It was brought home to me once again how important it is to stay in touch with an older relative – not just because it’s a nice thing to do, but because there is still so much to learn from them.
My Aunt Mary is 87. Although she has a bit of a heart condition, she lives on her own, drives wherever she needs to go and reads a lot of books on her e-reader while pedaling five miles a day on her stationary bike. She lives in New York City, and I called her several days after Hurricane Sandy swiped its way across the state.
We haven’t talked in a long time. Mostly I keep track of her through one of my cousins, but the nature of this particular storm caused me to make a call directly. I don’t know why it took something like that for me to enjoy her voice again and to catch up first hand.
She was fine. She’d had three days without electricity, but she had bundled up in lots of warm clothing and wrapped herself in blankets. Because she has a gas stove (and the gas was still connected where she lives), she was able to heat up hot water for tea and bouillon. Most of her many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren live nearby, so she was checked on regularly. Her children, my cousins, were still without power when we talked.
We had the most delightful conversation. She told me she sold her condo in Florida after sitting among the palm fronds in the winter there several years in a row, missing her family like crazy. Most people don’t consider winter in Florida a penance, but that’s what it began to feel like for her. Warm is nice but the warmth of family is better, so one winter, she just up and packed a bag and flew home, just like that. She never went back.
What she hated, too, she said, was going to the pool in Florida and listening to all the old ladies. Mind you, she was 80 when she came to the realization that there is nothing more tedious than hearing about hip replacements, cardiac treatments, how Bessie is managing in her wheelchair and all of that. Aunt Mary is a very kind and sympathetic person and will cook your favorite foods for you, give you shelter, cater to your needs and slip you a $20 if you need cab fare. It’s not that she didn’t care about these ladies’ misfortunes, but, good God, was there nothing else to talk about, ever? That was not how she cared to “do” old age.
It has always been about family for her. She never worked outside the home, but raised her children, attended and encouraged everything they did, spoiled my uncle like crazy, helped in the raising of some of her grandchildren and attended every recital, baseball game, wedding and whatever that her progeny was involved in. She’s not one to miss out, though she expressed surprise to me on the phone that she teared up at the wedding a few weeks ago of one of her grandsons when she saw the now all-grown-up young man on the dance floor.
“I never cried when it was my children getting married, but now I cry,” she said. “I think there’s a special relationship with your grandchildren that lets you enjoy them more than when you were busy bringing up and worrying about your own children. Less responsibility, more fun. There’s something that makes the tears come when you’re happy like that.”
I have always admired how close she became to her children’s spouses. She regularly has lunch with and is extremely loyal to one former daughter-in-law, not because she likes her better than who her son married later, but because once you’re loved by Aunt Mary, it’s for life.
“I’ve been lucky and have always had good daughters-in-law,” my aunt said. And that’s never gotten in the way of her relationship with her children’s current spouses, about whom she has nothing but praise. If there’s ever to be world peace, we need to send out a fleet of Aunt Marys to oversee its implementation.
I enjoyed hearing the latest about the lives of my cousins, some of the marriages of her grandchildren and the births of new great-grandchildren. Most of those she spoke to me about are young men and women I’ve never met or only saw when they were babies. Still, they’re family, and she made them all feel close to me.
Toward the end of our telephone visit, I asked her what she was going to do the rest of the day. “Why I’ll just think about this nice conversation we’re having,” she said. “Your call has made my day, and I’m going to enjoy remembering it all day long.”
And hearing that from my aunt made my day, too.