Hi there! FYI, this post is a continuation of the post from last week entitled A Season of Sundays. The recipe I mentioned in that post, is at the bottom of this post.
This is a tribute to one of the most beautiful ladies I ever had the privilege of knowing. Believe it or not, I began writing this on the anniversary of her passing, way back in February, but it’s just not been easy to relive all of it. She is missed to this day. She was one of the great ones of a generation the world has not truly understood their value. To me, she had a gift for hospitality that was unmatched, and I hope to one day be even remotely as “Great” as she was.
The last Sunday dinner Great Aunt Fern hosted was bittersweet. We gathered together as family had done countless times, knowing it was the end of an era. However, we also knew that it was a celebration of a lifetime of loving. Yes, she was ready to turn in her oven mitts, but we needed to be too. As always, the table was set with a table cloth, but she let us set the places this time, and bring the food to the table…over a simple chicken dinner, we shared stories of the best dinners and many of the bloopers over the years. The faces of cherished loved ones who are no longer with us etched in our memories, that night, and still. Their laughter faintly echoing in our hearts. That night, for our last dinner, she let us “younger ladies’ do her dishes for the first time, while she rested in a nearby chair.
Not long afterward, we gathered to help move her into a nearby residence. She was excited to be joining friends, and to socialize with people each day in person (and not just over the phone)… born in 1912, she had lived through both World Wars and the great Depression. She knew how to economize space – and how to “ration”. It took hours to deal with the saved plastic containers and rubber bands, stacks of paper and buttons. We packed up her lovely tea cup collection and other prized pieces of decor, each holding memories for her, but also for each of us. I carried her recipe books close to my heart, as if I were entrusted with the crown jewels. She had jotted notes to me over family favourites, entrusting me to “take care of her boys”, and to this day, it’s one of my prized possessions.
She spent several pleasant years at the residence. Chris recalls a humorous visit when he walked right past her in the foyer. He had never seen her in “slacks”. She had giggled a reply saying they were for her exercise class, so the “gentlemen wouldn’t try to get fresh with her”. We would try to visit every couple of weeks, usually on a Sunday. It was difficult to take 2 young boys into a nursing home and not develop hypertension – there are just so many red buttons begging to be pressed! But we did our best, and she was always at her best for us.
Slowly though, her sparkle started to fade. She mentioned that it was hard to get close to people, when you weren’t sure if they’d be there the next day, and they lived in a state of fear of viruses wiping out entire “wings” of the residence. When Chris’ dad passed away suddenly, it hit her very hard. He was the one person who called her everyday, sometimes more. She made it clear to us that she did not like “outliving” everyone. However, the announcement of another pregnancy, our 3rd boy, seemed to help her rally. She loved those visits especially. It was precious to take her “treats” and she always hid some cookies and juice for the boys, that she had pilfered from the snack cart. Even in her tiny room, she was the consummate hostess.
A few more years passed and slowly her sparkle began to fade again. She was hit by a number of illnesses that she just couldn’t shake. Our visits became restricted for her sake – but really, I think not seeing the boys made it worse for her. Her wall became a photo gallery of her loved ones.
She turned 99 in September of 2011, and in that last year, I had decided to visit her every week, with and without the boys. I wanted to hear her stories, I wanted her to know she was truly loved, I wanted to say thank you, by just being there. In those visits, I realized she had become reconciled with her own death…she gave instructions on clearing out her room, her will, her wishes for burial…she began to speak of eternal things – her “new” suite-mate had spoken with her about setting her affairs in order, and she told me she was ready to meet God. She told me she did not want to live to be 100, that while everybody else told her it was great, she said she was embarrassed and didn’t want the attention. She wanted quiet…and rest. That Christmas she caught a bug…and never recovered fully, it took root in her lungs and her breathing became challenged, she needed a machine to help her breath. She hated every step of losing her independence. Her niece would visit every day.
That February, Chris struggled with the decision to leave on a work trip, but she assured him he should go. So did the rest of the family. He and Aunt Fern had already said everything that needed to be said…two nights later he called and asked me to go be with her, she had declined quickly, the end was near, he wanted me to be with her…My mom stayed with the boys, I grabbed my purse and my bible and drove down the highway to her…praying. When I arrived, I realized that in my haste I had grabbed an old hymn book off the shelf instead of my Bible…
It was quiet and dimly lit, she was resting, she hadn’t spoken to anyone for quite some time, the sound of her struggled breathing engulfing the space. I pulled up a chair and sat down beside her, opened the book and quietly began to sing every hymn that I knew through my tears. Her breathing steadied…and at one point, when we were alone, she opened her blue eyes and very clearly asked…”no more babies?”. I hesitated…” she couldn’t know…I didn’t know…the whisper of uncertainty… I had just wondered that very morning about my cycles…maybe?…knowing she might rally if I said yes… but what if I wasn’t?.. It would probably carry her passed her 100th birthday… I blinked and whispered quietly, “no, I don’t think so”…she sighed and closed her eyes again, barely squeezing my hand in hers.
Someone entered the room then, and we sang some more hymns together for another hour or so…I don’t know if she “woke up” again after that…but was reassured she wouldn’t be alone… I had to get home to my boys, I got the call early that morning, that she had quietly slipped away in her sleep. Later that week, I took a pregnancy test… it was positive…our fourth baby, a girl, was born in September, a couple weeks after what would have been Aunt Fern’s 100th birthday in 2012…I will always, always wonder…what if I’d said yes?
…and the only reason we didn’t name our Elaina, after Great Aunt Fern, was because way back when I’d been pregnant with one of the boys, she had told me to NEVER name a girl (should one come along) Fern…or Muriel -her middle name. She emphatically told us we did not have her blessing to saddle a girl with those names…but to this day I still think about adding Muriel onto her birth certificate…I’m pretty sure she inherited some of Aunt Fern’s sass and spunk so it would be fitting I think.
Finally, as promised, here’s the PDF to the Butterscotch Cake I mentioned in last weeks’ post.