“Mama passed away about an hour ago.” Betty’s email riveted my eyes to the screen, the words immediately blurred by my tears. Betty is my first cousin and her “Mama,” my 103-year-old Aunt Esther, the last of my Weaver aunts to go. (For those of you who live in the Harrisonburg area, Esther was grandmother to Radell Schrock and Ranene Ropp.)
Grief is cumulative. As I sat at my computer crying, I realized it wasn’t just Aunt Esther I was grieving, but all my aunts and uncles, and my grandparents. None of them are left. I heard in my head the full-toned polyphony of voices from Iowa summers of the past—high and low, soft and loud, sometimes crossing each other, sometimes blending, sometimes solo, all joyful in being together. I remember how rich and grounding those days were. I felt noticed and loved, part of a joyous whole. Life was not just good, but radiant and pulsing with possibilities. While that time and the adults who inhabited it are all gone, the glow still burns brightly in my heart.
After Aunt Esther’s ninety-sixth birthday (seven years ago), I wrote this little “love letter” to her—somewhat abbreviated here:
My dear Aunt Esther. She turned ninety-six this past week and she celebrated. Not in a way I would ever have guessed. She isn’t rich and isn’t one to splurge on a new dress, although she has her burial dress picked out and hanging ready in a drycleaner bag in her front closet. She wouldn’t consider a fancy restaurant to celebrate—she can have good food at home. A cruise would be a voyage into the heart of decadence, and a large city would overwhelm her. She was an Iowa farm girl who lived her married life in sparsely settled upper Wisconsin. Many of the things I’d consider a fun celebration would not make it to her list. I’m sure she would have enjoyed a family gathering with a birthday cake, but her family is scattered and early March is not a good time for school children to travel.
So, rather than doing something for herself, she observed her birthday in a way that fits her perfectly. She donated blood. Aunt Esther is a life-giver, a life-affirmer. “Life is in the blood,” she might quote to me, giving chapter and verse, while I scramble—let’s see, that’s in Leviticus somewhere, isn’t it?
To Aunt Esther, life is a wonderful gift. True, she tends to remember only the positive from growing up. My other aunts would look at each other and wonder where her near-perfect past came from. Her children smiled when she said that she and her husband never had an argument, although everyone would agree that they had an exceptionally loving marriage. She wouldn’t go so far as to say her children are perfect, but she loves to talk about their goodness, of which there is more than plenty to say. And she recounts stories of her parents’ faithfulness and generosity. She doesn’t say so, but she has inherited their open, fun-loving, generous spirit. She loves jokes, even when they are on herself. There is always room in the family for another new member and always space at the table for one or two more plates. “Why don’t you folks come and visit us,” slips easily from her tongue, and she means it.
Aunt Esther has worked hard her whole life and has had physical challenges. She was sickly as a child and suffered incapacitating headaches as an adult. Her husband Leroy died sixteen years ago and most of her children now live more than a day’s travel away, but she is one of the most genuinely happy people I know. She tells me repeatedly that she is a walking miracle, that she has been blessed beyond measure, that the Lord has been “so good” to her. Whenever I visit at her house, she eagerly shows me the rugs she has woven on the large loom she and Uncle Leroy set up in her basement. She urges me to take some of the hot pads she has made—for myself, and my sons, and my sisters. She explains how she got the idea to make ties on lap robes for wheelchair bound people when she visited nursing homes and observed how difficult it was for some elderly people to keep robes on their laps. The last time I saw her, she excitedly showed me a new pattern for fabric casserole carriers. New ideas continue to invigorate her.
When I called to wish her a happy birthday, she told me about the bouquet she had received and all the cards from family and friends. I asked about her blood donation, and she said that she didn’t feel any ill effects from it. She has donated regularly and is always careful to drink lots of water, as instructed, and to eat well. She has never felt faint or weak.
She then asked about me and my family and she told me that my call made her “so happy.” I could hear it in her lively voice. I could imagine her smile, could picture her standing in her simple kitchen. I felt like I was the one who had received the bouquets and cards.
I pondered that as I put down the receiver. In spite of the different worlds in which we live, we are closely connected. Her blood links me to my father. She, in her own way, continues to offer me the love he would have given, had he lived to do so. Neither of us say that, but the truth of it lies silently between us. I go through my day aware that the blood she donated on her birthday is not the only gift she has given. She has transfused her life-giving love into my being as surely as her rich, red blood will infuse another’s veins giving renewed life to an anonymous person she will never meet.
Originally written in April 2016