“All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by…”
My mother and her sister Loena were best friends. Wherever Loena went, she would sing or hum quietly to herself. My mother used to introduce her to friends saying, “This is my sister Loena. Don’t mind her; she hums.”
Mom was the one who used to bust Aunt Loena out of Detroit for road trips. Sometimes to Washington, D.C. to visit my sister Miriam, to Maine to see my sister Constance, or to see me and my siblings in Seattle, especially if the Tigers were scheduled to play the Mariners.
Driving cross country to attend my wedding, they made a late-night stop at a hamburger joint in Iowa. They were laughing so hard the young man behind the counter came to their table and said, “Ladies, I don’t know where you’re going, but I want to come with you.”
Less than a year after Mom died, my first baby was born. It was a wonder-full time, if bittersweet. Aunt Loena’s visit was the next best thing to seeing my mom holding my baby in her arms. I felt my mother’s presence, watching, smiling, loving.
But it was hard for Aunt Loena to get away. She spent two decades housebound while caring for her mother-in-law, and then her husband. No one blamed him for his frustration, but he yelled at everyone who came to visit or offer aid, and fired everyone my aunt hired to help with housework and eldercare. It was emotionally isolating and physically exhausting. She never complained, and joked that at least her medical appointments for heart trouble, cataract surgery, and blood transfusions got her out of the house. Like my mother, she knew how to look for the bright spots.
The 911 response team knew her by name, as she had to call whenever her husband fell out of the recliner where he slept. It was time for a nursing home. She visited him twice a day, until she caught meningitis. Her doctors didn’t think she’d survive. I flew to Detroit to say goodbye, but Aunt Loena is a two-time cancer survivor, who has come back from the brink so many times she makes Rasputin look like a weenie. It was a wake-up call, however. She checked out of the hospital with a bucket list. My aunt is 86, anemic, subject to dizzy spells and shortness of breath. Oh, yes, and always up for an adventure, so long as it is wheelchair accessible.
Aunt Loena with my sister Lee and my son Elijah
Our first adventure was a trip to Seattle. We knew she had a great time, because wherever we went, she hummed to herself like a purring kitten. That trip was just a warm-up for her dream trip to New York City.
Aunt Loena in Central Park with Bea and me.
When it was time to leave New York and go our separate ways, it was too sad to say goodbye, so instead we said, “Where to next?” She’d always wanted to go the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario. So that’s what we did. My son Eli flew in from college in Maine, I flew from Seattle, and my sister Lee joined us from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
We went in October, to take in the fall colors as well as the plays.
I chose our motel for its name.
In Stratford I discovered the secret to longevity–a nightly dose of Miss Vicky’s Salt and Vinegar Potato Chips! Aunt Loena is a teetotaler, but she’s not afraid of a little salt and grease. Got sugar? Bring it on!
Each time we part, I fear another long drive or a cross country flight will prove too much. We make a date and look forward to it, but I always check before I make plane reservations. “You’re sure?” And she always says, “Oh, yes. As long as I’m sitting down, it’s almost just the same as sitting at home.”
We promised to bring her to Seattle for fish and chips this summer, but Lee couldn’t make it. I asked my friend Monica, also a Detroiter, if she’d consider escorting Aunt Loena. The next morning I got her reply– she would be delighted! What a gift to us all! We couldn’t have pulled it off without her. Monica and Aunt Loena had been hearing about each other for years, and felt like they already knew each other. We kicked off a week-long PJ party by attending a performance of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.” We also enjoyed Teatro Zinzanni’s very silly but impressive dinner theater show, “Gangsters of Love.”
Aunt Loena made her famous egg salad sandwiches. Years ago, when we all drove to D.C. to visit our sister Miriam, we weren’t out of Detroit yet when Mom said, “Who’s ready for an egg salad sandwich?” It was 10am, but so what? We were ready for another one by lunchtime.
