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.


A Haunting in Oshkosh (or, Offending the God of Grid Lines)

I recently told the Jarhead that when he dies, I intend to haunt him.

It may seem backward for me to haunt him when he’s gone since it’s usually the dead that haunt the undead. (Perhaps I should say the living, since—thanks to the likes of Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer—we all associate ‘undead’ with vampires.  But, as usual, I digress.)

But if you think about it, it makes perfect sense for me to do the haunting while I’m still kicking. For one thing, if wait until I’m dead, I may not get the chance to haunt the man because he may not be alive to experience it. Even if I go first and he doesn’t immediately die of heartbreak the moment expire, I may not have the opportunity to haunt him. After all, if my death certificate buys me a ticket on the down elevator, I’ll be so busy grumbling about all the good and wonderful things that are happening to all my ex-friends and ex-boyfriends that I won’t have the time or energy to haunt anyone. And in the unlikely event that I somehow land a seat on the up elevator, it will only be because I became a better person in the intervening years, which means I will have lost my marbles and therefore won’t remember who the Jarhead is, much less that I wanted to haunt him.

And exactly why DO I want to haunt the Jarhead? you may be wondering. Based on everything I’ve written about him so far there would seem to be no motive for me to haunt the man. He’s a decent, hard-working, patient, practical kind of guy. The kind of man who never complains about the food or the condition of the house—even when he’s forced to eat leftovers for dinner three nights in a row because I’ve been at my desk all week trying to perfect a novel or hack out a new blog. The kind who wants only to be warm and comfy at home, and to get out in the woods once in a while to connect with nature or whatever.

So here it is: Although the Jarhead IS that guy, he STILL manages to get on my nerves now and then. Yes, even Mr. Clean Marine has those moments when I could just clobber him. Until recently, it used to happen quite regularly. In fact, due to some phenomenon I have yet to discover and in which scientists have yet to take even a passing interest, for a number of years he seemed to be the most clobberable about every 29 days and for about two days straight. It was eerily predictable, and frustratingly unexplainable.

But while I may have violent thoughts, I do not believe in violent action. I much prefer a passive approach to problems. That’s why, in our younger days, he routinely would lose his keys or misplace his comb within ten hours of committing a clobberable offense. This, too, was an uncanny coincidence, I would have said then—were it possible for me to do so with a straight face. The keys would always turn up within a few minutes—behind the dresser, under a couch cushion, or wherever I had put them during my fit of pique—and we would laugh together and blame the cats. Unfortunately, we were oddly cat-less for a while in 1996, so I had to give up that tactic and find a more reliable form of agitation.

And with this haunting idea, I think I’ve found it. Oh, sure, I’ll have to wait until he’s gone to make up for years of monthly clobbering offenses. And while I honestly hope I’ll be waiting many more years to exact my revenge, what fun I intend to have—after an acceptable period of mourning, of course.

First on the plan is to do EVERYTHING I have always wanted to do but apparently wasn’t qualified to do—and do it MY WAY. For the first time in my life, I’ll be able to *gulp* use the lawn mower. Not only that, I’ll be able to mow it in any direction or sequence I want without having to worry about offending the god of grid lines.

I can already see myself, in my granny-style bathing suit, cut off shorts, and protective eyewear (which, according to some people—many of them blind—is for sissies) listening to country music (just because he wouldn’t) doing the boot scoot boogie across the lawn (because those who can dance SHOULD) pushing a brand-spanking new mower (because, yes, I am going to waste money on a new mower when the old one works perfectly fine as long as we tie this here piece in place with a bit of twine.) And besides, I’ll have to buy a new one because I don’t know how to sharpen the blade. Ha!

And how will I unwind after a hard day of licentious lawn care? By enjoying a glass of lemonade while holding the TV remote controls. All of them. Every last one. I may even carry them around with me from room to room. Or maybe I’ll rearrange their batteries or decorate the tops of their buttons with nail polish. And when I’m done with the remote controls, I’m going to watch every single adaptation of every Jane Austen novel I can find On Demand, online, and at Red Box.

Although I will not be able to stare into his big brown eyes and laugh as I desecrate his remote or decorate the lawn with swirls and zigzag lines, he will be with me in spirit. And he will know not only what I am doing, but also why. And you can bet part of him will be enjoying it all as much as I am since, after thirty years, we BOTH know how the other can be.

This all assumes, of course, that there is an afterlife. And I sincerely hope there is. Otherwise, he will never know all the fun I’ll be having with that lawn—not to mention his pickup and his power tools. And it would be a shame if I were to go to the trouble of painting them all purple or giving them to complete strangers—if he wasn’t somewhere in the great beyond laughing right along with me.

Just in case, perhaps I shouldn’t wait til he’s gone. Maybe I should start today.