Young at Heart…. Slightly Older in Other Places

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.

At least Pops got to share a couple of
Hallmark moments with my daughter, Meghan

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.

My silver-haired, silver lining.

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.

Childhood trauma in 3…. 2…. 1

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.

Auntie Helen induced perma-grin.

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….

It looks like my right eye went out and got stoned,
and my left eye stayed home and went to bed early.

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.

That’s HER laptop folks, not mine.

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….

Don’t be jealous…. actually, you should be jealous.
I was just trying to be nice.

Daily Post Writing Prompt:  My Number One

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37 thoughts on “Young at Heart…. Slightly Older in Other Places

  1. OMG Linda…. I didn’t think it was possible to laugh and cry at the same time!!! This blog was beyond great, its a life time memory. Love ya..Mom

    • Mom –

      Just like Auntie Helen, you’re shamefully and unabashedly biased as hell too 🙂 But I’m glad you enjoyed it and thought that I did Auntie Helen justice. Hopefully, she’ll feel the same!

      Love, Linda

  2. Absolutely lovely! I want an Aunt Helen. I passed the 40 mark awhile ago and am now on the downward slope to 50. No wait … scratch downward .. heading up to 50. I didn’t know my grandparents as people either and as I got close to 40, realized I didn’t really know my parents as people either. They were just mom & dad. Turns out they have done some really cool, interesting things. I remember a three hour road trip with my mom a number of years ago where we got way past the “what’s happening with the kids, the job, the garden” topics and I discovered a history of thoughts and emotions I never suspected. My mom shared information and stories about her life and my dad’s life that explained a lot about who they are today. Fascinating! Perhaps some day my kids will discover the person behind the mom?

    • Thanks so much for reading and posting such a thoughtful comment. I think that there are a lot of people who go through life and never really take the time to get to know the person behind the title (Mom, Grandma, etc.). I think it’s awesome that you took advantage of that precious three hour window of time and got to know your mom better. Like you, I’m hoping that my kids will one day know me as more than just the person who fed them and washed their socks.

      Here’s to getting wiser and not just older!! 🙂

  3. This entry brought back many memories. Memories of your grandmother and Auntie Helen. What I can tell you is that perhaps your memories of your grandmother were shortend by a life taken soon, and what I will tell you is that I too had the same experience of a life taken too soon but as you have Auntie Helen, I was fortunate to YOUR grandmother to fill a void that I will forever be grateful for. Good people just do what comes naturally, love, nurture and tend to those who they hold dear. I hope that I have those wonderful qualities in me, just like “Tessie” and Auntie Helen have. Blessing from above for sure! (What a joy to see the picture of your grandfather, I will always remember the days until he left Maple Street sitting on his front steps and living life as it should be with those who will forever live in our memories……)

    • Emily –

      Your comment was really touching. It makes me so happy that my grandma helped fill that void in your life. From the limited memories I have of her, I remember her immense capacity for love and patience, and how she was there for my mom and us kids during a very tumultuous time in our lives. Looks like she was there for you too 🙂

  4. She’s AWESOME! I love being close to my aunts and uncles – I’m 42 but still feel I can curl up in my Uncle’s lap and it’s like I’m 10 again.
    I know what you mean about want to “KNOW” about your family. I wanted to know about my grandmother (she died in her 90s a couple of years ago) – but by the time I wanted to relive her memories, they had started to fade on her end, her English wasn’t so good (she’s Italian) and her hearing was not so good – she would take the ‘memory book’ out of my hands and just smile at me. So I went with it.

    What’s weird is that you look strickingly familiar to me ….and I don’t know why…

    • I loved your comment – struck a lot of familiar chords with me. Your experience with your grandmother is exactly what happened with me and Pops. I waited too long, and by the time we got down to really talking, he was too far into his illness to recall memories from the past. But like your “memory book” moment, Pops and I shared a wonderful moment or two together that I still remember fondly – I try to hold on to those and let the regret go.

      As for me looking familiar, I get that ALL the time! I must have the most generic face on the planet. Either that, or someone got a hold of my DNA and is using it in some sort of underground cloning experiment. 🙂

    • Bonnie –

      Thanks! I think you’re absolutely right – if everyone had someone who was their biggest fan and lit them up from the inside out, the world would be a very different place. A person like that is good for the ego AND the soul 🙂

    • Aw, Maggie! I’m sorry I got you all teary-eyed. You should have seen me as I was writing it – what a mess! I looked like a mental patient because I was having such wild mood swings. But Auntie Helen has always brought out those kinds of emotions in me; everything from weepy tears to hysterical laughter.

