2003.11.12 Paying a visit to the family character

By RICH FOLEY

By the time you read this, I should be on my way back from a short vacation in Missouri. It’s an odd time for a vacation, I suppose, but I had a good reason for going in November. I went to help my Aunt Sue celebrate her 97th birthday.

It’s kind of hard to put 97 years into any kind of perspective. After all, Aunt Sue’s seen Halley’s comet—twice. Even stranger, she’s a huge Chicago Cubs fan and one of the few who was alive in 1908 when the Cubs last won the World Series. Since she was too young at the time to remember that (this was before radio, much less television), she was hoping they would win it this year, but no such luck.

I guess most families have a family “character” and Aunt Sue certainly qualifies as ours. She grew up in a small town in southwest Missouri. The local school only had eight grades at the time, so after graduation at age 14, Aunt Sue moved to St. Louis to be governess for a family’s children.

The job wasn’t exactly as advertised. The family pretty much expected her to be an all-around servant to them all instead of just looking after the children. Aunt Sue went out and found another job, got a room at a boarding house, and at 14 was on her own in the big city. That probably wasn’t too common in 1920.

Her youngest sister, Liz, joined her in the 1940s and a third, Bernie, in the late 1960s. It was always fun to visit the three never-married sisters, but a little spooky, too, because Aunt Sue was almost a twin to my mother. Aunt Sue had a bit more gray hair, being eight years older, but that was about the only difference.

Aunt Sue came and stayed with us for about six months during my mother’s terminal illness in 1979. It was during this time that I was considering the purchase of my first new car. One weekend, I mentioned that I had the search narrowed down to three cars, a Ford Mustang and two Mercury Capris. Aunt Sue immediately said I should take her to look at the cars.

None of my aunts (nor my mother, for that matter) had ever driven a car, but who am I to tell a non-driving 72-year-old no? That weekend, we were off to the car dealerships where Aunt Sue studied the cars every bit as closely as I had. I asked if the bucket seats all three cars featured would bother her, but she said her last boss before she retired sometimes gave her a ride home and his car had buckets so that wasn’t a problem.

Her only major comment was that one of the Capris was bright red and I’d just be asking for speeding tickets if I bought it. I ended up buying the Mustang, which was a jade green color she liked. She did say after riding in it that the upholstery would be better suited for a house of ill repute. Actually, “house of ill repute” wasn’t her exact phrase, but use your imagination.

The last few years haven’t been very kind to her. She’s had back and hearing problems, and it was always Aunt Liz’s duty to keep her from overexerting herself with yardwork. After several years of failing health, Aunt Bernie passed away in May of 2002. Then, last February, Aunt Liz was killed while crossing the street on her way to the bus stop.

Suddenly, Aunt Sue is on her own again for the first time in over 50 years. But she has plenty of support. My niece, who works with the hearing impaired, came for a visit and took her for a battery of hearing tests. The result was the discovery of a hearing aid that allows her to use the phone again, something she hadn’t done in several years.

The next-door neighbors check in on her every day (unless she checks on them first) and take her grocery shopping. She has a woman stop in once a week to do the laundry and help her clean the house. My sister and brother-in-law drive over from Kansas City regularly to visit and Aunt Sue usually has a list of chores for Gary to help with.

Each time I call her, she sounds a little spunkier and it’s pretty neat to hear her gaining confidence in living alone again. She’s even discussed how she’d like to celebrate her 100th birthday, so we’re all planning on being there for it. That gives the Chicago Cubs at least three more chances to make her happy and win the World Series, although it’s more likely she’ll see Halley’s Comet again before she sees a Cubs Series win.

     – Nov. 12, 2003
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