“He yelled, ‘Throw her in the ditch, Alistair! Throw her in the ditch!’ and I just loved him,” she chuckles.
My great-aunt Emily has told me this story a thousand times and today, on a quiet Sunday afternoon, it makes me teary-eyed for the first time. I can hear the TV blaring in her room in the nursing home 3000 miles away and somehow it magnifies the distance between us — the fragility of the past, the slipperiness of memory. At 99 years old, she is now the only person alive who remembers my father as a child. My father, who worshipped the ground his uncle walked on, was upset with the young woman vying for Alistair’s attention. I can imagine the 1940s pickup truck when she tells the story, the pretty young girl climbing in, the surly young man who I’d one day call Dad scooting over to the middle, arms crossed, pouting.
“He loved you too, Em,” I tell her. And he did, even more than his biological aunts. They were proper, mannered, disciplined. Emily was all heart. My father lost his Dad at 11, his Mom when he was in his thirties. Emily, and that big heart of hers, loved him like a son.
When, at 16, I lost him to cancer, she loved me with all her might. She fed me lobster biscuits. She told me the story. She made me laugh again.
I don’t call her as much as I should. The last time we spoke she was still living at home. “What are you up to?” I’d asked her. “Oh, playing cards with the girls!” She’d had fire in her voice. Our call was short. I was so glad to know she was still having fun.
Now she’s in a place called Valley View Villa. I know there’s no valley, and probably not much of a view, and yet when she picks up the phone I hear that familiar spark in her voice. “It’s Olivia,” I say. “Well gosh noodles!” she laughs, “I’m so happy to hear your voice.”
She asks if I’ll come see her before her birthday, and quickly adds “If I make it at all.” I tell her she sounds like she’s twenty-five. She’ll be a hundred in October. I’m trying to schedule it with work, I say, but probably in May.
I’m 33 years old. She has lived exactly three of my lifetimes. “How does it feel to be almost a hundred, Emily? Do you feel wise? Happy? Tired?” I’m anticipating a wisdom bomb.
“I feel pretty darn good,” she says. Boom.
Before we hung up she asked if I could send her a picture.
I could have emailed it to one of the nurses, I guess, but that seemed so boring. Instead I took a stroll down to Walgreens, plugged my phone into their photo printer, and printed out a 4x6. Then I bought a Hallmark card — a pretty one with butterflies and flowers and pink glittery edges, and took it home. I sat at my desk and, in the nicest penmanship I could muster, wrote her an old-fashioned note, slipped in that picture, and stuck it in the mailbox. It took me all of an hour.
If there’s one little bit of wisdom I gleaned from my great-aunt Emily today, it’s that “pretty darn good” is so much more important than I care to admit.
I’ve lived one-third of her life, and I feel pretty darn good. Gosh noodles.