Wednesday, June 22, 2011

These Pancakes Taste Like Rubber

My Aunt Polly in the nursing home.
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.  Arriving late, we stopped by the hospital to check on my aunt, who recognized us, but was confused and groggy due to the medication she had been given.  She needed to rest.

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 miraculously 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.

Biggest catch of the day!
And 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 being Little Red Riding Hood. She was 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 dairy 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 huge smile on her face, she proudly laid the dairy 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, even singing the songs she mentioned in her writings.

She told us 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 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 as a teenager: 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 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, old and in the way.  Capturing the past in written expression reminded my aunt that her lifetime had significance.  There is an inherent longing in every person to feel their existence on earth has meaning and value.  Jesus set the highest standard by putting the greatest value possible on each of our lives and dramatically proved it by his death on a cross for us.  It is easy to become distracted by everyday living and forget how beloved we are by our Creator.

Three months after her hospital stay, Aunt Polly died.  Not wanting to be fussed over, she asked the staff in the nursing home and the hospital ER 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 friends, family and staff members from the nursing home.  There were warm tributes and numerous portions of her cherished 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 was dug next to her second husband's for her cremated remains.  Her passage here on earth was over.  But the stories in her dairy and memories of her non-nonsense demeanor and determined participation in life live on, rubbery pancakes and all. 

Try coaxing an aging parent, grandparent or loved one to write some of their stories in a journal or have them dictate stories to you so you can pen them in a keepsake dairy.  You will have a true treasure on your hands for yourself and generations to come.

The sunset of life can be beautiful....
(C) Joyce Catherwood 2011
Photos by Joyce Catherwood