We picnicked at Green Lake–egg salad sandwiches, my brother Lew’s homemade cookies, and Salt and Vinegar Potato Chips. We couldn’t get to a picnic table, because we didn’t have an all-terrain wheelchair, but from our park bench we had a gorgeous view of the lake.
I would love to take Aunt Loena to Hawaii or Europe; even she feels it might be too far. But her eyes lit up when she said church friends had gone to a casino, and she thought it might be fun to try her luck just once–if there was a smoke-free one with wheelchair access. I don’t know anything about casinos, but an internet search and a few phone calls was all it took to locate a smoke-free casino in Toledo, not far from their wonderful zoo. I sent Aunt Loena home with a roll of quarters and a promise. Guess where we’re going next spring!
Saying goodbye is hard. Aunt Loena said Mom always told her, “Whatever happens, we won’t cry. We’ll smile, kiss the kids goodbye, and stop the car around the corner to do our crying.” And that’s what they always did, she said. But this time we all had to cry, just a little.
Most people in my aunt’s situation prefer the security of a recliner, the proximity of their own doctors, and to be in control, even if that just means the remote to the television. Who can blame them? With advanced age, circumstances often change, especially where health, finances, and family support are concerned. Aunt Loena lives her life as an adventure, and adjusts the size of her dreams as necessary. But for her, everything is icing on the cake. New York is as good as Hawaii, and Ohio is as good as New York. But she would be just as happy humming quietly and playing cards with a friend while snacking on a bag of Miss VIcky’s Salt and Vinegar Potato Chips.
I want to grow old like Aunt Loena, to go out swinging or at least singing. When I told her she was brave for coming all the way to Seattle, she laughed and said, “All I need is a wheelchair, and someone to push it.”
You got it, Aunt Loena. And you don’t even need to ask.
All words and images copyright 2012 Naomi Baltuck
gorgeous post ! thank you for sharing, this brought a tear to my eye i dont mind telling you, i hope you all have a wonderfu day xx
Dear Kizzylee, that you so much for stopping by and taking the time to leave such a sweet comment! I hope you have sweet dreams and a wonderful day tomorrow!
This is such an inspiring story. I wish I had 1/10 of your Aunt’s zeal for life. Maybe I’m just missing my own family (my mom died when I was 30 and my dad when I was 47), but this post made me cry. Thank you for your wonderful trips and experiences that you allow readers to follow you along.
Dear Darla, my heart immediately goes out to you. You and I both lost our parents way too soon (I was eight when I lost my dad and 33 when I lost my mom), and that affects a person all the rest of her life. Perhaps that why I love Aunt Loena so much, and take my inspiration from her. I appreciate your sharing your story. I have a feeling that you are more like my aunt than you give yourself credit for. Thank you so much for stopping by!
Just lovely to read. I loved this post and I like your aunt though we haven’t met. She’s inspiring. 🙂
Thank you so much, C.C.
The story of your Aunt Loena is an inspiration. Despite the fact that my voice isn’t one for the ages, I too want to go out singing!
Thank you, Elisa. What a really nice thought. I think enthusiasm counts much more than anything when it comes to this kind of singing!
What a great role model! What a great attitude! Thanks for sharing her with us.
Thank you, Scilla.
This is a lovely story of your wonderful family and friends. Aunt Loena reminds me of my mother’s sister, the remaining sibling of her family. In her 90s now, she used to be ready to go to quilt shows at every opportunity. My mom never learned to drive, so when my aunt could get the car, off they would go.
Hi Patti, that is so interesting about your aunt! My aunt, who was always in the poorest health of the three siblings, has outlived her brother and sister. I wonder if it has something to do with her enthusiasm for life. Sweet to think of your mom and her sister off on an adventure together. Thank you for sharing your story!
What an inspiration Loena is! She must be a very patient and lovely lady. One of my grandmothers spent her final years writing poetry, living by the sea and making her own wine in the bathtub. The other just got more perfectly painted (her face I mean,) and bitterer. I know which example I’d rather follow.
There is a saying I think “When I am old, I will wear purple.”
