The two women in the photos above are my mom and my Aunt Dorothy. One was taken not long after they graduated from high school; the second was taken in 2013. Born just a couple of weeks apart they were best friends in high school, ended up marrying brothers, and officially became sisters-in-law. By the time the 2013 photo was taken they were both widowed.
I love seeing them together; even though they lived most of their married lives hundreds of miles apart and were lucky if they saw each other once a year, they remained close friends. Their visits were always filled with lots of laughter and jokes and fun. A little over a month ago I attended a memorial service for my Aunt Dorothy. Her passing actually happened in January and was not unexpected; she was 91 years old and ready to move on. And so the memorial service was not what I would call a sad event, even though plenty of tears were shed. It was what I might hope for when my time comes—a celebration of a life well lived.
Aunt Dorothy had her share of pain in her life, yet throughout it she offered laughter and joy and wisdom to just about anyone who crossed her path. The older I get the more I realize what a huge accomplishment that is. She lived her entire life in Allen County, Kansas, leaving it only rarely to visit a son or a daughter, or perhaps a new grandchild. At the memorial service her children, grandchildren, neighbors and friends recalled memories of visiting her on her farm, learning to cook or garden, to fish or play the piano. These lessons were always accompanied with a healthy dose of jokes and advice about life.
I was going through old photos this past week and came across one from the past spring of Mom and my three-year-old granddaughter. I only have a few photos of these two together—who knows how many I’ll end up with, but I don’t expect many.
Aunt Dorothy was already gone when the photo was taken; I took it at an Easter Egg hunt at the assisted living residence where Mom lives. I was standing next to Mom in her wheelchair when Juliet rolled in with her dad and older brother and sister. Easter was still a few days away, but Juliet was all decked out in her Easter dress and carrying an Easter basket. I heard Mom say “oh, look at that” as she watched Juliet prance around in her blue princess dress. Even though Mom has met Juliet many times, she didn’t recognize her own great granddaughter. She’s now 92, has dementia and virtually no short-term memory. Mom literally “lives in the moment.” Each and every moment is new for her, with no past memories and no future worries to mess it up.
I bent down and whispered, “that’s your great granddaughter.” Mom’s hands flew to her mouth and she exclaimed “oh!” Then she began to cry.
Dementia works its questionable magic in many ways, and one of them is that emotions are always near the surface. Mom was shedding happy tears, but when my son suggested to Juliet that she sit in Grandma’s lap so we could get a picture, she was horrified. “No! I can’t sit in her lap, she’s crying!” When you’re three, you tell it like it is. Mom’s tears immediately turned to laughter when she heard that, and after a few minutes Juliet climbed in her lap and I got my picture.
Although she has her moments Mom generally has a wonderfully happy attitude, even though she’s now confined to a wheelchair, can do very little for herself and spends every day in a memory care unit with a lot of other people who struggle to have a coherent conversation. Yet converse with them she does, in her own way. And Mom sometimes confides to me as she looks around, “I guess I’m not so bad off.”
When I relayed this to my sister she reminded me of something Mom always used to say when we were growing up. If we went to her with a seemingly unsolvable problem, she’d advise “Well, you might just as well decide to be happy if you can’t do anything about it.” Like Aunt Dorothy, Mom also had her share of pain and suffering in her life. But both seemed to learn a lesson early in life that many people never learn: happiness is a choice. I thank them both for continuing to pass that lesson on to me.