My great-aunt, Anna Lee May, passed away recently. She was 92 and had been in failing health for many years. My grandfather’s sister – someone described as always doing for others instead of herself. When her father died she was 17 and so went right to work in a textile factory. She went from taking water to her brothers out on the farm to working a corduroy machine. For 33 years she did that. When her mother took ill, she took her in, caring for her until her death. She married, but never had children and so showered her nieces (my mom and aunt) with affection, pound cake, popsicles, and ice cream. She had a Pekinese named Weegee and her husband Charlie, who never spoke it seemed but always looked like Sitting Bull in his favorite tapestry chair in the corner of the living room.
This is some of what I remember. I had not seen her in many years. She had severe Alzheimer’s and had lived in a nursing home since 1996. I do remember her house, a small bungalow full of doilies, and pound cake, and dogs. I remember Mee Maw (her mother) looking puny and sick in her chair near the door. Never talking, always watchful. I remember Aunt Ann’s trailer that she’d hitch up to the car and camp with up on Skyline Drive with my grandparents. They did everything together, those four. They even double dated before they married – my grandfather and his sister Aunt Ann, going out with my grandmother and her brother, Charlie.
I remember she always commented on my dimples whenever I saw her. “So cute!” she’d exclaim. Then squeeze my cheeks for emphasis. An old friend of the family did the same thing at Aunt Ann’s funeral and it brought back the memory so painfully and powerfully that I felt sick to my stomach. I never liked that she did that – pointing out what I already knew. Everyone back then always mentioned my dimples, and I always took it to mean that while I would never be a great beauty, at least I had dimples. Those dimples might land me a husband. At least there was that.
This funeral was so weird for me. To mourn someone I had said goodbye to so long ago. To mourn someone so like myself in so many ways. She worked at a monotonous job she probably hated. So do I. She never had children. Neither have I. She was tall, with broad shoulders, more mannish than Marilyn. And so am I. It’s odd and uncomfortable to stare at a family member in a casket, dressed in a blue chiffon blouse, clutching a handkerchief, surrounded by tattered, sepia-toned photos and think that someday, that might be you. That someday that will be you. Why do they have open caskets anyway? Open “viewings” they call them. What are you supposed to view? Your future? Your own mortality? In my case my own face 50 years from now. I felt sick for days after.
The only solace came from the graveside service. As we sat and listened I looked over and saw a gravestone for “Bertha Hutchens” my favorite aunt, my grandmother’s half-sister. In life as in death Aunt Ann and Aunt Birdy were neighbors. At least there was that. Birdy had taught me about gardening, had taught me about loving animals, had shown me how to grow an arbor and herbs and tomatoes. Her porch was and still is my favorite place in the world. In a parallel life I imagine buying her bungalow and living there as an old woman, never leaving my yard. As she didn’t for 30 years after her husband died. Just tending my garden and watching the world go by from my porch swing. At least there is that.
It’s as if Birdy was supposed to be there that day, to remind me. I hadn’t thought of her in years, but here she was. Next to her husband on a beautiful sunny day, reminding me that there are other better things beyond this life. And it isn’t so bad, looking into your future. Resembling your family so much it hurts. It’s kind of okay. And at least there is that.