Sunday, May 29, 2011

Aunt Patty

She can't walk upright any more, and she leans on a cane.  But at 80-years-old, Aunt Patty is just as feisty as ever.

My dad's only sister, Aunt Patty is and always has been our one and only aunt.  We adore her.  She and Uncle Carl and Dad grew up in Pennyslvania, but while Dad moved west to play college basketball in Denver and lost his Pennsylvania accent, Aunt Patty still speaks like the true easterner she is.

We love to listen to her talk - and believe me, Aunt Patty can talk.  Her ocean blue eyes, so like Dad's, mesmerize us, as do the "Brown" squint and her low rumble of a laugh, all uncannily like Dad's.

Aunt Patty and Uncle Steve live  in Virginia, but once every couple of years, they load up their motor home and  travel all the way to Colorado to visit my cousin Stephen and his family.  On the way, they stop by Nebraska to see us.  Last weekend, they pulled into Deb's driveway, and Uncle Steve anchored down the motor home, his pride and joy.

"You girls look wonderful!" Aunt Patty greeted Deb, Mary and me as we helped her out of the huge vehicle.  "You don't look at all like you've just had surgery."

That's what's so nice about Aunt Patty.  She thinks her nieces and nephews are the greatest people on earth and conveniently overlooks all our apparent faults.  But when it comes to religion and politics, you always know exactly where you stand with her.  A dyed-in-the-wool old Catholic Republican, she has her own fierce opinions on every thing from Obama Care to gay marriage.  And there's not a single thing you can say to change her mind.

When Terri elected to have a double mastectomy after her breast cancer diagnosis, Aunt Patty expressed her opinion about that, too.  "Such radical surgery," she shook her head firmly.  "It's not necessary."

So when Deb and Mary and I decided to have double mastectomies as well, we were just a little afraid to tell Aunt Patty.  Terri had cancer.  We didn't.  How do you tell your extremely opinionated aunt you're cutting off your healthy breasts?

"Maybe we should start with an email," Deb suggested. 

I composed a carefully worded message to Aunt Patty telling her all about Deb's hyperplasia, our fear of hereditary breast cancer, and the decision we'd made together.

Then we waited for her reply.

"You should have told me how frightened you were of your mammograms," she wrote back.  "I would have comforted you.  You're brave girls, and I'm very proud of you."

That's another thing about Aunt Patty.  Once she decides she's in your corner, she's all in.  And her loyalty is absolute.  She's been our biggest cheerleader ever since we were young.

Long ago, when Uncle Steve made a career for himself in the Air Force, he and Aunt Patty and our Hamer cousins lived all over the country and even in England for a time.  We never saw them as much as we would have liked, but whenever we managed a family reunion of sorts, we had such fun.

Our seven cousins, all boys, were interesting and intelligent, and every one of them was always up for a good time.  Between the seven of them and the ten of us, we could find plenty to do and even create a little trouble from time to time.

Danny, the second oldest of my cousins, was a sweet blonde boy with a wide open smile.  He was enthralled with the big bales of hay in our Nebraska fields.  "They look like giant loaves of bread!" he exclaimed.  Danny was fascinated by every thing - fireflies, windmills, coal trains - and his deep interest helped me to view those familiar objects with new eyes.

It was when Uncle Steve was stationed in Colorado Springs that Danny first started feeling under the weather.  A swimmer, he ran out of steam executing the difficult butterfly stroke, and he sweat buckets just riding his bike around the neighborhood.  Danny's doctors were baffled, and quite suddenly, at the age of 15, he landed in the hospital.  A huge tumor on his adrenal gland proved to be the culprit.

One fall night, Uncle Steve called Aunt Patty to tell her to come quickly to the hospital.  Danny was failing.  She sped all the way praying with every thing she had.  But all at once, gripping the steering wheel, she relinquished her motherly control.

"I won't fight you any more!" she told God.  "I'm giving Danny to you, dear Lord."

At that very moment, Danny died.

We simply could not absorb the idea that our own sweet Danny was gone.  At the time, Mom was sick, too.  The old happy life we'd always taken for granted was disappearing forever.

Then the following year, Mom was in the hospital herself dying of breast cancer.  We were astounded one day when Aunt Patty walked through the front door calling out, "Anybody home?  It's your aunt Patty!" in that strong and familiar eastern accent.  She'd driven on her own all the way from Colorado Springs to be with us, and for a week, she systematically burrowed through our house, cleaned every nook and cranny that had been neglected far too long, and filled our freezer with dozens of casseroles.  When Mom died, Aunt Patty was with us.

"Aunt Patty," I reminded her on her visit a week ago, "you were still grieving the loss of Danny, you had six boys at home," I shook my head, "and yet you left every thing to come to us."

She shrugged matter of factly.  "You needed me."

It was that simple.  And she was right.  We needed her with us more than we ever had in our lives.

Now, on those rare and special occasions when we travel to Virginia to be with the Hamer family, my siblings and I have a new appreciation for the sacrifices Aunt Patty made for us and how much she's always loved us. 

With our kind, handsome cousins and their beautiful wives and families, we sprawl every where on Aunt Patty and Uncle Steve's spacious screened-in porch and lounge in the Virginia heat.  We catch up on each others' lives, tell stories about the old days laughing uproariously, and savor our brief time together.  Sometimes, I catch myself looking up wondering, "Where's Danny?"

Mom should be there, too.  And Dad. 

But thankfully Aunt Patty is there.  She reigns over the chaos chuckling at the antics of her numerous grandchildren who leap and splash in the pool, and she still manages to express an opinion about every topic under the sun.  It's when she looks over her glasses with those bright blue eyes and fixes us with that penetrating gaze that we feel the nearness of Dad.

I never want to lose my aunt Patty.  We've said goodbye to too many precious members of this good family.  But Aunt Patty, even in her frail body, is the strong glue that binds us together. Her reassuring presence is life giving. She makes those we've loved and lost seem very close - our grandparents, Mom and Dad, and a sweet blonde boy who loved fireflies, coal trains and bread-shaped bundles of hay.

And when she sputters indignantly about politics, Obama, and those terrible Democrats, I shut my mouth.  And I smile.   Her blue eyes flare above her glasses with energy and passion and zest. For just a moment, I am young again. I can pretend my adored Aunt Patty will live forever.

And all is right with the world.

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