Last week I visited my family in Georgia, and had the great honor to spend some time with my Aunt Ethel, whom you see pictured here. She’s 94, has Alzheimer’s and is living in a nursing home.
It would take me days, perhaps weeks, to express the significance of this woman’s existence in my life. She has always exuded wisdom, but not often in her words. More important, it was in her actions. She was a caretaker from the time her mother died and she and her sister were tasked with raising infant twins. Throughout the years, she raised a handicapped son and a slightly younger brother who had multiple sclerosis and became wheelchair bound in his mid-twenties. She worked in a chicken plant in Gainesville, Georgia, leaving her home at 6am five days a week for over 50 years. Before leaving each morning, she prepared their breakfast and lunch. She stood in an assembly line for eight hours each day, removing the insides of chickens to prepare them for packaging. After a long day of work, she came home to prepare dinner and start the cycle all over.
For the last couple of years during their high school days, my Dad and his sister lived with her while my grandparents were otherwise occupied. And I watched as she nursed several siblings (and her only child) through their final days on this earth.
Each Sunday, I couldn’t wait to arrive at her house for the most amazing home-cooked dinner with so many southern dishes they almost overloaded her modest kitchen table. After dinner, I stood at her side to dry the dishes she washed in a dented aluminum dish pan inside an old porcelain sink, barely attached to the wall.
She taught me how to make the best fried chicken on the planet, can homemade vegetable soup and make snow cream. She taught me to crochet. She taught me how to spot the greens that were ready to pick from the garden. She taught me to keep my negative opinions to myself. She taught me to be kind to my elders. She let me get muddy, mouthy, curious and independent. She always, always made me feel like I was important.
When I was 12 years old, I accompanied her to take her brother to a nursing home. She was getting older and could no longer care for him. The physical labor was taking its toll. He was in his late 50’s at the time, and until a few years ago, she would still tell the story of how I cried the entire way there. For the next six years (before I moved away), she and I made the usual Sunday trek to visit him, and I came to know many residents in the nursing home. From Dot & Betty (best friends who were always in the lobby together) to Louise, who played a jazzy tune on the piano in the chapel and danced as though she was 25.
I share these things today because I am just moved to do so. Gratitude knows no special reason or season. And I am so grateful to have been in her presence, walked by her side and learned from her wisdom. I hope there is someone in your life that means as much to you. If there is, let them know. I certainly let her know every chance I get.
One time someone asked me why I visit her in that nursing home. “Isn’t it sad? She doesn’t even know who you are most days”, she said. To which I promptly replied, “Yes, but I know who she is”.