I've written about Aunt Sarah before. She has been a constant in my life -- someone who offered unconditional love and support. She died yesterday morning. She was 102, her mind had grown fuzzy and her body weak. Her life on Earth had become a burden to her. It was time.
I learned a lot from her -- things that have helped me as I grew into myself and things that I want to pass on to Isaac.
From Aunt Sarah I learned that women could be independent. She never married. For a woman born at the beginning of the 20th Century this was unusual. To be honest, I don't know if she stayed single by choice or if the chance to marry just never came along for her. There were some things you just didn't ask when I was growing up. Regardless, she set an example of womanhood outside the traditional married-with-children-staying-home-keeping-house model that most women of her generation, including her sister, my grandmother, subscribed to. She worked her whole life and was proud of her career - she often had stories to share from her days with the Steamfitters and would defend unions against the staunchest foes. She supported herself and learned how to manage her money so that she would remain independent even in her retirement. Whether it was her choice or just the circumstances of her life, she embraced her single state and enjoyed her independence.
From Aunt Sarah I learned that your are never too old to try something new. As a young girl, and later as a middle aged working woman, she always relied on her feet or public transportation to get around. She never learned how to drive. But when she retired and prepared to move to a more rural town, that would not suffice any longer. So, in her late 60's she took driving lessons and got her license. After that she was never an adventurous driver, and she definitely did not like driving at night, but she had the freedom to visit family, go to the store, or do whatever else she had the mind to. I am probably remembering her drive down the mountain to our house as longer than it really was, but I can still picture her driving along in her little Ford Escort a few times a week to bring us something or pick one of us up to spend the weekend with her or to just visit.
From Aunt Sarah I learned the value of making something new out of something less than ordinary. Having lived through the Depression, and probably also from having to economize as a single working woman, nothing was ever wasted. My sister and I had the best dressed Barbies on the block because Aunt Sarah used the scraps of material (left over from making her own clothes or clothes for us) to make dresses for our dolls. We didn't have a fancy store-bought doll house, but we had a two-story mansion made from boxes, covered in wallpaper scraps, that we enjoyed playing with just as much. She always arrived at our house with plastic bags hanging from her arms carrying whatever it was she was bringing -- whether it was groceries or her clothes for an overnight stay. She reused everything. Shoe boxes were covered in patterned contact paper to hold loose items. Paper towel rolls were cut down to organize cords. She could make a fortune today blogging about her methods for repurposing.
From Aunt Sarah I learned the joy of organization. Well, to be honest, I don't know that she was really organized -- but she did love "sorting" her many contact-paper-covered boxes of things. After she moved in with my mother in her 90th decade, you could often find her in her room going through her things -- mostly paper and photographs, things that connected her to her family and her old friends, she loved looking through these items and reliving memories. She had her own system of organization and it worked for her.
From Aunt Sarah I learned the importance of generosity. She was always buying something for me or my sister or giving us money. Big or small, it was always gifts -- never loans, never any conditions. She always said that she would not be able to take it with her and she would prefer that it be put to good use during her lifetime. As long as she had enough to buy food and pay rent, everything else could be given away. Every time I was at her apartment, there was a letter thanking her for her contribution to this charity or that organization. She wasn't indiscriminate in who she gave to -- she chose causes she felt strongly about or had a connection to or maybe sent her address labels. She gave responsibly and often. Money was not important to her.
From Aunt Sarah I learned to love books. She often took me to bookstores -- the dark, dusty bookstore downtown to buy old copies of Nancy Drew books or the sunny, cheerful bookstore by her apartment to buy my set of Anne of Green Gables books, one book at a time. I can still remember visiting both stores with her and buying books that I still own. Thinking back now, I don't recall seeing Aunt Sarah read much, though I know she did - she was a Dick Francis fan - but she definitely supported my love of books. She would take me to the library regularly but spend as much time parallel parking outside on the Pike Street hill as I spent inside choosing books.
From Aunt Sarah I learned that going to church every Sunday is not what makes you a Christian. I know that she was active in her church in her younger years, attending regularly and teaching Sunday School. But I don't remember her stepping foot in a church except for weddings when she was older. I also don't know that I have met many people with a stronger faith than hers. She had a quiet, but strong faith. It was important to her that we have a foundation in the church, but once she retired and moved, finding a church was not a priority. She knew what she believed, she had her Bible and her hymns, and her faith in God was evidenced in how she treated the people around her.
From Aunt Sarah I learned the importance of family. She gave up her youth to nurse her sick mother and take care of her widowed father. Probably gave up any chance of having a family of her own, too. She adopted us as her own and treated us like we were more than just great-nieces. She moved to Florida with us to stay close. Her mind wandered back to her early days with her family when the fuzziness started to set in. Family was her life, her reason. She would have done anything for us. And us for her.
From Aunt Sarah I learned to laugh. She had the most infectious giggle. Oftentimes, she was laughing at herself as she recounted something silly she had done. Most family dinners that she attended ended up with our stomachs hurting -- not from eating too much, but from laughing with her. Sometimes the story wouldn't even be that funny, but something would set her off giggling and then we were all caught up in her mirth, with tears running down our faces, gasping for breath.
It is the laughter that I will miss the most. There are so many other memories that have flitted through my mind as I wrote this -- watching ShaNaNa in her apartment as she cooked me a hamburger, her telling me not to stick my arm out of the window as we drove up the mountain because she had a friend whose arm was cut off doing that (yes, I believed her), her standing at the refrigerator eating out of the ice cream container (her favorite food), the homemade skirts she wore (always skirts, never pants) --but her giggle is the most vivid memory I have.
She lived a good, long, full life. She was the last of her generation and now she has joined her family who went before her in Heaven. The family she left behind will miss her, but her memories will keep her alive. I can almost hear her laughing as she catches up Grandma and Poppy and everyone else on what they have missed since they left. But I know, too, that she is up there watching over us. Our own giggling angel.