The question is, ‘Why wait?’
Kasia, your grandmother sounds like a wonderful person to know, and whose footsteps would be wonderful to follow in. I LOVE your comment about wearing purple. I have worn purple all my life, and in my vows I quoted that line of poetry. It seemed important to share a love, a life, and children, but not to surrender my identity (I kept my maiden name) or my sense of self because I was getting married. Our wedding cake, and my wedding dress were both purple!
Great idea my friend ,Thanks for sharing your inspirational images this week 🙂
Thank you for inspiring us all with your theme, Jake. I appreciate your visit.
Thank you for sharing your family with us. The bravery and decency you describe are wonderful to see and hear about. All the best.
Hi Bumba, thank you for your visit and for taking the time to leave such a sweet comment.
By extensive research, Miss Vicky’s salt and vingear potato chips are the best. Yeah Aunt Loena!
Oooh, Gneiss, if you say so it must be true! I am sure Aunt Loena would agree with you! Thank you so much for sharing this good news. I am calling Aunt Loena tomorrow to tell her it’s official!
I want to be just like your Aunt Leona when I’m older. Unafraid, and always looking for the best in life. What a full, rich life she has – even now. thank you for sharing this, Naomi.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this. It is impossible to know what the future will bring, but I hope I can be like her too. I sure appreciate your visit.
Thanks for sharing your story of your Aunt Leona. Reminds me of my Great Aunt Anita. Anita passed away a year ago today. Thank you 🙂
I am so sorry for your loss. Everyone needs someone like Aunt Loena or Aunt Anita that in her life. Thank you so much for your visit.
Thank you for visiting my post and commenting…the reason I’m so thrilled is that it encouraged me to come and visit yours!
There are tears running down my cheeks…they say it is good to cry. It was definitely good to read this. Bravo to your aunt! And to your entire amazing family who come together to share important moments and show their love for each other. 🙂
Hi Vivian, I really enjoyed your blog, and look forward to exploring more of it. You are so kind to share your thoughts about this story. Thank you so much for your visit, and your generous comments. I am really glad to have met you.
Naomi, your capacity for love is quite unique and most refreshing. Now we know the source. It’s also easy to see that you have your aunt’s contagious smile and your mother’s playful eyes. Nice inheritance that! Girls Gone Wild in Toledo casino; I can see the headline now! 😉 Nikki
You are too sweet! I LOVE the picture of us going Wild in Toledo!
Beautiful. Simply beautiful!
with gratitude – Terri
Thank you so much. It is so good to hear from you. I hope you are well.
This story made me cry. Go Loena, Go!! Make sure and let us know how much you made at the casino. (:
We’ll see how far a roll of quarters for each big spender goes! Thank you so much for your visit. Thinking of you and your mom all the time. Now there is an inspiration!
This story just lit up my day…what an inspiration she is to all of us who will follow her
Thank you so much!
I can tell from your loving way of writing, Naomi, that your aunt Leona is very well loved by her family. She was a real beauty, wasn’t she? I had a great aunt who I loved so dearly when I was a child. Unfortunately she died of cancer when I was a teenager. Her cheerful smile and generous nature has stayed with me for all these years. I wish your aunt good health and even longer life. Such precious photos. 🙂
I am so sorry for your loss. Our lives are enriched by people like your aunt and mine. Thanks so much for your kind thoughts.
What a great lady with such spirit. I hope to be like your Aunt when I´m older. This is a wonderful tribute to her. Well written, Naomi.
Thanks, Marianne. I appreciate your visit, and your thoughts.
Great to know you met up with Aunty Leona again this summer. You’re all lucky to have her in your lives – and she you, too. Family – when it is loving, and supporting like you all seem to be, is the most wonderful thing. I treasure the years i had with Mum and Dad as they grew old … Beautiful reflections, Naomi. 🙂
Thank you so much. We are lucky to have her, and each other.
A great pleasure reading about your aunt, and your common adventures. And I do wish you an old age just like your your aunt Leona.
