“I thought I’d never see you again!”
That’s what Aunt Ruth said when we surprised her by flying to Wisconsin for her 92’d birthday. Dad had been talking about going to see his sister for months, but at 83 he was hesitant. His war wounds from Korea and knees that need replacing make every step a challenge, even with leg braces and a cane. But with Aunt Ruth despondent about being moved into an assisted living apartment and telling us in every phone call, “I’m praying for the Lord to take me,” Dad decided he needed to go see his sister.
Working on recovery from over-dedication to my job, I decided to use some of the ample vacation time I’ve earned to accompany Dad. Maybe I’ve learned not to put things like that off, since I never got around to visiting my sister in California before she died. I thought I’d have more time.
With help from airport staff, who wheeled Dad through security, through the Atlanta airport to our connecting flight, and all the way to the rental car, we made it to Milwaukee. We stood in the hallway outside Aunt Ruth’s door and called her on the phone since she didn’t hear the buzzer or the knock. Dad didn’t want to tell her we were coming, because he didn’t want her to worry. We just told her there was a birthday surprise on the way.
Her eyes sparkled when she recognized us. As she invited us in, I saw that she moved with enough agility to dance circles around her baby brother.
Aunt Ruth usually doesn’t remember what she had for lunch a couple hours ago. Sometimes she forgets that she even had lunch. But she and Dad collaborated to recall colorful details of growing up in Wisconsin. During our three day visit, I was privileged to soak up memories of family history, especially about the grandmother I never knew.
“Our mother was full of love,” Aunt Ruth said. “She could make do with anything.” Making do was an important skill for a woman married to an alcoholic who was “always right,” — but that’s another story. They talked about how their mother, Marie, made most of their clothes, often by re-sewing hand me downs from neighbors. She raised chickens and grew vegetables to “put up” in the basement. Every Saturday she baked 12 loaves of bread, and on Sundays, she made pies and cakes and took flowers from her garden to church. She cared for her mother who lived with them and took in the orphaned children of her brother.
During our trip to Wisconsin, Dad opened up to me more about the horrors of Vietnam, something he’d stopped talking about years ago because it gave him nightmares. He talked about drinking heavily when he got back to the states to try to medicate what we now call PTSD. He told me that he though about taking his own life when I was 12 and totally clueless. But the best story he told me was about the Navy chaplain who took him under his wing and helped him give his pain and guilt to God.
Taking this quality time with my Dad and his sister blessed me with rich memories that might have otherwise been lost. It was a blessing for them to be able to share their memories after having made it through all those years. I will treasure forever the afternoon I listened to them reminisce for hours as I drifted off to sleep on Aunt Ruth’s sofa, feeling safe and comforted by the memories of love that prevailed over all the hardships.
What memories have given you strength or comfort in difficult times?