How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky?




One of the nicest things about spending Saturday afternoons with my great-aunt was getting to hear to about the family history. She was sister to my father's mom, and one of seven siblings, as previously mentioned. I knew the big stories, but got to hear so many smaller ones that proved to be hardly insignificant.

The most famous one was about her brother Harold, who served in WWII. He was chased across a field by German soldiers and crashed his Jeep in a ravine, being thrown from it in the process. He played possum as they went over to check that he was dead, and stabbed him in the leg to make completely sure. He laid as still as a dead man, and survived it. He went on to earn five Bronze Stars and died thirty years later.

The one she loved to laugh about the most was when my grandmother was pregnant with my father, and the women were busy crocheting little clothes for him to wear. My great-aunt was the least crafty of them all, and one evening her mother, Ruby, gathered the sisters to inspect their handiwork. My grandmother's was fine; Ginny's was fine; then she got to my great-aunt and was appalled. It was a little shirt, or supposed to be, but the armholes were so small, "you'll break the baby's arms trying to get them in it!"

When the family moved to this city, they lived near the downtown area in a cold-water flat. They had the usual early-twentieth-century amenities: an icebox, a coal stove, general lack of air-conditioning. They used oil lamps for much of their light. And though poor, they were not kept from observing holidays as we Americans are so very fond of: with lots of food. They would cook a big meal the day of, and have plenty left over for the next day, and for any neighbors who came by.

On cold winter mornings, her father, Henry, would get up early to start the heat in the stove so that Ruby would get out of bed no less than warm and toasty, and he would rouse the kids and cook a pile of flapjacks for breakfast. One year, they had so little money at Christmastime that there was nothing for gifts. But my grandmother, the youngest, still believed in Santa Claus and just knew he would bring her a tiny little couch to complete her small play furniture set. So Henry dug very, very deep, and very likely did without something he needed, and come Christmas morning, Hazel had that little couch.

There was a mean girl in the neighborhood who was bent on revealing to Hazel that there was no Santa Claus. She was almost as mean as Aunt Ginny. I can just imagine the tidal forces colliding when Ginny grabbed her by the shirt and snarled, "You tell her there ain't no Santa and I will hurt you somethin' fierce..."

There were only six kids in that cold-water flat, you know. The eldest sibling actually died shortly after he was born. I didn't know that until last year.

So those six kids grew up, had boyfriends and girlfriends, held jobs, joined the military, got married...but, as my great-aunt told it, as long as they were in the city, it didn't matter what plans they had for New Year's Eve--they, every one of them, still showed up on Mama and Daddy's doorstep at midnight to say a prayer with the family for the new year.

My great-aunt claims she didn't know how to so much as boil a pot of water when she was a young woman, and that Ginny moved into the same apartment building as she to teach her how to cook. (It worked: the woman was making full meals from scratch up until maybe two months before she passed away) She then moved to Chicago for quite few years; I don't know the exact time-frame, but it was after the death of her husband (he died in 1944) and before the sixties. She first lived in a residential hotel called the S&S with a bunch of other young twentysomething women, and they worked their jobs and courted their men, and often gathered in early evenings in the hotel parlor to play cards and listen to music on the radio. This, she told me just one week before the last time we ever spoke.

I knew her parents lived in Kentucky when she was small, but not that they actually were from Arkansas, and that she remembered the names of the men her father worked for (as poverty was kind of the norm back then). She even told me once the names of her mother's parents--I believe the father's name was Herman, because I remember thinking it's just a terrible name for a man to be shackled with; but the mother's name was Circe. How beautiful!

As someone who has been discovering a love affair with early twenieth century life, I just think it's pretty cool that I got to learn so much from an authentic source, and that it was all about people who mattered to me, too. The next time I get a chance to go to her house, I'm going to grab that photo album with those awesome old pictures and get copies made. They're even better than the ones I ganked for this post. :-)

(photos courtesy of www.phsc.ca, www.guardian.co.uk, www.waynoka.org)


At the end, from a rare height.


When my brother and I were young, we often spent weeks at a time with either our grandmother or our great-aunt. I only realized a few years ago that our parents probably did that so they didn't go completely insane.

Time spent at our great-aunt and -uncle's house was always a good time. I especially liked the way her scrambled eggs at breakfast were always just a little runny, even if the cream of wheat was a bit grainy and unsweetened. At night she would fix me a bread-and-butter sandwich, something my mother would never in a million years have done. My brother enjoyed warming syrup and butter together and dipping strips of bread into it. We usually went to bed pretty happy.

Uncle Phil always, always had a bag of M&Ms waiting for me when we visited. He'd keep it on top of the refridgerator, pretend they weren't there, and I'd pretend I wasn't waiting for them, and then he'd get a little smile and bring them down and pour me a whole placemat full of them, it seemed. I never even liked M&Ms any other time, but from him, they were pretty awesome.

As I said, Uncle Phil was from Mississippi. Any 'ir' or 'ur' in a word was automatically an 'oi.' You may have heard this before. So one morning, my brother was up before me, and sitting on the front porch poking around for bugs with a stick, and as I trudged down the hallway I was just in time to hear Uncle Phil grouse, "Boy, get outta that doit!" Clearly, we laughed all day about it and still laugh to this day, if one of us mentions it.

The backyard was a very nice size, with an old shed and brick barbecue pit for me to daydream over, and a big tree that my brother attempted to summit time and again to no avail. We rolled around in the grass and got itchy. We discovered a huge, mutant ant that he matter-of-factly told me was a 'granddaddy ant' and proceeded to, of course, poke with a big stick. We begged to eat lunch on the old picnic table.