Dear Shimon, thank you for that. I will try to stay active as long as possible, because so much depends upon that. But if the knees or the hips go, there are other ways to open up your world. What I love about Aunt Loena is the way she opens up her heart to the world, and you can do that just as well from a wheelchair.
Beautiful post – Do you know the poem “When I am old, I shall wear purple…” I think your Aunt is the embodiment of that. I hope I too shall be someday.
Me too! I love that poem–quoted it at my wedding. Kasia said in the comments above, “Why wait until you’re old?” That is something to think about! Thanks so much for your visit, and for sharing your thoughts.
Thanks for introducing us to your lovely aunt, in this wonderful and inspiring post. Now for some reason I think I’ll go and make an egg salad sandwich for lunch.
Hurray! We decided to have another favorite of hers for dinner, because we are missing her today. Creamed eggs on toast–the stay-home sit-down version of an egg salad sandwich. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts–you really made me smile.
Thank you, and thanks again for stopping by.
This post brought tears to my eyes. My mother is 83 and she is a shut-in, basically. A lot of her refusal to leave the house stems from health issues but also depression. She complains she’s lonely, yet she won’t do anything to change her situation. The best we can do for her is to remain patient, offer opportunities and lots of love and support.
You are soooo lucky to have an aunt who understands that life is meant to be lived.
Beautiful post. 🙂
I am so sorry. There is little else you can do, but that is no small offering–patience, love and support. And we can determine to live as large and open as we can, right now, and when we are older.
Way to go, Leona. I love a woman with a zest for life and can’t stand negativity at any age. Simply having a cup of tea with her would be an enlightening experience.
It warms my heart to see how you all love her. Beautifully written, Naomi. Who took my Kleenex.
Oh, Tess, she would love to sit down with you too! You both have spunk and a great sense of humor. Thank you so much for stopping by, and for your very sweet comments.
Great story, and one thing I really notice is her smile in the photos – it’s quite radiant!
Thank you so much! Reading your comment makes me smile too.
Your aunt sounds like the most incredible role model. I’m glad you can all share such precious time together and am amazed by the powerfully positive attitude.
Thank you for sharing with us; I’m cheered that you invite us in. 🙂
Hi Ileandra! Thank you for sharing your very kind comments. We are really fortunate to have these times together–we take nothing for granted. I am so glad you could stop in for a visit–I know you must be pretty busy with your little guys. I hope you are all well.
this is such a lovely interpretation of the topic.
you are so blessed to have her as an aunt
I do feel fortunate, Rosa. Thank you for stopping by and sharing your very kind comments.
What a lovely lady, Naomi. My mum died when my son was 7months old, but at least she got to hold him. It would’ve been so nice to have an Aunt Leona. (I hum too- we’d get on fine)
Dear Jo,I am so sorry for your loss. My mom was such a good grandma to my older sisters’ kids, and they have really sweet memories of her. I have tried to help my kids get to know her by telling them stories about her. Having Aunt Loena has been a sweet consolation. I love that you hum too! Thank you so much for sharing your story, Jo.
Oh, Naomi, thank you for this post. All of the relatives on my side are now gone, and I felt like I was with you and your Aunt all the way, with some of my relatives at our side.
Sometimes it feels good to cry a little! Thanks.
Dear Elyse, I am so glad you could come along with us! It is really almost a miracle how transporting a story can be. I can’t tell you what it means to me to know that you might have spent a little time with your relatives while I was spending time with mine. Just writing this post made me feel deeply my mother’s presence, and Aunt Loena’s, and it made those long ago times when we were all together seem very vivid. Have you thought about sharing some of your family stories on your blog? I would really love to hear them.
It was a wonderful time being with your family. I have written a few times about my family. Most of them are humor pieces. Here is one that is both: http://fiftyfourandahalf.com/2011/12/02/both-sides-now/
The most therapeutic piece I’ve ever written.
You did it again. You do it every time. Thanks!
