Aunt Lucile, who died last spring just days before her 99th birthday, was a source of strength and comfort for me all of my life. She was my mother’s older sister, one of five sisters in a family with twelve children.
For more than 40 years, she and my mom lived side by side in houses built on land given to them by their father. Two months after Lucile moved to an assisted living facility, my mother moved to the same facility on the same hall, making them neighbors again.
For more than fifteen years I was the driver for my mother, who never learned to drive, and for Aunt Lucile, who had driven most of her life until she became too short to see over the steering wheel of the car.
I drove them to the beauty shop, to the grocery, to shop at clothing or shoe stores, and their favorite, the dollar store. I drove them through the small towns of their youth, through the countryside where their mother grew up, to the beach five hours away, their stories filling the hours quickly from rest stop to rest stop.
Minutes after the Sheriff’s Department chaplain left our house to tell my parents the news that our daughter had been killed in a car crash, I called Aunt Lucile and asked her to go next door to be with my parents. I knew I could not leave our home to go to them. My husband and I were waiting for our younger son to come home from work—he was in college two hours away but had come home to work during fall break. Our older son, also on fall break, was on his way to Georgia and had no cell phone, but we knew he would call that evening wherever he stopped, so we waited, dreading to tell him the horrible news by phone.
I asked Aunt Lucile to go to my parents’ home, not just because she was close to them, but because I knew she would understand—if that’s possible—how that news would rip their hearts. She would understand because she had faced such news herself. Her daughter, pregnant with her first child, had died at 22 from complications of meningitis.
After Elizabeth died, Aunt Lucile, then already in her 80s, would call me to tell me that she had a pan of sourdough rolls for me, please come get them while they were warm (that is, right now). That meant she was ready to listen, that she was ready to share stories about our daughters.
I almost always went right away if I could. Sitting on her screened porch or in the cozy den of her home, the smell of freshly baked bread filling us, we talked about Brenda and Elizabeth and what it was like when they were growing up, both having an ear for music and a heart for the unfortunate, and how we missed them, oh, how we missed them.
Nobody worried about us as if we should “get over it” or as if we should not still be talking about them this many months or years later.
When she had a stroke and could not care for herself at home, Aunt Lucile was in her 90s. So I brought her hot cross buns and Moravian spice cookies, invitations to continue the conversations about our daughters.
By the time my mother died, dementia had erased sections of time for Aunt Lucile, and she would ask about her husband, her mother and her father, even my mother, not always realizing they had died. But she never once misunderstood that her daughter had died before her, and Brenda’s death was in 1965.
As I was cleaning out some of my daughter’s belongings and hearing the voices in my head asking why I was holding on to things or how I could possibly part with things, I stopped by to visit with Aunt Lucile. She told me that things became less and less important through the years, but her memories could still be triggered by them, so she parted with things very slowly.
On Brenda’s birthday, I visited Aunt Lucile at the nursing home, and I brought a photo of Brenda and her that had been made when Brenda was about four years old. They were hugging exuberantly—and I wanted to bring that memory back to my aunt on her girl’s birthday.
She looked at the photo, remembered the moment, smiled, then launched into stories of Brenda’s fingers flying across piano keys as she played the boogie woogie and of Brenda’s love of Pepsi (both the soft drink and the collie she named that) and her fear of swooping birds like the one her granny kept in her bedroom. But she declined to keep the photo when I was ready to leave. The memories are in my heart, she told me. I don’t need the things anymore.
And I’m wondering if that will ever be so for me.
I know that the time is imminent when I will have to sort some more, find good homes for more things, discard crumbling things, part with those things that are triggers for my own memories of my girl.
This morning I would love to be sitting on the screened porch, eating sourdough bread with Aunt Lucile.