My Great Aunt

According to Mark Twain—or at least those who’ve studied him—comedy is tragedy plus time. Having spent decades taming and twisting tragedy, trauma, and personal torment into something funny and less frightening, it’s fair to assume that I would not disagree.

On the other hand, having spent some considerable time trying to write about my beloved Auntie Charlene, who passed away on July 16th, I’m moved to wonder: how MUCH time exactly? By that I don’t mean “how long before I stop missing her?” but rather, “When will I feel like making people laugh again?”

Don’t think for a moment that Auntie wouldn’t approve. She may have been the person who hoped and prayed the hardest for me to find Jesus, but she was also the one who suggested I attend the church Halloween party dressed as Salome. It was also she who provided the scarves that served as the seven veils for my costume, as well as the Styrofoam wig stand that served as the head of John the Baptist.

Auntie Charlene—aka Cha-Cha and, later, Chachi—may have loved her lord and savior, but she also loved to laugh. It was she who introduced me to Carol Burnett, Erma Bombeck, and the comic strips Peanuts and Ziggy. She also taught me how to craft the groan-inducing puns that pepper this and other publications, and affectionately advised me on the appropriate application of alliteration. (Nailed it!)

When she wasn’t contributing to the development of my sense of humor, Chachi was subtly encouraging me to develop my mind. As the first person in our family—that I know of, anyway—to go to college, she was an anomaly to some, but an inspiration to me. As the only woman I knew—besides my teachers and school nurses—who had a college degree, she was my idol. In the meantime, she introduced me to crossword puzzles, logic problems, and Scrabble, and by her example, taught me to be helpful, considerate, and responsible.

Charlene tried to teach me several other things that, sadly, I couldn’t quite grasp at the time—if ever. For example, as a bird lover, she would scold and chase the cats that that lived on my grandparents farm for having the unmitigated gall to hunt birds the way nature intended. Although from this I did learn that cats are (fortunately) a lot faster than people, I never did learn to give a d@mn about the birds. In my opinion, if they don’t want to get eaten by a cat, they should build their nests higher. So on the matter of birds and cats, Charlene and I had to agree to disagree.

The same was true when it came to the purpose of Bible Camp. Now I may have been young, but I was not entirely stupid. So I fully understood that the mission of the staff at Camp Evergreen was to save my soul from eternal damnation. My question was, did that have to be our ONLY goal? Could we not kill two birds (yes!) with one stone, as it were? Could we not talk about salvation AND develop a killer backhand? Could we not learn about sin AND meet a few cute boys?

Apparently not.

But Charlene loved me, even if we did not see eye to eye on birds or Bible Camp. I know this because she stepped in after my mother died when I was four, and helped my father take care of me and my two baby brothers. Although others stepped up to help as well, Charlene was like the North Star. A constant. A guiding light. She fought for me, and taught me to fight for myself. She taught me how to sew, and that it was bad to lie to get out of trouble but okay to lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.  You know—the important stuff.

Charlene worked as a teacher, civil servant, and nursing assistant. She later went back to school to become a registered nurse. When she wasn’t working, she went out of her way to brighten the lives of others by visiting them, taking them to lunch or church, or just sitting down to a cup of coffee, a game of Scrabble, or a few hands of Cribbage. She talked to her sister every day, and called her brothers every weekend. She never married or had her own kids, but she was like a mother to me, my brothers, and to almost every one of my cousins.

Over the last few years, the tables had turned somewhat. Charlene couldn’t get around very well, and was having trouble taking care of herself. She needed help with errands, cleaning her house and getting to and from doctor’s appointments and such. But her friends did what friends do, and took turns picking up her groceries and prescriptions. And family members did what family members do. We drove her to her doctor’s appointments and the family reunion, took her out for lunch, and took her car to get gas or to have it washed. We did all the things Charlene would have done for anyone else had she been able.

Charlene died after a brief stay in a skilled nursing facility. She had fallen at the beginning of June and was learning to stand and walk again. She was in constant pain, but four days before she died she had kicked my you-know-what at Scrabble, and a week or so earlier had beaten my brother John at Cribbage.

I never imagined that those days would be Charlene’s last. Nor did I imagine as I was writing last month about the mock funeral I had helped my best friend plan for her mother, that only days later I’d be planning one very real funeral for the woman I called my second mom. How’s that for timing?

The funeral has since come and gone, and Charlene is no longer in pain or feeling frustrated and helpless.

She was a great aunt. And she is now, as they say, at peace.


The Big 5-0

How does it feel to be 50?

That is a question I never thought I’d have to answer. It’s not that I didn’t think I’d live to be 50; although, given that neither my mother nor my mother’s mother lived to be 45, I’ve always harbored some doubt as to whether I would make it this far.

And yet, here I am. It has taken a few weeks, but I’m getting used to it. And it definitely beats the alternative.

I remember s-e-v-e-r-a-l years ago when my friend’s mother was turning 50. LaVon was adamant about making it a memorable event, just as she had done for her dad when he turned 50 a few months earlier. Only better.

So we planned a mock funeral, complete with flowers and a papier mache casket. Then we rented a limo to drive the family around town with the funeral flag flying on the hood, and invited all of her mom’s relatives, neighbors, and friends (including her boss, whom she had expressly directed us not to get involved in whatever shenanigans we had in mind) to surprise her at the house when they got back. Silly woman. She would have been better off not saying anything at all. The funeral spray from her boss was the biggest of the bunch.

I got to be the funeral director who turned LaVon’s parent’s home into a funeral parlor while they were out. Music. Flowers. Casseroules from all the sympathetic neighbors. The whole nine yards.