After dinner when the sun was going down we'd sit on the front porch and listen to the cicadas whirring in the trees, a sound that still soothes me and takes me back to better days. My brother and I didn't know it then, but we were living life in a different rhythm, one that the former generations knew well, and to whom watching the sunset and talking about nothing in general made the most sense in the world.


We loved to watch TV, of course. Soaps took priority. Young and the Restless, Bold and the Beautiful. My poor brother got as hooked on them as I did. We also watched The Price is Right faithfully and even kept score (though I can't remember how or why). Channel 4 was the news station of choice, and in the evenings it was shows like Beauty and the Beast and Murder, She Wrote.

My brother and I played with our toys, too. A lot. We read comic books on the guest bed where we slept nights, and devised numerous action sequences with our He-Man and C.O.P.S. (remember that cartoon?) action figures. One afternoon my brother discovered that I had placed Superman on top of She-Ra in a suggestive way. He immediately grabbed them and ran to our great-aunt. "Look what she did!!"

"So?" she replied without missing a beat. "Don't your parents do that, too?"

The idea of that was not a good one for me at that age, but I was very happy that she had saved me from a TON of fun-making.

Above all, we laughed a lot. Our great-aunt was a very, very funny lady. Though she knew how to scold and shame, those moments always vanished before long in favor of the greatest, happiest atmosphere a kid staying with two old folks could ask for.

There's a peculiar light in that guest bedroom. The windows are boarded with quaint blinds that are rarely open, and dainty pink window curtains fall to the middle. The sunlight coming through those curtains creates an alternately rosy and golden glow in the room that isn't bright but warm, and feels like the past; as if beyond the window lies a field of wheat and a neighboring farmhouse, and folks headed to town to the soda shop and the nickleodeon.

There's just something about the past, isn't there.


All those days are gone.

You may remember me speaking every so often about my great-aunt, who I go see every Saturday to visit, bring groceries, and do some cleaning. I even did a post once about the crazy grocery store in her area with the colorful cast of characters. Well, last night after a brief downturn (the longer catalyst being congestive heart failure) she passed away.

When I moved back to my home city in the summer of 2007, I was hardly here three days before I volunteered to take her to the doctor so my dad wouldn't have to miss work. Almost right away she enlisted me to come by the house Tuesdays and Thursdays (since I didn't have a job then) in much the same capacity as I have been doing. Once I did find a job, that October, I reduced it to every other Saturday. In 2008 I took a hiatus from helping her for a while, just midsummer into fall, and by Election Day I was back in the saddle. I went every Saturday for over a year, only missing one week as I was in North Carolina.

She went into the hospital exactly two weeks ago after it became much too hard for her to get around with all the pain caused by her swollen legs. The pain had been increasing since Thanksgiving, and I guess her body saw it as a good time to go ahead and turn things over to God.

She was eighty-five years old. Up until literally just two months ago, she was still cooking for herself--good meals, too--and doing some sporadic cleaning during the week. She loved watching CNN, which she discovered after Young and the Restless finally started to bore her. (If I never see that Saturday afternoon news crew again, it will be too soon) And she was a talker. Boy, was she a talker. She only had two books in the house, one being the Bible. Pretty much the exact opposite of me. So I mostly sat and smiled while she went on.

She never lost any teeth, never became incontinent, and never for a moment lost any of the sharpness of her mind. Just last fall my dad arranged cataract surgery for her, and her eyesight so greatly improved it was like seeing the world anew all over again, and she didn't need glasses anymore. In the nineties, nearly ten years after she quit smoking, she got lung cancer, but fully recovered. She also had diabetes but never any complications. She didn't even take insulin.

She was the last of her seven brothers and sisters to die. The one before her was my grandmother, my father's mother, in 2001. I am much more like my grandmother. Some days, while listening to my great-aunt talk, I would wonder why my grandmother had to go away before I was fully grown and knew how to appreciate the wisdom she had to give. I didn't resent my great-aunt. I just wish there was more time.

My great-aunt married at the age of nineteen to a man named Lawrence, who enlisted right away into the army and served in WWII. He died in Italy in 1944, barely two years after their marriage.

The uncle I remember is Uncle Phil from Mississippi, a really down-to-earth, extremely nice person. He passed away in his sleep in December of 1990.

She had been without the first love of her life for sixty-five years, and the last, for twenty years.

This past November, I for the first time discovered photo albums in her bedroom. We sat on her bed and looked through them for over an hour. I saw Lawrence for the first time (extremely handsome, as I should have guessed). She had a letter from the War Department near the albums, in a cardboard tube, and we pulled it out and looked at it. It was signed (stamped) by Franklin Roosevelt. It contained a very solemn, eloquent message about the courage of all soldiers and the gratitude of the nation. It listed his date of death as November 14, 1944.

"But," I said slowly, "but today is November fourteenth!"

"Why, it sure is," she said.

Not to get too mystical, but how interesting that exactly sixty-five years after his death we would find the certificate and look at his photographs. Even though her health had not begun to decline at that point, I did wonder for a brief moment if this was some sort of harbinger, something that we were being told.

After so many, many months of going to see her, listening to her, learning about her history and the family's, it is so strange to know that I will never again spend my Saturday afternoons at her house, never again change the bed, taking care to fold envelope corners; never use the ancient vacuum or dust around all her little elephant figurines. Never sit forcibly enthralled by CNN, or hear another story about times and places that now seem so real to me. The folding of the clothes is done. The house sits immaculate but empty. All those days are gone.



In three-part harmony.

You are my sunshine
My only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are gray
You'll never know dear
How much I love you
So please don't take my sunshine away


The other night, dear
While I was sleeping
I dreamt I held you in my arms
When I awoke, dear, I was mistaken
So I hung
My head
And cried