Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Life Archiving: Aunt Gerry's 85th Birthday

Aunt Gerry and Me

Today is my Aunt Gerry’s 85th Birthday. I am reminded by her photo on the family calendar and a note on Facebook, reminding me to wish her a happy birthday on this day. Aunt Gerry won’t get my note on Facebook, however, because Aunt Gerry passed away on December 31, 2016. Her funeral was the first family event of 2017.

Here I am, coming up on a year of the anniversary of her death, and exactly a year ago today since I last spoke to her. I called her on her birthday last year and we had a great conversation. I remember feeling relieved that she sounded so relaxed and happy, a state of being that wasn’t typical to the one my aunt had a tendency to dwell in.

Gerry was my mother’s big sister, and I claimed her as my own from a very early age. I remember swimming at the city pool (the old one in Wright Park before it was torn out and replaced by the new pool near the civic center), my arms looped around Aunt Gerry’s neck, and someone asking her if I was her daughter. It must have been the answer that made the memory stick so solidly in my young mind.

“No, she’s my sister’s girl, but I claim her. She’s mine.”

The stranger then told me how much I looked like my aunt and, just like that, I could see the resemblance. I claimed her, too. She was mine. Never mind the fact that she had two sons. Brent and Leon were near-adults by the time I came along. At least, they certainly always seemed grown up already to me. I was saddened by the knowledge that my aunt had two babies, twin girls, who had died at birth, long before I was born. I think this made me even more determined to be Aunt Gerry’s girl. Boys were fine, but sometimes Aunt Gerry would brush my hair or help me pull it into a ponytail and she’d say, “I’m not very good at this. I didn’t get to practice on my girls, and though my boys had long hair for a while, they never wanted braids.”

I don’t know all of the details or the timeline, but my aunt got sick when I was very young. She was diagnosed with Addison’s Disease and her skin, which was already darkly olive in complexion, like my own, turned near-black. I have a memory of visiting her in the hospital, and wondering how the paint had been applied so thoroughly, and then she got better and her skin lightened, but not entirely. After that, I remember my mom keeping a close eye on the Gerry’s color, and if she seemed tired or weak, Mom would encourage her to rest and take better care of herself.

When Mom had her first breast cancer surgery, I was seven, and I spent even more time with Aunt Gerry than usual. That summer, it was Aunt Gerry who took me shopping for a new swimsuit, and we went to JC Penney’s where I picked out a two-piece bikini covered in tiny little polka-dots. The suit was in “our colors” as Gerry and I were drawn to deep blues and purples while my mom tended to be a fall color sort of person who wore lots of reds, oranges, browns, and golds.

Aunt Gerry pretty much became my dedicated shopping partner, and whenever I needed a dress for a special occasion or a new outfit, it was Gerry who would head to the dressing rooms with me or help me brainstorm and select fabric for the outfit my mother would eventually sew from scratch. Mom’s and my tastes eventually diverged so completely that she relied entirely on Aunt Gerry for gift selection of all kinds. It wasn’t unusual for me to open a birthday or Christmas gift to hear Mom say, “Aunt Gerry picked it out,” as a way of assuring herself that it would be something I would like.

Aunt Gerry and Mom (Ethel Geraldine and Evelyn Reaujean, were their full names) often presented as a pair, and they were probably together, the older they got, more than they were apart. They lived right next door to each other in the country with only their mother’s house (Grandma Skaggs) in between, and I grew up understanding that where you were to find one you would likely find all three. They drank tea together in the mornings – hot tea if it was cold out and cold tea if it was hot. They had their own garden plots laid out pretty much with borders touching, and could often be heard having conversation between the weed pulling and hole digging. When it was harvest time, they’d can together in the kitchen and they’d watch their soaps, of course, and worry together about what ole’ Lisa Hughes on As the World Turns was up to now.

As I entered my teen years, I began to think of Aunt Gerry as the realistic one of the duo. My Mom was quick to don her rose colored glasses and paint away the wrongs of the world with rainbows and glitter. Mom was always urging me to put myself in other people’s shoes and consider things from another’s point of view, while Aunt Gerry would simply nod her head in agreement that what the supposed BFF said in front of everybody in school that day was rotten and then she’d help me plot revenge. It was no wonder Aunt Gerry’s house became my first stop off the school bus through the deep, dark days of junior high school, a time I wasn’t sure I even wanted to survive. In Aunt Gerry, I was always sure to find a sympathetic ear.

