31 July 2012
At any rate
My Nanny and Papaw lived in a tiny low-slung ranch house on a dead end street in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and just three houses to the south her sister Lorene and her husband Jim lived in a brick ranch a number of years newer. When we were kids, my cousins and I pedaled and skipped between the two houses without rhyme or reason, speeding up past the neighbor's chow-chows that would bark after us from the end of their driveway. Nanny's was home base, was home period, but Aunt Lorene's was an available diversion with an open-door policy. There you could get a tall glass of instant iced tea served at the kitchen counter, plush mint-green carpet under your bare feet, ceramic or wood minis to paint at the dining room table, a note scribbled with a tiny pencil on a spool of receipt paper dispensed from the wooden holder on the thin strip of wall between the kitchen and the laundry room. Uncle Jim was diabetic, so you'd also find fruit in a bowl on the table and might witness the daily routines of insulin shots and monitoring of blood sugar. They never had kids of their own and I never knew why. But they had all of us. We wandered in and out at will.
Uncle Jim died when I was a freshman in high school--the first family funeral that I remember, maybe my first funeral ever--and Aunt Lorene's house became a second place to stay when I brought friends from Cassville and even college to visit the street where most of my childhood memories are centered. She made it just fine there on her own for quite a while, sleeping in past 10 if she wanted (to her sister's dismay), and buzzing around in her big maroon Mercury to church, the casino and the Senior Center. I didn't see her as much as I grew older, and the easy comfort I felt around her as a child waned with time and distance and her inability to hear well. But the amused affection we've all always felt for her remained. And for her trademark quirks: Bright pink lipstick, which she'd leave on your cheek as she greeted you with a kiss. Ordering blue cheese for her salad at Hamlin's in a hurried huff with the outdated name Roquefort. Her attempt to get in the loop on conversations around her with a slow, "Now do what?" And her filler phrase, tucked into the middle of stories or at the end of statements, "At any rate..." She was the spunky, rebellious counterpart to our loving but straight-laced Nanny. Not our great-aunt. Just our our Aunt. I sent her a birthday card a couple of weeks ago, with a short note about what we were up to here in Missouri, mailed to the retirement village in Ardmore where she'd lived for the last couple of years near my Aunt Phyllis.
Tuesday evening she sat in her recliner at the village with a can of Ensure and never got up. When she didn't come down to breakfast Wednesday, staff found her still there, legs crossed, in her chair. She left us unexpectedly but peacefully and Lindsay and I drove from KC to home then to Muskogee to be there yesterday with a small cluster of family and some of her friends I didn't recognize, the lot of us gathered in the relentless Oklahoma sun to say goodbye. I stood behind my Nanny's wheelchair and peeked at her during the prayers to see her head up, neck pivoting, looking at the faces around her with no expression that I could read. Later, after lunch at Debbie's next door to Nanny's old house, Lindsay and I noticed her take out her sister's funeral program tucked between her leg and the chair and read over it at least ten times, chin up and glasses down, like she was perusing the West Side bulletin or the Muskogee Phoenix. Again, no expression that I could read. Maybe it's better that way.
I had Lindsay drive slowly down South 24th Place when we headed home so I could capture some of the landmarks that have changed more in their present conditions than they have in my memory. Nanny and Papaw's low front porch. Jim and Lorene's sparse brick facade. The Stanley's inexplicable decapitated cow cut-out. The spot where you turn from Smith Ferry Road and know you're there. There where I come from.
Aunt Phyllis was the most heartbroken, having taken care of Aunt Lorene these last few years when she needed it most. She made sure Aunt Lorene was decked in her favorite pink lipstick at the funeral home and had just taken her for a cut and perm that Tuesday. Her last day. Phyllis said she never looked better, actually, when she last saw her, coiffed and bathed and in a fresh outfit. Fiesty and combative as ever, Phyllis told us, before she announced that Aunt Lorene had been "set free" in her last years when Phyllis told her she didn't have to wear the hearing aid she despised if she didn't want to. Or wear underwear, which Phyllis said Aunt Lorene "hated with a purple passion." News to me. We laughed out loud as we mingled near the funeral home's tent and made our way across the crunchy brown grass of the cemetery, away from Aunt Lorene there next to Jim, each of us running through our own mental inventories of funny things we remember her saying and doing. It seemed fitting. I will miss her and think of her with that same amused affection. At any rate.