      I love that video too – it’s like the anthem for all the people in our lives that we adore.

  5. I certainly would like to me Auntie Helen. You’ve painted such an inspiring and wonderful picture of her. I think her essence came through with your glowing words. The pictures added some extra spice that’s just delicious, especially the one with Meghan. I love your appreciation for older people who are meaningful in your life. I am sure Auntie Helen is looking like a proud peacock (which she should be). Hurrah for you and for Auntie Helen!

    • Thanks, Les! I think you and Auntie Helen would get along famously. She is such a special lady, and I think that most people who meet her, love her…. unless you step on her toes, then you’d better WATCH OUT 🙂

      I called her on the phone the day after I posted the entry to see what she thought about it. When she picked up the phone (thanks to caller ID, she knew it was me) the first thing out of her mouth was, “What the hell do YOU want?” Which cracked me up. She then proceeded to gush about how wonderful my tribute made her feel and how much it meant to her that I wrote it. I wish I had the conversation on tape because it was awesome; equal parts sappy and hysterical – an emotional blend that she always mixes up so well.

      We are going up to MA to see her this weekend – YAY!

    • Noreen –

      She really did love it, which made the effort behind the entry ALL worth it. I called her on the phone the day after I posted the entry to see what she thought about it. When she picked up the phone (thanks to caller ID, she knew it was me) the first thing out of her mouth was, “What the hell do YOU want?” Which cracked me up. She then proceeded to gush about how wonderful my tribute made her feel and how much it meant to her that I wrote it. I wish I had the conversation on tape because it was awesome; equal parts sappy and hysterical – an emotional blend that she always mixes up so well.

      We are going up to MA to see her this weekend – YAY!

    • It took me a long time to realize it – nearly 30 years! But the last decade I’ve spent with her have been so wonderful. We have made so many amazing memories together through visits, letters, and phone calls; it almost feels like this is the way it’s always been with us. Every time we’re together, I feel so lucky to still have her with me.

      She often asks me, “Why do you think God has left me here so long?” (She has outlived everyone else in our family from that generation). I tell her she has been God’s gift to our family, and even though she never had any children of her own, all of us are her kids/grandkids and we all need her desperately. Such a blessing.

  6. I have an Auntie Helen! Actually, he’s my grandfather Poppa Leon, he’s 86, and has NEVER complained once about anything! He treats each day as a gift and lives it to its fullest 🙂

    Thank God for all the Auntie Helens in the world 🙂

  7. I’ve always been the type of nosy busy-body that would communicate with the older generations; even when they made it more than clear they didn’t want me around. The life lessons that they (the older generations) learned while growing up WITHOUT Facebook, Twitter (though, they had Twits), and the other more modern additions to life, are more important in my eyes, than what most of us are learning about today. Years ago, the only things that truly mattered were family, good friends, and the other values of life that still remain in style; like, honesty, respect, etc. — Needless to say, conversation is definitely intriguing to curious minds.

    Age is nothing more than a number; maturity and wisdom tells everything about a person that needs to be said.

    • I couldn’t agree more! I was also one of those little kids who preferred to muck in with the adults at family gatherings. They always seemed to have such a fun time talking with each other. Not sure if great imaginations or the seemingly endless stream of alcohol was the reason behind the entertaining conversation – probably a combination of both 🙂

  8. I’m glad Auntie Helen embraces technology. I am blessed that we have been able to share our daughter with her grandparents and great grandparents through Skype so they can actually watch her grow up even though we live 20 hours away.

    • It’s wonderful that your daughter can get in some face time with her grandparents despite the distance! I just visited Auntie Helen this past weekend, and we introduced her to “oovoo” which is just another version of Skype. She was fascinated that she could see us on her computer screen while we chatted.

      Sometimes I feel like technology is putting distance between people (texting/emailing instead of talking, everyone having their noses in their iPhones instead of paying attention to the person across the table from you, etc.), but Skype and oovoo are great examples of technology actually bridging the gap. My only qualm with them is that I feel like I have to primp a little bit before I can talk to someone – wouldn’t want them to see me in my pajamas with my hair all mussed up 🙂

  9. Great post! It brings back a lot of good memories. She’s a pip, alright! Those were some good times . . . . Dad

  10. Loved it and made me miss my grandma (in a nice sentimental “chick flick” way). She used to answer the phone “I love you, I beat you”. That was way before caller id because she always knew family was calling and she always wanted to be the first to a) remember and b) to say I love you.

    Also, love your writing. I am just learning about blogs and have read lots but only signed up to follow two and yours is one of them. Great stuff! I look forward to more.

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