Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Great Aunt Quasimodo

She had one eye that looked out to the side. The white of that eye was always blood-shot and yellow and bulged out a little. My sisters and I inherited scoliosis from her same genes, but she had the true hunch-back. She wore hearing-aids on her tightly-permed head and had a special phone that was always turned up to "someone's yelling at you in the same room" volume. Even as a preschool kid, I remember her having pleasant phone conversations that resembled arguments (at that decibel)... and then just hanging up. It was always funny how she never politely ducked out of an exchange on the telephone. If she was done with her message she'd just hang up. Not even a good-bye.

"James? I need you to pick up my eye-drops!"
"Okay, Mildred. Do you need anything else?"

She barely had enough teeth to warrant owning a toothbrush, despite her other endearing physical attributes, but her OCD was her most darling quality. Her eye-drops had to be put in at exact times every day, the lights were always on (even if she couldn't see her hand in front of her face), and the oven was always ready to burn the house down (though she hadn't turned it on in 3 days). We laughed WITH her, we laughed ABOUT her, but we never laughed AT her. She would sometimes laugh at herself though, which was very therapeutic for everyone.

She grew up on a farm in Centertown, Missouri; the youngest of two depression-era farm girls who finished school with 8th grade educations. The local vet/dentist removed their tonsils as they sat on a chair looking out the window. The eldest (my grandmother) was named after the wife of the doctor who delivered her. While my grandmother went on to marry a fisherman from Oslo, Norway, my great aunt was jilted at a young age and never again had a romantic interest. She was happily employed at Woolworth's, collected their china series with her extra income, and doted on her nephews like they were her own.

Even at 90 years old she was able to recite entire lessons from her sister's elementary school books - verbatim. Her ability to do word-searches, recall strings of information in order, and run through the alphabet backwards (or any way at all) gave her tremendous pride but also impressed us as much as a magic act. She was simple, thorough, and brilliant.

She lived in a retirement community, and every year my dad (her nephew) would buy a fireworks display for everyone. We would go out to the retirement village in the country, alert all the residents (Aunt Mildred's OCD always took care of this for us) and blow stuff up. Dad would start with small fountains and then he would build up to mortar shells. Even he would get excited! Once we were old enough, he would let us light them and run to hide behind his legs. Some of our audience were a second behind seeing the initial explosion, or where too deaf or blind to know what had just happened, but they clapped and "whooed" in the spirit of things. Sometimes we would help them outside with their walkers, while other times we just tried to not run over anyone while riding our bikes on the sidewalk. The four of us kids playing with sparklers was akin to the circus being in town. Aunt Mildred loved it. She also freaked out.

In anticipation of this July event, she would buy hotdogs in March and keep them in the freezer. She would call my mother (a nurse) several times to ask if they were still okay to use, and then in July she would break them out of the icebox and boil them for about....well...until they turned an ashy shade of grey, had strange pink stripes down each side, and split open in all directions. We would then need to consume enough to "keep an ant alive" so we wouldn't be "blown away in the wind". It was pretty cool to be able to chew with our mouths open, burp really loud, and sit however we wanted - even in a dress. It was worth it.

(This is where I need to insist that I'm a spoiled brat. I'm sure that there are starving children everywhere who would adore being served a Christmas tin, decorated with poinsettias, full of a half-slice of white bread and oatmeal-raisin cookies. In my defense, these children may never have had chocolate-chip cookies, and as I was not raised during the Great Depression, I worked to be really happy about them. Not the starving children - the horrible cookies.)

Mildred's OCD required that all the neighbors and the fire department be notified, and in case the fireworks got out-of-control, we needed to have the hose on. As we shot the fireworks off in the gravel road 100 feet away from the reach of the hose, this seemed a good, logical compromise. She also insisted we carry a single, galvanized-steel pail of water. This was in case something, still-lit, landed on the giant hill of dry grass on the other side of the road. "It's okay, Auntie, don't worry! We have the bucket of water if anything happens."

She lived to a ripe age after decades of getting down on the floor and playing with children. Her firm attention to detail gave me a thorough family history. Who she was as a human impacts my life and the lives of my children. I thought about bringing that pail of water to the funeral, turning all the house lights on, leaving the oven on, or at least throwing a half-piece of white bread into the coffin with her. The problem is that I should rightfully be smacked for that, and my great aunt was way more important to me than fireworks, boiled hotdogs and oatmeal-raisin cookies.

Don't worry Aunt Mildred! The oven is off. The lights are off. And I have a bucket of water if anything happens.