I was living in Grandma’s house with my husband and my firstborn, between Mom and Gerry, when my mother passed away in 1997. Grandma was 89 at that time and had been dividing her time between Mom’s house and Gerry’s, and when I returned to Kansas, Grandma started staying with us, part time, as well, as it seemed like returning to space in her own home would be good for everyone. Gerry and I grew even closer through our grieving for Mom and caring for Grandma. My Uncle Riley, just down the road, traded days with us, as well. We moved forward, best we could, all experiencing a world lacking the luster and shine my mother’s dedication and care added to our lives.

I had a second child. Grandma passed away in 1999. My third child was born. Gerry and I attended Sunny South Extension Club (the old homemakers’ meetings of Gerry’s and Mom’s days) together monthly and I encouraged her to sync her grocery shopping trips with my own as much as possible so that we could ride together. With three kids in tow, it was always helpful to have another set of arms available.

The hardest thing about the decision to leave Dodge City, for the second time in my life, was leaving my Aunt Gerry behind. She still had Uncle Barney, but I knew the vast yard, former vegetable and flower gardens would feel even lonelier to her without my family there, right next door, to help fill some of that quiet space. She wasn’t my mother, but she was still mine. We claimed each other. We viewed the dull grays of the world together and did our best to help each other carry the weight of my mom’s left-behind rose-colored glasses.

Every visit home, I would see how much older she had gotten. She’d confide to me that life just wasn’t as much fun as it used to be with Mom gone, Grandma gone, and eventually my Uncle Barney gone. I’d drag Aunt Gerry off to whatever family gathering we were planning—I was told I was the only person she wouldn’t say no to—and we’d visit and reminisce and marvel over how all the kids were growing.

She was mad when she had to move into the nursing home at Fort Dodge, but Aunt Gerry being mad had never really phased me. “They say they are worried about me falling down at night,” she told me on the phone, “But it’s not the night time I have trouble with falling down!” She’d lost her little dog and it had been added to the list of all that Gerry missed when I would call and we would visit. It would take no time at all, of course, to get her to laughing and talking about something else, maybe the last book she had read, or the book I was writing that I had been sending to her in pieces to read. She would ask about the kids and I would ask about her grandkids and she would update me on all the growing little cousins and talk about the most recent one to visit.

We last talked on her birthday, one year ago today. I got the call from my beautiful cousin, Carla (thank you, Carla) shortly after we arrived home from a family trip abroad. Our last in-person visit had been a happy one. Aunt Gerry had been full of smiles and jolly. She’d even been happy with her roommate at the nursing home, and I’d thought that she reminded me an awful lot of Mom on that day as we carted her off to eat pizza with the family at my brother’s house.

Aunt Gerry didn’t linger long or suffer at the end, and I was content that we’d had our good times together. Driving to Dodge City for Aunt Gerry’s funeral was not the way I would have wished to start the year, but the time with family was a bonus, and it was at least a reminder to all of us to say hello and hug each other an extra time or two. We needed the extra hugs this year. We’ve lost too many.

I’ve missed Aunt Gerry immensely these past 11 months and I’ve regretted, again and again, not having taken—or made—the time to put some of these thoughts and memories about her down on paper for the archives of my life. For her birthday, I give myself the gift of this time.

I like the image I carry in my mind of Aunt Gerry and Mom and Grandma Skaggs—together again—drinking tea and watching over the whole family. I like looking in the mirror and seeing the fine lines of white just beginning to appear in my black hair, on its slow transformation to silver, just like hers.

I don’t know that I’ll be the Aunt Gerry of any of my nieces or nephews lives, or if I’ll be the Aunt Jean or the Aunt Bonnie or the Aunt Lynetta or the Aunt Vadonna or any of the Great Aunts that have touched my life and made me uniquely theirs in the way that only an aunt can. I hope that they will know—in the way that I always understood with Aunt Gerry—that I claim them. That they are mine. Just as I remain, Aunt Gerry’s.

Ethel Geraldine "Gerry" Skaggs Lee
November 21, 1932 - December 31, 2016

Me with My Mom's Siblings, Gerry Lee and Riley Skaggs

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