When I was 7-years old, I lost my grandmother to lung cancer (she was only 63). I was too young to grasp the lesson inherent in that tragedy – appreciate your grandparents now because they won’t be around forever. My mother took great pains to completely shield me from the grizzly details of my grandmother’s illness and death, so I was still able to see my other three grandparents through the invincible eyes of a child.
I spent years having obligatory conversations with my grandparents over obligatory holiday dinners, and never took the time to really talk to any of them. I’d tell them about my friends and how I was doing in school, and they’d tell me about the plants growing in their garden and how they saved fifty cents on a loaf of bread at the grocery store; conversations that were superficial and quickly forgotten.
In my eyes they were grandparents, not people. I never bothered to learn about their childhoods, likes/dislikes, fears, or hopes for the future. I saw them as the sweet old people who did their best to spoil me with gifts that never quite hit the mark, and hard candy that tasted like it had spent the last decade on the bottom of their purse/pocket.
It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I realized I had NO idea who my grandparents really were, but by then two more of them had passed away. When I gave birth to my first child, I suddenly had the pressing need to get to know my last remaining grandfather, Pops. I wanted to find out all I could about the life he led, and I wanted to share more of my life with him.
I’d like to tell you that Pops and I shared many warm Hallmark moments after my epiphany, but that kind of sentimental crap only happens in chick flicks. My revelation came too late, and by the time my first-born was 6-months old, Pops passed away.
Here’s where you say, “For chrissakes Linda, if I wanted to get depressed I would have curled up on my couch with a box of Kleenex and watched Steel Magnolias! Can we PLEASE get to the silver lining part of this story before I put my head in the oven?”
Yes we can. Because there IS a silver lining to this story, and her name is Auntie Helen.
Auntie Helen is technically my great aunt, but after the early loss of my grandmother, she filled that void in my life and has felt more like a grandparent to me. She lives in Massachusetts, and during my childhood I saw her (at most) a couple of times a year. When I became an adult, I was determined to learn from the mistake I had made with all of my grandparents and make an effort to span not only the physical distance between Auntie Helen and I, but also the generational one.
I wanted to see past the differences in our ages, and stop pigeonholing her as just another old person on my family tree that I couldn’t relate to. She made it very easy because even though Auntie Helen just celebrated her 95th birthday this past July (2013), she has NEVER been old. If you call her old, you’d better be outside striking distance or prepare to get your ass kicked.
While her physical being continues to age, mentally she never got past her thirties. She still dresses to impress, drinks people half her age under the table, and flirts with good-looking men that catch her eye. She continuously busts out of the stereotypes that society tries to impress on her, and refuses to be treated like a frail, old woman. As far as she’s concerned, you can take your knitting needles, bingo balls, and Bengay, and shove them straight up your ass.
She wants to surround herself with young people because she identifies more with them than with people her own age – as is evident by her best friend who is 30-years her junior. Her youthful spirit and hysterical sense of humor draw people of all ages to her, and prove that your age doesn’t have to define you. A few years back, she was forced into a nursing home to recuperate from a medical illness. When I spoke to her over the phone and asked her how she was she said, “I’m doing fine, but I’ve got to get the hell out of here! All these old people want to do is sit around complaining about their aches and pains, and nap all day.” After her brief recovery, she busted out of that place and went back to living independently, just as she has done for most of her life.
When I was little, most of the adults in my life treated me like a kid, but Auntie Helen didn’t see any reason to pacify me or sugarcoat the truth just because I happened to be under 4-feet tall. She saw me as a person, so it made seeing her as one easier than it was with all of the other adults in my family.
In one of my earliest memories of her, a group of us went out to dinner at a restaurant by her house. The waitress brought out a round of cocktails for the table, but she brought my Shirley Temple in a plastic kiddie cup. Before the waitress could leave, Auntie Helen stopped her, handed my drink back and said, “This young lady’s cocktail needs to be in a glass.” It was a small gesture, but it had a very large impact on me – it said, you matter. It also said, you don’t screw around with a woman’s cocktail.
The early bond I formed with her set the stage for what would become one of the most cherished relationships of my adult life. Despite the nearly 60-year age gap, I feel like I have found a kindred spirit in her – not just because we share a fondness for the f-word and perfectly made margaritas, but also because we both think the other person poops sunshine and rainbows.
Here’s an example of her blind adoration: I had eye surgery two years ago to help correct my lazy eye. I sent out an email showing her what I looked like a couple of weeks post-op. It wasn’t pretty….
This is an excerpt from the email (yes, the woman EMAILS!!) she sent me in response to that picture….
“Looking pretty good to me, baby. You are beautiful. That’s how I see it – never saw any difference. In my eyes you glow with beauty. There should be more like you, full with the love and compassion that just pours out of you. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and you are just that in my eyes. Love you, Honey.”
Shamefully and unabashedly biased as hell, but sweeter than a basket of kittens dipped in cotton candy. I need an audio recording of her reading this excerpt for when I’m in desperate need of an ego boost. Then I could just hit “play” and it won’t matter if I’ve got a zit the size of Texas on the end of my nose, or if I gain ten pounds and can no longer fit into my jeans – I GLOW WITH BEAUTY, DAMMIT!!
The feeling of obligation I felt towards my grandparents doesn’t apply with Auntie Helen, because with her it isn’t about have to, it’s about want to. I want to be around her because when we are together, I feel like the best part of myself comes alive. It’s like having this Uncle Kracker song playing in my head the whole time we’re together….
You just skimmed right passed the song and didn’t even hit the play button, didn’t you? I’m TRYING to set up a little sentimental ambiance here. Help a girl out, would ya? Now go back and listen to it…. I’ll wait.
Okay, now back to our regularly scheduled program….
I feel the same kind of ease with her that I do when I’m hanging out with my closest girlfriends. When I talk to her, she stays present in the conversation and doesn’t judge me. She also doesn’t automatically launch into a “back in my day…” story the second I take a breath or try to compare my 39-year old life in 2012 with hers from 1957. She’s much more interested in staying current rather than dwelling on the past.
Speaking of staying current, not only does she email, she also joined up with Facebook a couple of years ago. Every time she posts something on my wall or comments on one of my status updates or photos I’m amazed! I brag about her to all my friends like she has discovered the cure for cancer.
She impresses me because I think most 90+ year olds would be too scared to learn how to navigate the intimidating world of social networking, but she doesn’t seem to think anything of it. And just when I think she can’t do anything else to surprise me, she finds a way – she recently discovered “Words With Friends” and we’ve had a running game going for months. How freakin’ AWESOME is she?!
If you don’t have an Auntie Helen in your life, you need to get one. Seriously. Maybe you could scour the nursing homes to find one of your own to adopt…. wait, what am I saying? You’d NEVER find an Auntie Helen in a nursing home. Maybe you could check the dance floors of your local VFW hall on a Friday night – she’ll be the one with the scotch in one hand and a gorgeous soldier half her age in the other.
I’d share this one with you, but she’s ALL MINE….