About 3 pm one Tuesday, we received a phone call informing us that my Aunt Polly, my late mom’s beloved baby sister, was in a hospital and not expected to live through the night. We immediately drove four hours to a small town south of Austin, Texas. My aunt recognized us, but she was confused and groggy due to medication and needed to rest.
Too often, elderly people feel insignificant. Capturing her past in writing reminded aunt Polly that her life had significance.
Early the next morning, we hesitantly entered her room expecting the worse. But there she was, sitting up in bed eating breakfast, complaining to her son, who had just arrived from Florida, about the rubbery pancakes. She was back to her feisty self and mad at the hospital because, as she put it, “When they think you’re gonna die, they call all the relatives.” Two days later, she was back in business in her nursing home.
Since at age 87 her mind was sharp as a tack and she was quite mobile, she practically ran the nursing home where she was a patient, always volunteering and acting as liaison between staff and residents.
She participated in everything—bingo every afternoon, annual fishing from a children’s play pool in the yard, watermelon-seed-spitting contests, riding on parade floats and even an occasional gambling night. She always seemed to win first prize for the costume contests, her most notable outfit being that of Little Red Riding Hood accompanied by the man who lived across the hallway impersonating the Big Bad Wolf. Dancing the Charleston in her flaming red flapper costume was another big hit. And when a visiting Mexican band threw a big sombrero in the middle of the lounge area floor, she jumped up and did a Mexican Hat Dance. Even though her physical surroundings were dismal and her physical stamina was fragile, she decidedly made the best of it.
During one visit with Aunt Polly, I presented her with a diary and asked her to write anything she wanted. “Naw, why would I wanna do that?” was her response. “Who would read it?” Assuring her that I would read it still didn’t convince her. But on a subsequent visit a few months later, with a big smile on her face, she proudly laid the diary on a table in front of me. She had written almost 60 pages. And were we in for a treat! She insisted on reading every page to us out loud, acting out parts and singing songs where appropriate.
Aunt Polly told us that when she started writing she couldn’t stop, laughing and crying over the memories as the past flooded into her mind. She wrote about growing up in a poor, but loving, hardworking Swedish immigrant family in rural central Texas. Every Saturday, her daddy would give her 25 cents for doing chores and they would go to town. She spent her 25 cents on a hamburger, Woolworth’s candy and a toy, then a “picture show.” She writes in her dairy: “What a beautiful life…. What loving and caring parents we had…. No one ever had as much fun as we did. We laughed and loved a lot. Never had an argument. Not very many can say that.”
Her journal describes various jobs: one stitching 30 mattresses a day in a mattress factory and another cracking 80 buckets of eggs a day in a factory that made powdered eggs. She tells about being widowed twice, first as the wife of a WWII Purple Heart paratrooper. With her second husband, she worked day and night in the oil fields. He taught her to hunt, deep-sea fish and how to build a boathouse. Though her life was far from easy, she wrote: “If I had my life to live over, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Little did I realize how much writing in that journal would validate Aunt Polly. Too often, particularly as we age, we feel insignificant and old and in the way. Capturing the past in written expression reminded her that her lifetime had significance. There is an inherent longing in every person to feel that their existence on earth has meaning and value. And it does. Jesus put the greatest value possible on each of our lives not only by living, dying, and rising from the dead for us, but also by taking us with him to the right hand of the Father (Colossians 3:1-4).
Three months after her hospital stay, Aunt Polly died. Not wanting to be fussed over, she asked the staff not to contact family immediately. This time, she was simply too exhausted to hang on and was eager to finally be with her Lord.
During the long drive to attend her funeral, I fretted about whether many would attend to honor her memory. Silly me. Her funeral service was full of warm tributes, and numerous portions of her treasured journal were read aloud. Even her beloved pastor laid aside her normal clergy robe to conduct the service and wore a bright red blouse and cherry red lipstick because red was Aunt Polly’s favorite color.
A small grave for her cremated remains was dug next to that of her second husband. Her passage here on earth was over. But the stories in her diary and the memories of her no-nonsense demeanor and determined participation in life live on, rubbery pancakes and all.
Joyce Catherwood, 2011