My sister, Bonita plans a trip with Mom the second week of June for the past 13 years. I went the first year and again this year with three of my five sisters. (Yes, I have brothers, too: three.) I mark the years by Dad’s death, and by my first grand-daughters birth.
This year we travel to the East Coast to visit Uncle Ken, two years younger than Mom, and Aunt Annie, 14 years younger than Mom. We plan to drive, but Mom finds us plane tickets on the internet that cost less than we’d spend driving. Yes, Mom did that. She’s a savvy woman, with apps for her TV so she can order movies, a GPS she can program, and words of encouragement to her doctor when he gets a new hand-held electronic record devise: “It takes a while, but before you know it, you it’ll be second nature to you.”
Mom wakes up June 12, her wedding anniversary, to a cool breeze on her lips.
“It happens sometimes. It’s like Dad’s giving me one of his good morning kisses,” she says with tears in her eyes. “I miss him so much.
I remember Dad holding my hand and telling me to make sure we take care of Mom when he was gone.
“Look over there,” he said, pointing to a hanger holding a dress she just finished for a 8-year-old grandchild. “She’s a quiet artist. She does so much for everyone, and never asks for anything back. Make sure the spot-light turns to her.”
Dad was a guy who needed center stage. Mom made sure he had it.
My sisters exchange times when they feel Dad’s presence. I dream about Dad sometimes, but never in my waking hours have I felt him near. I hope to myself that he is not to bothered by me, and is happy in a Paradise without worry or wonder.
Aunt Annie had a stroke a few years ago, leaving her left side unresponsive to her strong-will. Her husband edited their wedding vows: to have and to hold,
from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part. Mom took care of Aunt Annie after her stroke. That’s what sisters do. Even after Aunt Annie went to a nursing home, Mom took her sister home for the weekend; took her to church, out to dinner, and shopping. Now Aunt Annie lives with her daughter, Danielle and Danielle’s husband Jim. That’s what daughters do, and loving husbands know how important it is.
Besides loving our sisters, our brothers and our mothers, I suppose we can all see ourselves there, somewhere in our own future.
“I’m going back to college. Maybe I’ll become a nurse. As soon as I get better, I’m going back home,” Aunt Annie says. She is filled with hope of a loving reunion with a husband; a husband who mailed Danielle all of Aunt Annie’s photo albums, and sold her piano.
Aunt Annie is a wee bit passive aggressive, walking slower than slow when she wants to and breaking into a near-sprint if it means a cigarette break is near. When an always in-charge person can no longer choose when and where she goes, I suppose it’s natural to take control of what she can.
The neighbor stands on his porch and gawks as we load up the mini-van: Mom, Aunt Annie, and the four sisters. Doors closed, we imagine what he’s thinking: Mabel, a boat-load of seniors are moving in next door; A whole van-load of old ladies just left that little house next door; Put the house up for sale, they must be starting an old-folks home next door.
Aunt Annie tells joke after joke, mostly slightly or majorly off-color. My favorite is the one about the woman who wants bigger boobs and is advised to rub toilet paper between her breasts at least once a day. Punch line: of course it works; it worked for you ass, didn’t it? Aunt Annie worked at the Chevy Plant until she faced with the choice of retire or be laid-off.
We arrive at Uncle Ken’s house. Aunt Pat greets us at the door, chin length silver hair frames her smile. Always elegant, Alzheimer’s Disease has softened her. She touches our arms and hugs us gently.
“I’m so glad you are here. We’ve been talking about your visit all morning. Come right in,” she smiles her Katheryn Hepburn smile.
Aunt Pat gets unneeded serving bowls from the china cabinet and sets them on the table for the lunch that Uncle Ken prepares. She shows me around the house.
“This is our bathroom,” she says, lowering the toilet seat. “The shower is here, with a flexible hose attached.”
We make the bed together when she shows me the master bedroom.
“This is our bathroom,” she says again, raising the toilet seat. “Ken put in a flexible hose in the shower.”
Uncle Ken, the tall handsome Cary Grant of the family prepared a wonderful pepper steak and rice lunch for us, accompanied with apple-onion slaw. He substituted strawberry shortcake dessert without a beat when his brownies came out too baked to bite. Uncle Ken is new to culinary skills and house-cleaning. His engineer’s organization and timing re-purposed for domestic chores.
“How did you two meet?” I ask Aunt Pat.
“I wrote to him when he was in the service.”
“Were you in love before he went to Korea?”
“That’s what Ken tells me.”
“We went to the same college,” Ken explains. “I was with a bunch of fellas when I saw her. I said, ‘Hey good-looking;’ We got engaged before I left for Korea.”
They look at each other. Ken squeezes Pat’s hand, and she smiles. I see the newlyweds repeating their wedding vows, unable to imagine the depth of meaning their vows will someday take on: “…to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”
Uncle Ken, Aunt Annie, and Mom remind each other of childhood stories. My favorite is a grouchy neighbor man throwing a bucket of ice-water on them when they were trick-or-treating. Aged faces transform to children’s as they recount the horror of it all. The glee of revenge is new again as they re-live how they got even: potato in his tail-pipe, knocked over outhouse, etc for months on end.
We say our long good-byes: hugs, deep looks, tender touches, and final words. I’m the last one out the door.
“She’s always best when we’re at the doctors or when we have visitors,” Uncle Ken confides to me.
“I know. I remember that with my father-in-law,” is all I have to offer. Such shallow solace for the loss he feels.
It’s late when mother and daughters get back to our hotel. The laughter of the day succumbs to tears.
“I may never see them again,” Mom says through sobs. There are no words of comfort for this reality. Mom is 85, Uncle Ken is 83, Aunt Annie is 71. They are all tethered, less mobile, the end of their journey in sight.
Long ago advise from Mom to the little girl who is now me, bubbles up from my memory as I climb into bed, “Be good to your sisters (and brothers.) There will never be anyone who knows you like they know you. You share a history. You have a bond like no other.”