“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