My great Aunt died recently. In the “funeral pending” section of the paper was her name and age, right next to a teenager’s. It hardly seems fair. It is certainly hard to understand, these two listed side by side, and the juxtaposition of the numbers, and the years spent on earth, seemed poignant to me.
My great Aunt was born in 1906. The fact she died is going to take many of us a while to get used to. She has joined the great cloud of witnesses who have summoned her home– Like the Psalmist, we pray: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” She will be missed, our great Aunt. She had serious staying power and was a touchstone–a woman who began life, just three years after Orville and Wilbur got the first powered airplane off the ground. She got married during the Great Depression.
She was in middle age when the first men were walking on the moon. I remember when she started to show signs of age, in her early 90′s, and we had her at the E.R. and a nurse kept telling her, “We need to take your teeth out now,” and kept after her, not realizing our Aunt did not have dentures, that those teeth, were indeed her own teeth.
She was the last of the five siblings to die, the last of that bright-blue-eyed bunch. I’m very grateful that as old as she was, she was treated with dignity and grace, with love and care, and I’m grateful that she loved volunteering at the place where she eventually was to become a resident. She would walk over to the nursing home to volunteer, and as she once told me, “I volunteer with the old people,” which was humorous, as she was older at the time than many of the residents she was helping. I appreciated her quiet way of going about things. I think of her when I stack books in my daughter’s room on the bookshelf that was hers, or when I sit on the day bed at mom’s house, that had been in our Aunt’s front room.
Poet Linda Greg wrote, “We manage most when we manage small.”My Aunt seemed small to me even when I was a child. She and her husband lived these quiet, honest, understated lives. Yet, when our family moved to town, they helped us get a house. My Aunt was old school. She kept jars, string, old furniture to refinish. I did not appreciate this as a child, nor did I appreciate the sacks and sacks of organically grown vegetables and pounds of tomatoes she used to drop by our house. When I think of my Aunt, I think of her gardening, and her love of birds. I think of rolling down the hill in her backyard and collecting buckeyes. I think of learning to love rhubarb, because of her.
She kept all these links to the past around, old furniture, old photos, and she herself, in bodily form, was our connection to the past. History incarnate. Her stories of her grandparents linked us to the Civil War. Her tales of how her grandmother had to put chairs against the door in the log cabin, to keep wolves out at night. Her tales of her life linked us to an era long gone. Our Aunt was a librarian, and put card catalogue index cards with her possessions, so we’d know from whence they came, that the rocker had been her husband’s grandfather’s, that the quilt was made by great grandma on the occasion of her 16th birthday in the 1800′s. And, she taught us about the people from whence we came.
She made a scrapbook which dates back through the 1800′s, and those of us who love family history, love how she kept the original French (Clerc, Lambouley, Cacheaux) and German names, that all got Anglicized eventually. Amazing how she, ever the librarian, catalogued and recorded the comings and goings of our families’ lives. The Apostle Paul talks about our names being written in “the book of life,” and to find our own names in this family history collection of our Aunt’s was humbling. It gave us pause. While we were getting on with our lives, she was quietly recording them, including original copies of things I’ve long since lost. To find within this thick tome our own photos, and birth announcements meant that she had taken note, too, of our arrivals, our days, our graduations, in this stretch of time. “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom,” we pray.
Having never had children of her own, she adopted her nieces, and would come to family events, family reunions, and as my mom would say, would “eat herself silly,” as she could do, to the surprise of most of us, the woman could EAT! Like her siblings, she had a serious propensity for ice cream, cookies, and cake. (A woman after my own heart)
I never thanked her for being there, showing up, she just was. And, bodily, she is no more.But who she was, she still is, to us–Our job is to carry with us what we saw that was good and valuable in her life–lessons we learned from her. I think of the big white barn she and her brother, my grandfather, used to play in. It must have seemed massive to them as children, it’s huge today, even by adult standards. The expanse of heaven may feel familiar to her….a big broad expanse–
Sister Joan Chittister sites George Vaillant’s longitudinal study of Harvard men and Lewis Terman’s similar study of men and women, how these studies, according to Chittister, “trace the slow unfolding of a person, of their lives, and most of all, of the understanding of their lives.” Chittister writes, ”Asked again and again over the years what they would most have wished could have been changed for them, the men and women in the study were more likely as they got older to say “nothing.” They would, they declared, change nothing of it. Not the deaths, not the embarrassments, not the struggles, not the losses. To change anything in their personal histories, they had come to realize, would have diminished the gem that was their lives, that had been cut and shined slowly in the studios of life, that had made them what, at the end, they had finally become.”
“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom,” we pray.
In a card from 1998, our Aunt had written this poem to her niece,
“I’m blessed to have you touch my life/To share the joys as well as strife/To laugh with me or shed a tear/You are one of those I hold most dear.”
I think, as our days unfold, what we learned from her long life–”I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Ephesians 4:1-2) said Paul.
And, I think of these words from Hebrews, that are good words for going forth to live our days: ”Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race that is marked out before us…” (Hebrews 12:1)