Dear Megan, you are too kind! Thank you so much for stopping by. I have been swamped with travel, storytelling, and of course, visitors, but am looking forward to catching up with all my favorite blogs, including yours. Warmly, Naomi
I love this post Naomi, I love reading your stories and they always put a smile on my face. She seems to be a really nice lady.
You chose amazing photos for this post as well.
Dear Pablo, your comments are always very sweet, and they leave a smile on my face. Thank you for stopping by.
Such a heart warming post Naomi. May your Aunt’s spirit always shine on & may she continue to live life to the fullest 🙂
Thank you, Kavi. You are so dear!
This is so beautiful and lovely post, I am impressed so much. With my best wishes, Thanks and Love, nia
You are very kind! I always enjoy hearing from you.
Such a beautiful story, told and illustrated so beautifully. I hope to carry your aunt’s “can-do” attitude into my older age. She is truly an inspiration – a perfect role model!
I do not doubt for a minute that your ‘can-do’ attitude, so evident in your storytelling, will carry over into your later years. Another thing that I am sure you will have is loving family to support you–children who are your best friends.
Thank you for this heartwarming post about the good times you shared with your dear aunt, Naomi. We can only hope to age with as much grace, good humour and joie de vivre as her 🙂
Hearts open and fingers crossed! Thanks so much for the visit, Madhu, and your kind words.
What a wonderful Aunt you have…What an inspiration she must be to you all and us!! Thank You and I look forward to the post on the casino trip to Toledo!
I’ll bring my camera, and see what happens. I will feel a little bit like the country mouse, but we’ll have fun, whatever happens. Thanks so much for stopping by!
Beautiful and touching tribute to a wonderful woman who has had such a profound influence on your life. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you, Sabrina. I feel very fortunate. I appreciate your visit, and your thoughtful comments.
You wrote such a wonderful story about your aunt that I cried, too, when it was time to say goodbye. She is an adventurous lady and you are an awesome niece–and I bet your mom is right there with you on all your travels. 🙂
Thank you so much for stopping by, and sharing your sweet comments.
Thank you for sharing the wonderful story of your aunt! Beautiful photos!
Hi Amy, thank you for your visit, and for taking the time to comment.
Beautiful post. Beautiful family. Simply lovely, Naomi.
Thank you, Tahira. I really appreciate your taking the time to visit, and comment.
I’ve just nominated you for “The Booker Award” 🙂 See my post, to learn more.
Dear Sarah, thank you do much for the honor you do me! I am so behind on my blogging, but I will enjoy checking out your recommended blogs, and passing this on.
It’s a pleasure, as always, Naomi, to pass on awards to you:-)
I’m often getting behind with my blogging, as life is too hectic. I told David Kanigan, who passed the Booker Award on to me, that I’d post something at the beginning of the week, and only just made it by yesterday.
Every week I say I’ll keep up-to-date with reading all the fascinating posts I peep at on my android and save to read at my leisure. This week has been quite impossible, with me torn in every direction–a juggle to keep everyone around me happy, while squeezing in a very tiny bit of computer time.
A heartwarming post, and what a wonderful person she is. 🙂
Thank you, Subhan. I feel very fortunate. I appreciate your visit.
like it very much! so warm!
That is so kind of you! Thank you for your visit and your lovely comment.
For us it’s Margie, we want to be a Margie when we get old(er) – a diminutive lady who giggled, even in her eighties, she giggled and one couldn’t help but join in. She was able to relate to everyone, any generation, my mother loved her as her best friend, my daughter came to know and love her and seek her out and I was lucky to also call her friend. She was my honorary mother after my own mother passed away.
Margie sounds like a wonderful woman with lots of character. We need these people in our lives, and they need us. It is a really important exchange. Thank you for your visit, and thanks so much for sharing your story.
Oh what a beautiful touching post – it made me a bit misty!