LaVon’s cousin Dolly played the angel, who greeted the family at the door, led Yvonne (LaVon’s mom) to the “viewing room,” and informed her that the people gathered there couldn’t hear her anymore because she had “crossed over.”

Yvonne’s own mother—LaVon’s grandmother—gave the eulogy. It was crazy awesome. And Yvonne said she would never forgive us if she lived to be 100—but she said it with a smile on her face, so I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

That was a l-o-n-g, l-o-n-g, l-o-n-g time ago. So long, in fact, that the Jarhead and I were in college, El Noble was a toddler, and a Princess Primrose had yet to exist.

Then a few years pass and suddenly—BOOM! Along comes May 2016, and within one week I became a 50-year-old mother of the groom with a houseful of relatives, and a wonderful new daughter-in-law.

No mock funerals. No limos. Just a big wonderful, weekend that started with a vintage-themed outdoor wedding on Friday, continued with a picnic and pool party on Saturday, and ended with Alaskan salmon, halibut, and King Crab—flown in by none other than LaVon—on Sunday. It was the best birthday weekend ever. To paraphrase Yvonne: if I live to be 100, I will never forget it.

A few days afterward, I saw a picture of Christie Brinkley on the cover of a magazine where I shop for groceries. The caption read “Christie Brinkley at 62!”

And for a moment, all I could do was blink and look for the word that would complete the headline.

Did it say “dead at 62?” Pregnant at 62? Married at 62? Divorced (again)at 62?

No. Nope. None of the above. It was just a photo of a woman, age 62, and who apparently looks different from what one would expect her to look at the age of 62. That was the headline. Hm.

I won’t bore you with a list of all the thoughts that flew through my head at that moment. Suffice it to say that sexism is alive and well in women’s magazines, because I’ve yet to see a photo of a famous MALE celebrity with a caption that suggests he looks surprisingly good for 62. Again, hm.

But as for 50, it’s pretty great. My mug won’t be gracing the cover of any magazines any time soon, but maybe it will be by the time I’m 62. You never know.

In the meantime, you can see me chatting about books and writing with fellow writers Tom Cannon and Dixie Jarchow on their local cable access show, Author Showcase. To view it, click on the link below.




Our Aging Brains

(Originally posted Thursday, April 18th, 2013)

As the Jarhead and I get older, I’ve begun to think about age-related illnesses and conditions, and how they may affect us. Words like presbyopia and arthritis have already crept into our vocabulary, just as ibuprofen, antacids, and reading glasses have replaced the Midol, condoms, and tampons in my purse, the medicine cabinet, and the center consoles of the family vehicles. We talk in mostly joking tones about these changes and what other geriatric maladies may befall us, but personally I don’t find this trend the least bit humorous.

Two other topics that I find decidedly unfunny but which nevertheless feature prominently in our comedic exchanges are presbycusis—aka age related hearing loss—and cognitive decline. And with apologies to those who are currently affected by either of these conditions, I can’t help but wonder: If my beloved Jarhead were to develop dementia, how would I know?

I ask this, in part, because even before we started checking the 41 to 50 box on surveys, questionnaires, and the like, the Jarhead displayed a strong propensity for memory lapses. For example, he forgets where he puts things, forgets to do things, and forgets that he has already done things. He also forgets that he owns things, forgets he’s given or thrown them away, and—odder yet—forgets that he has already replaced them.

At times, he also forgets to say things. I’m not talking about things like apologizing when he offends or upsets me, or wishing me a pleasant birthday or anniversary. Happily, he is a pro at making amends and has plenty of high tech gadgets to remind him of key dates. Instead, he forgets to respond to comments and questions posed to him in the course of an ordinary day, such as, “Did you bring the dumpsters up from the curb?” In such situations he will walk right past me without a word believing he spoke his answer aloud when in fact he only heard it in his head. He has also been known to sit waiting for an answer from me to a question he never spoke except in his head. I won’t even know it’s happening until I notice him staring at me expectantly and am moved to ask, “What?”

Other times, he will give an answer that doesn’t fit the question, and I won’t know if his answer is off topic because he didn’t hear what I said, or if it’s because his brain took a wrong turn and refuses to stop and ask for directions. When this happens, I will have to ponder the possible reasons he is talking about tires when I asked him about apples, and try to determine whether he thought I said something that sounded like tires, or if the word apples made him think about Walmart (where we have bought apples) which reminded him of the auto center (where we have also happen to have bought tires.) Failing that, I’ll have no choice but to interrupt and politely ask, “What exactly do you think I said?”

The issue of whether I will know if and when the Jarhead’s brain stops firing on all cylinders is further complicated by the fact that I change my mind a lot and will, occasionally, forget having done so. Like when I asked him to bring up from the basement freezer a pack of bagels I had planned to have him put there but which I later decided to stash in the crisper in the fridge. All totaled, it took us fifteen minutes to find the bagels, and another fifteen to figure out what went wrong—and how.

Also contributing to the problem is that I sometimes say things I don’t mean. I’m not talking about calling names or flinging accusations (although I’ve done my share of both, nine times out of ten it is intentional) but about my tendency to speak words that are somehow related to or similar in sound to those I intend to say, but which are just different enough to confuse the recipient of my message when I say them. Like when I ask him to put something in the oven when I mean the dishwasher, or to bring me a pair of socks from my desk when I mean my dresser. In addition to supplanting words with terms that sound similar or have a similar purpose, shape, or function, I also have issues with mathematical terms which cause me to say thousands when I mean hundreds or tens of thousands; weeks when I mean months, years, or days; and minutes when I mean hours or seconds—and vice versa.

I don’t know if this is an age thing or not. I don’t recall it happening in my teens or twenties but that doesn’t prove anything. Which leads me to wonder: If I were to develop dementia, how would the Jarhead know?