My cousin called the other day to reminisce about his mom – it would have been her 96th birthday. He realized a few details in his recollections were fuzzy – and I may not have been much help; I don’t know so many details about my mother’s side of the family. My mother would have been 99 this month had she lived. I guess life crowded out conversations that might have made her life more three dimensional to me.
Sharing our mutual ignorance about our relatives, we filled in a few gaps, and had a few laughs – and we both took in a few sighs realizing what a hard life they had endured.
My mother and aunt lost their mother to tuberculosis when she was 28 years old; their father could not make a home for them. Or, his wife’s sisters ran him off. The aunts raised the girls and put the two littlest boys in an orphanage. I don’t know how old my uncles would have been when they lost their mom and dad and their home.
Having grandchildren makes their loss more personal than just the facts. What a blow these simple facts were in four little lives – an 11 year old, a 7 year old, and two little boys under 6!
That separation never healed, however; even as adults their families were estranged for reasons neither my cousin or I fully understand. My mother and aunt married men who did not embrace their wives’ families – their kids were not oblivious to this. And, that fact might make a chapter or two in the great America novel I keep threatening to write.
Her home wasn’t my home; it was a mooring – an anchorage – that suited the swells of my life. Her home was a breeze to enter, and painless to depart. She extracted no emotional entrance fees, and never ran a tab on her time, or hospitality. Even if she were caught in personal squall, it was never dangerous to come alongside Virginia.
The last time I went into her home, in 2002, her children were preparing the home for sale, dividing her possessions and clearing out. The first time I saw it, around 1956 or 57, it was also empty, but brand new – just before she and the family moved in. Over the years – its ambiance and her welcome seemed indestructible. But, yapping dogs, hearty hel-lo-o-o-o’s and smells that forty-six years of living grow, were gone. The house was almost empty – but worn, the way she was before the Lord moved her on. As I watched my cousins sort, pack and toss; kibitz, laugh and wipe away a tear or two, I realized all my relatives in Baltimore were now gone – I wished they would slow down!
My friend, my aunt, and my mentor, Virginia told me truths I needed to hear and hated to hear. She also knew how to leave out details and still tell the truth. Forcing me to see some things as they were, not as I wanted, Virginia helped me pack for more than one life-journey. She never waited for me to come back, but welcomed me when I did. I learned from Virginia that hospitality isn’t just putting a great meal on the table – although that she often did. Whatever issues there might have been between her and her sister, or her sister’s husband, she made a space at her table for me.
She was not afraid of hard work or pain, either. She died from complications of a stroke -- I visited as often as I could – watching what a stroke can do, was grim; she never was. She soldiered on; she could be right plain spoken about the hassle rehabilitation was – but she never failed to be gracious to those who helped her; she would not give up on her goal to get out of the nursing home. And she did get out of that place. On the afternoon of her move into her new assisted living apartment, Virginia moved, unaided, into a much better home than any of us could have secured for her.
The photo is of the tree in her back yard – many a summer evening I remember her seated, smoking and chatting with neighbors – just enjoying the breeze and beauty of the moment. Virginia’s friendship was a gift more valuable than any family history. Over the years since her death I think about the friend she was – maybe more than the relative she was. She’s been gone a decade. My mother’s been gone sixteen years – and I wish we all could be sitting on my back porch, catching up on what’s been happening!