We all need an aunt Loena 🙂
I absolutely loved this line – “Ladies, I don’t know where you’re going, but I want to come with you.” 😀
Dear Dianne, my mom beamed as she told that story! That’s how I love to remember them, laughing like school girls, and on an adventure. Thanks so much for sharing your really kind comments. It is always so good to hear from you.
you’ve written a great tribute!
my favorite photo:
Aunt Loena in Central Park with Bea and you …
Thank you! We got terribly lost that day, ending up in a part of the park that was not wheelchair accessible. We did so much backtracking and it took both Bea and me to get the wheelchair over some rough patches, but we eventually found our way back to civilization and Aunt Loena was still humming away and we were all still smiling!
beautiful post and beautiful pics
Thank you so much!
So many blogs out there to explore, then every once in a while you come across a lovely, moving story like yours. Thanks for sharing!
Wow! That is so kind of you! I look forward to checking out yours too.
I hope that I’m like your aunt as well! She is inspiring. Your story moved me to tears with it’s emotional truth. 🙂
Hi Kourtney, I’m sure you will be. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, and your very kind comments.
This is so very wonderful! I’m glad I’m around the corner already so I can cry.
That was a touching tribute to a wonderful lady and I was lucky enough to meet her and spend time with her. As Soupy Sales would say she is a keeper. She made me feel more hopeful about aging and I thought of her hardships as well as joys and how she just keeps on humming softly and sweetly. When liam and i got home we went to visit one of my Moms old friends at the assisted living where she lived. It was hard going in the door because I knew Mom wouldn’t be there but it was worth it to visit my Mom’s old friend. I think Aunt Leona reminded me of the importance of having people to aspire to and especially for Liam to soften some of his young cynicism. Thanks again Naomi for making me feel a part of your wonderful family. Love, monica
I was so touched that you would have been willing to assume the responsibility of an elderly disabled person for a cross-country journey. It was courageous and kind, and we really couldn’t have done it without you. Liam was so good with her too. It was good to see him too–he cut quite a dashing figure in his coonskin cap! I remember he was very dear with his Grandma.
You ARE one of the family, Monica, and you have been for about thirty years now. I just knew you and Aunt Loena would click; that’s what usually happens between two really good-natured fun-loving people. After she got home I send her one of the beautiful silk handkerchiefs that you dyed while you were here. It will be a lovely souvenir of all our time together.
It was so kind of you to go back and visit your mom’s friend. It is not only a really good feeling to have elders in our lives, but it is also a little gift to your mom and her memory.
I hope to see you next spring in Detroit, when I go see Aunt Loena.
This is such a beautiful story. I’m sure wherever you meet, it will always be full of fun and laughter.
Dear Sheila, thank you so much for this lovely message!
Now I know where your strong and adventurous spirit comes from, Naomi. This is such a touching piece about your Aunt Leona. Also, you have such a wonderful family!
Dear Grace, thank you so much! I love reading your posts and watching Jakub grow up amidst such a loving extended family.
A story that touches the heart. Your mom and Aunt Loena both have a beautiful and loving heart. Their kindness and zest for life and happiness shows in every word and image in his post. Your Aunt reminds us of the priceless value of family that no age, no time nor any physical form can change a heart that loves purely just like the photo were she hugged you kids. Thanks. Have a blessed day.
You are so kind! Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts.
What a lovely tribute to your aunt and family. 🙂
Thank you, Imelda. I sure appreciate your stopping by.
Can I adopt her as my aunt Leona too? What an inspiration for you, and for us all!
(And she has gorgeous white hair too!)
There is always room for one more in Aunt Loena’s heart! Thank you so much for your visit–I always love to hear from you.
Family really is everything. The older I get, the truer this becomes. Great post!
Hi Annie, family IS everything. Everything else is the icing on the cake. Thanks for your visit, and your kind comments.
What a phenomenal story and lady! I am in awe of her spirit… and you shared it beautifully. Please show her your post Naomi! 🙂
Just found this lovely message, Elizabeth. I will certainly show her this post–I hope to see my Aunt Loena next spring for the next trip.
you’ve written a wonderful tribute to your aunt Loena!