|Aunt Syd, Dad, Mary Lou, Uncle Julay|
My aunt and uncle have been married for 67 years, and they are quite possibly the sweetest couple ever! She was diagnosed with Alzheimers about seven years ago, but has been on an amazing medication that has kept her in a pretty constant place. She knows her memory is impaired, repeats herself quite a bit, but has such a fantastic sense of humor, that you can't help but just laugh with her and enjoy her company. Uncle Julay takes such good care of her, patiently allowing her to do everything she is able to do, and helping when she can't. Even with Alzheimers, she can be sharp as a tack. When one of us asked if they still had a computer, Aunt Syd said, "I had to get rid of it, I was afraid he'd find himself a girlfriend online!" Then they both laugh, and he says, "It's in the closet!"
Someone asked, "The computer or the girlfriend?" Everyone laughs.
When my dad and his sister get together, it's stories all day long that would literally curl your hair, and even though I've heard most of them a million times, I still crack up, especially because they see their crazy, chaotic childhood as so darn funny.
They grew up in a tiny town called Grays River, situated in a valley on the road still called the Ocean Beach Highway by oldtimers in Washington state. While my grandmother made a heroic effort to get out of town, attending Portland State University in the 1920's, and marrying an engineer, she returned with her two young children to live with her parents when her engineer husband was attracted elsewhere.
While Dad and Aunt Syd lived with their grandparents, life was good. Great Grandpa owned a store, and a large dairy farm, so there was plenty of food. My dad's earliest memories are of following his grandpa around as he milked the cows, and living for awhile in a couple of different hotels his mom managed. Later, he would spend most of his youth milking his grandpa's cows, until he started high school and moved to another coastal town, and eventually, Vancouver.
At some point, my dad thinks he was about five, grandma married Ed, "the boy next door," someone she had grown up with but probably wasn't in love with. Ed had also been raised on a daily farm, but was then a logger, and a good friend of her brother, Dick. The guys enjoyed their liquor, perhaps a bit too much.
One of dad and Aunt Syd's favorite stories to tell is of going hunting with their Uncle Dick and Ed. It was the mid 1930's and there was never enough food. The men would remove the back seat of the car, take off searching for deer, and when successful, would put the deer in the back, cover it with a blanket, and tell my dad and his sister to "sit on it". Then, enroute to home, they would stop at a tavern to celebrate their good fortune, leaving the kids in the car to "hide the deer" from the authorities. Dad just laughs about it, and Aunt Syd says, "Gawd, I hated having to sit on those damn deer!"
My sister and I are appalled that this scenario played itself out more than once! We ask, "What did Grandma think about this?"
They both laugh and say, "She just butchered it up and was happy for the meat." It's hard for me to reconcile the prim and proper grandma I knew with this woman who allowed her children to ride on top of a dead deer and be left sitting outside a tavern. But, then again, perhaps she didn't know about that part of the story, at least at the time. (She sure as heck wouldn't have let her grandchildren have any part of any illegal activity! By the time we came along, she had returned to college, earned her Master's and was a social worker.)
Today Dad says to Syd, "Remember that old run down house Ed found for free rent?"
She laughs, "No water or electricity, falling down outhouse."
"Broken windows. I don't know why Ed didn't replace the windows. I guess they didn't have any money" says Dad. "I remember helping him lay pipe from the spring for water. I was about six years old."
"Oh, and those bats! I hated those bats!" Syd shudders.
Laughing, Dad proudly says, "I'd get mom's old tennis racket and start chasing the bats around the attic!"
Aunt Syd, with tears of laughter streaming down her face cried, "I'd be laying there with the blankets over my head, because I was afraid of the bats getting in my hair, and your dad would whump me."
Dad, now practically falling out of his chair, would defend himself saying, "I always warned you when one landed on the bed before I swung at it!"
There are more stories, sitting around the dining room table, laughing till my jaws ache. Uncle Julay is right with them, even though he didn't meet Aunt Syd until she was a senior in high school. He's heard the stories so many times, it's like he was there. He often brings up details they forget to mention!
Then Dad reminds us of when Grandma died, on the day of her 50th wedding anniversary. We had been planning a huge celebration, with family and friends coming in from all over the US. Instead we have a funeral. There is silence while we all remember how much my grandparents ended up loving each other, sharing a long life of boating, travels and beach trips.
Dad says, "I moved Ed to our house, with his chair and the cat, Skooter. I still remember him sitting there, watching Lawrence Welk, tears streaming down his face, missing mom so much."
My Grandpa only lived a few months after Grandma. He gave up wanting to live the day he found her gone in her bed, October 15, 1986.
It just now dawned on me that Grandma died twenty-five years ago today. I don't think anyone else realized it. Yet there was a heightened sense of connection. It was palpable throughout the day; we wanted to be there, together.
As we were hugging and kissing my aunt and uncle before leaving, Aunt Syd was weeping and holding each of us so tightly, begging us not to go. We tore ourselves away, with promises to visit soon, hoping she'll forgive us for not staying, knowing she'll likely forget we were even there. I wondered if Aunt Syd sensed today was different.
On the long drive home, we all agreed that we were glad we had made the trip. No one mentioned a sense of loss, but looking back, I felt it.
For some reason this year, as my dad readies himself to leave for Arizona, yearning for the warmth that soothes his achy joints, I find myself tearing up, wondering if it will be the last "Good bye". He isn't as healthy as he could be, there have been several medical emergencies the past few years. I'm not ready to let go, and I empathize with Aunt Syd's tears this afternoon.
And I know, I'll never be ready to let go. But, I have been bountifully blessed with strong, loving family ties. And that will have to be enough.