My aunt Lucile lost her 21-year-old daughter and unborn grandchild in the summer of 1965. Brenda was one of my 25 first cousins from my mom’s family, and she grew up just down the road from our house and from our grandmother’s house. She had a natural ear for music and could play almost anything on the piano–especially rollicking Scott Joplin tunes and boogie woogie. She was smart and funny, always loving a good joke. She was about four months pregnant when she died of meningitis. She left a huge hole in her husband’s, her parents’ and her extended family’s lives.
Aunt Lucile’s grief was deep, but she continued to do what she had always done: She took care of others. She took care. She took care of her husband through his own illnesses and death, witnessed her son’s death, and she lived until she was just a few days short of her 99th birthday.
I’ve written about Aunt Lucile before. I called her when Elizabeth died to ask her to be with my parents when they received the news of my daughter’s death from the sheriff’s chaplain. For years she would bake sourdough bread (the starter must have been “restarted” for a dozen years), call me to tell me what time she expected the bread to be done and what time I should come by to get some. Now I smell freshly baked bread and think of peace and laughter and times spent talking about our daughters on her screened in porch.
But there’s something else I was reminded of this week. Aunt Lucile refinished furniture. A lot of it. More than she could use, in fact, so sometimes others received the pieces she had fiercely stripped of their old finishes and stained and lovingly buffed to smoothness. I did not know then that the hard work of stripping and refinishing the furniture, the physical labor of making all the rough and ragged parts smooth and new again, was her grief therapy. It was no small thing.
She was still refinishing furniture ten years after her daughter died when my first child was born. She gave us a small butternut colored chest of drawers that she had refinished. It had been a throwaway from someone, and she had made it new. The surface was so smooth that running a hand across the top of the piece felt soothing. Even the drawers moved in and out with no sticking because she had sanded them so smooth, rubbing beeswax candles on the edges for further insurance against rough edges. We filled the chest with neatly folded baby clothes then little boy’s corduroys and karate uniforms, and finally it moved away with the boys whose clothes had filled it. So much was packed away inside it for so long.
The little chest followed the older son to college and suffered a fall off the back of a truck in the midst of a busy intersection. Even so, cracked and perhaps not as attractive as when we received it, the chest followed another son to Georgia then to NYC and up four or five flights of stairs to an apartment there. The last time I saw it, it fit snugly inside the only closet in the apartment. I don’t know what finally became of it. The crack from the fall off the truck during the college move may have finally done it in, but not before several more moves.
Maybe the chest is a good analogy for the path of grief sometimes. Aunt Lucile is still reminding me.