt Dawn and Miss Dawn Lee and whatever else they will want to call me in the coming year. The definition of a mother is one thing. It is simply “one who loves.”

For all of you who still have your mothers’ necks to hug, run and hug them, or call them, hold up a sign outside their windows, and cherish every moment you have with them. And for many of my friends, and as it turns out just tonight, for my family, for whom this is the first Mother’s Day without your Mom, don’t cry. Don’t be sad. You take all of the love that she showed to you, and you find someone to gift it to. Doesn’t have to be a mother. It can be anyone. Show love, be love, live in love. Those who know me well know I will quote my beloved academic, the late Professor Leo Buscaglia, who proclaims it, and I believe it to be true. “Love never dies.”

Happy Mother’s Day 2020, with love.