Resilient centenarian (almost)

My great aunt June is not 100 years old, but she is tiny and raspy and thin. She’s a little bird of an old woman, with cotton candy hair and skin so much like tissue paper you can see the veins running underneath. She squeezes my hand so tightly, my knuckles leave an imprint on the other. I’ve been thinking a lot of mindset and routine and lives, and how the things we expect don’t happen and the things we don’t know become all to familiar. I recognize my inability to treat myself the way I treat my friends. How I can usually infuse perspective, humor, and flexibility into their situations, but how I seem to lack this at times when helping myself. I don’t know where my sense of humor goes when I am alone. It’s there, I think, somewhere, but I don’t pull it out immediately. It’s the last tool I utilize.

And I think about Ireland when my hands were tan and blistered, but strong. I think about my great aunt June and the hilarity she continues to find in life, even as she has more frequent trips to the doctor, even as she struggles to breathe some days, even as she realizes she’s forgetting names, dates, places. She wrote a memoir ten-fifteen years ago. Typed, printed, and bound, it sat on my mother’s bookshelf like anything else. I was delighted to read it, knowing it would be infused with the humor and good sense of this woman who was always around but always on the fringes somehow.

My great aunt June went to college at a time when the MRS degree was not uncommon. She graduated and worked instead of getting married. She moved to Indianapolis, to Kansas City, to Chicago; she gathered up funny stories and sadder stories with funny endings like pennies in a wishing well. She never got married; she never had any children. Her nieces and nephews became her children. We, the great grandchildren of her sister, became her grandchildren. Kind of.

When you enter her home, you step over a rug that compliments your underwear. She says “high-larious” and tells you about her most recent misfortunes. She shares her treats. I roam the rooms of her small house admiring the pieces of her life that were–her artwork, her furniture, her trinkets. What fascinates me most is that she’s had to define herself without relation to others. Especially now that she’s older and she’s buried her parents and her sisters, and the visits of her remaining family grow shorter and more sporadic. I wonder then what kind of resiliency that takes, and if I have it. How she gained it. I think about the story in her memoir when she answered the door in her nightie to a policeman. I think about how I can never remember what she said to him that made him uncomfortable, or the way the interaction ended that was so ludicrous and perfect, but even the vague memory of the story makes me laugh every time.

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