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?
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.