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Martha Nelson Headshot

You Never Know Until You're There

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Aunt Florence seemed to love her whole life.

Nearly all of it was spent in her home, literally. I suppose today we'd label her an agoraphobic. I don't know. I think she simply loved her life just as it was inside her house, taking care of her kids, sitting in the sun in the side yard, waving hello to people, chatting if they stopped, not worrying if they didn't.

She used to say she had all the excitement she could handle right here at home. She did go out to family gatherings, weddings and funerals, special dinners and cocktail hours from time to time, but they were rare occasions for her and she never stayed long. She preferred to be at home.

She was a widow in her late 40's, my Uncle Jack erupting into death one winter morning at the age of 54. Aunt Florence was taken care of by our family while she finished raising her four children. She remained in the big house next to my grandparents until she decided to give it to her younger daughter, who was busy birthing 12 children, born again into a life of Christian beliefs.

As she aged, Aunt Florence was grandmother to 15 children who flocked to her door like little magpies, barging in with dirty hands, runny noses and requests for treats -- just the way I did when I was a toddler. She never seemed to mind the noise of all those kids in the house. She'd sit in her designated chair in the living room and watch it all, such a genuinely nice woman whose greatest admonition to a naughty child was, "Hey! You cut that out now."

In her 60's she developed a devotion to the New York Yankees. She loved to watch the games on the TV, settling in happily, saying she had the best seats in the house. She'd let you know what time the game was coming on so you'd know she'd be busy.

She drank a glass or two of dry sherry every day of her adult life, as far as I know. She was diagnosed with a small heart murmur when she was in her 20's and she was quick to point out that the sherry was "for medicinal purposes." I used to love to visit when I came home from college and have a glass with her.

Aunt Florence was happily rotund, just kind of nice and juicy, I always thought, petite with blond hair turned naturally gray-to-white. She had a perm every six months and wore sleeveless blouses in the cool northern summers and soft cardigan sweaters over her blouse in the frigid winters. I always think of her as wearing navy blue Keds for three seasons and polished white Keds in the summer.

She was a good cook and made the world's best pot roast with Lipton's dry onion soup I'd ever tasted. You could smell it before you got to the front door. She'd invite me to stay for dinner. I always did.

As she aged, she'd see a show on television or read something in the newspaper about a lingering or painful death and say with conviction, "When my time comes, let me go." She'd say it even more strongly after visiting my mother in the local nursing home, where really old people sang songs out loud in the hallways from their wheelchairs and wailed for dead husbands to "come pick me up and take me home now."

Aunt Florence was always sad and shaken by those visits. Who wasn't?

"I don't want to live like that," she told her daughter. "I want you to promise to let me go if I have a heart attack or something and can't talk --- or watch TV or eat some real food. If they say I won't recover, just let me go then, please."

When she was 88 years old, Aunt Florence suffered a major attack and was in bad shape. In a couple of days she was lucid enough to hear and speak from her ICU bed. When her daughter told her things were bad, that she would not recover fully, that she would be confined to a wheelchair and have difficulty with her heart, speech, and limbs every single day, Aunt Florence just stared at her.

"Are you ready to go now?" her daughter asked.

Aunt Florence blinked her eyes. "No-o-t yet," she mumbled, lips dry and loose from the painkillers.