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.

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