She’d already done many things for her family. She had eight siblings – one of them my maternal grandmother – and because she’d married comfortably (as opposed to well), she’d helped all of them out financially from time to time. When the Second World War was in full swing and my grandfather went off to fight naval battles in the Pacific, she took my grandmother and my mother in to live with her for several years. And she would still continue to help out – paying for a brother’s car, a nephew’s braces, a sister’s rent when yet another heart attack took an in-law. But when she became a widow, she began to think of herself. ‘You have to be able to make your own decisions,’ she once told me in her thick southern drawl. ‘You have to be able to control your own life; otherwise, you’ve got nothing.’ At fifty-four, she didn’t want to return to the world of work. After carefully calculating how much money she would need to live, she pulled out of the stock market, sold the orange grove, and emptied the safety deposit boxes. She sank everything into bank bonds that would yield just enough interest for a meagre survival, and it was on these bonds that she lived for the rest of her life.
I was five when I first met her. We were living on the east coast of Florida. She drove down from Atlanta for a visit and we made a family outing to Cocoa Beach. She asked me if I wanted to take a swim with her and I said yes. She held my hand as we walked out into the water. The tide had scooped a hollow out of the ocean floor, and I dropped down into it unexpectedly, sinking below the surface. When she’d pulled me up and had me back on shore, I said, ‘Damn you, you tried to drown me.’ She burst into laughter and pulled me against her. ‘That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard,’ she said, wiping tears from her eyes.
On a trip to Atlanta, when I was twelve, we were in her apartment – crammed with all the antiques she’d once owned during her married life – and she told us the young men living upstairs were hippies who smoked marijuana. She didn’t care for them; their Frisbee had once bounced off the hood of her car. ‘But look what I bought at the mall,’ she said, and from a bag she pulled out a plastic plant with pointy leaves. ‘It’s supposed to look like marijuana. They’re going to think they died and went to Heaven.’ We watched as she used a spade to plant it in the flower box outside her kitchen window. Then the two of us sat by the window with the blinds nearly closed, and waited. Before long, one of the young men came loping down the metal staircase. He spotted the plant and reached for the leaf; a moment later, he was shaking his head and walking away. ‘Ha ha!’ she cried, clapping her hands. My mother asked her how in the world she’d even know what a marijuana plant looked like. ‘What am I, a nun?’ my great aunt asked, and winked at me.
Family members two generations older than I was started to die off. Then one generation away started to die. Aunt Sue carried on, moved – out of financial necessity – into a smaller apartment, then a smaller one still. When I stayed with her in my early twenties (in town for my grandfather’s funeral), she was living in a tiny place, still surrounded by most of her antiques. By then, her hair was salt and peppered, and she’d put on weight. All of her eight siblings were dead. My grandfather had been the last of her living in-laws. A letter arrived while I was there that I’d sent from Tallahassee just a few days earlier; in it, I’d written to her that I hoped Granddad would ‘pull through his rough spot.’ My eyes went damp when she showed it to me, and she put her hand on my forearm. ‘Come on, now,’ she said, ‘it happens to all of us.’
I was in my mid-thirties when she moved to an even smaller apartment – what we call ‘semi-assisted living’ for the elderly. She had her own kitchen but it was miniscule, dorm-like. There were medics on-call in the lobby, an emergency pull-cord in the bathroom in case she fell. I was living in Virginia and flew down for a visit. She’d begun to resemble Benjamin Franklin by then, though her white hair was teased up and thicker than his. She’d just begun to use a walker. We walked the halls, passed the day room. ‘Look at them,’ she said, thumbing towards a group of old men sitting around on the couches and armchairs. ‘You know what they are? Greeks. They’re all Greeks!’ Some of them looked back at me, either curious or irritated, I couldn’t tell which. I suppressed the urge to shush her.
‘They’re not bad people, those Greeks,’ she told me once we were back in her apartment. ‘Some of them bring me food. Look at me; I’m as big as a bear. That’s because all I do is watch the news on TV and eat ice cream, and then I eat all the food the Greeks bring me. Will you make a sign for me that says, PLEASE DON’T FEED THE BEAR?’ She laughed and touched her throat. During that same visit, she went into a rant about how certain members of the family – all dead by now – had accused her of not helping them out, and to prove that she had, she produced a shoebox and laid out across her coffee table a series of cashed cheques, some of them dating back twenty years or more.
She spent most of her days in her recliner (an overstuffed piece of furniture that stood out among her antiques). She was suffering from glaucoma by then and was having a hard time reading. I mailed her large-print books. At her request, I sent her a new heating pad, but she didn’t like the colour of the cord and sent the pad back to me. ‘Please send me one with a brown cord,’ her note read.
The isolated life she was living – combined with the effects of her advanced age – were beginning to take their toll. In early 2002, in the middle of a phone conversation about something else, she said, ‘Do you know that I don’t miss my husband? I love him, but I don’t miss him because I can hardly remember what it was like to have him around.’ In another conversation she claimed that her next-door neighbour had abducted her and held her hostage in a shed for twenty-four hours. When I suggested she might have dreamed this instead of actually experiencing it, she changed the subject: ‘I just never thought I’d see the day when Amtrak would start poisoning people.’ I told her it was anthrax that was poisoning people, not the railway company. Not long after, when I called, she told me she’d been taken to ‘the nicest lunch you can imagine’ by a cousin of mine – at a restaurant that served traditional southern food. ‘They had okra,’ she said, ‘and corn on the cob, and mashed potatoes.’
‘Mmm,’ I said, ‘were there collards?’
‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘and whites; it was mixed.’
These conversations would go on for an hour or more at a time when long-distance calls cost per the minute. When I would tell her I had to hang up, she would invariably snap, ‘Well, why did you even bother calling if you can’t talk?’
In 2004, at the age of ninety-four, she fell in the bathroom and broke her hip. The emergency cord proved useful, and in the hospital, post-surgery, two cousins of mine – both in their early sixties – stood on either side of her bed. ‘Aunt Sue,’ one of my cousins said, ‘you have to get it through your head that you can’t live alone anymore. You have to go to a nursing home.’
It was the last thing she wanted to do. She told them so.
‘Well, you’re going into a nursing home, and that’s that,’ one cousin said.
‘Do we really have to discuss this now?’ the other cousin asked. ‘Why don’t we wait till later, when she’s feeling better?’
‘I’d like some water,’ Aunt Sue said. One of them got it for her; she sipped from the Styrofoam cup and handed it back. ‘I want to tell you both something and I want you to listen to me,’ she said. ‘This discussion is over.’
And, with that, she closed her eyes and was gone.
Photograph by Rolf F. Katzenberger