I met my Aunt Bea when I was 10 days old. Or something like that. I had been born November 11, 1973 and my parents, who lived far from any immediate family, traveled an hour south of Topeka, KS to Ottawa for Thanksgiving at Aunt Bea and Uncle Alex’s. My mom always said that Aunt Bea and Uncle Alex were so excited to see me…they were the first family to see me outside of my parents and older brother and they were thrilled. Probably as thrilled as grandparents might be to see a new grand-baby.
Aunt Bea was my grandfather’s cousin. Her mother and my great-grandmother were sisters. She was born December 31, 1911. Many have tried to capture the qualities and sentiments of people like my Aunt Bea. She would fall into what historians have called “The Greatest Generation.” I can’t say that I would disagree that she was a great woman. She lived through both world wars. She was in her late teens and twenties during the Great Depression. She went to college at a time when most women didn’t. She was a nurse in a few different places and then a teacher of nurses at the University of Kansas. She had a strong love for children. Over the years, I gathered enough in our conversations to understand that she desired children with my Uncle Alex, but they married late in life and even though they “tried to have ’em” somehow it wasn’t God’s plan so “they never came.”
God’s plan was for her to be a mother and grandmother for those of us who needed her.
If Aunt Bea was ever unhappy with her life, she never let on.
When I was very young, I visited Aunt Bea and Uncle Alex on weekends. As an adult, I look quite fondly on these visits. I remember that Uncle Alex got up very early on Saturday morning, went to pick up the paper from the driveway, then came in and ate some grapefruit while reading the paper. I learned that putting a little bit of salt on grapefruit was pretty tasty from him. After a bit, he usually would go back to bed with Aunt Bea until she was ready to get up. She was not a morning person. She even let me come in their bed when I would wake up early. I remember one time when I did that, but I couldn’t be still. We ended up talking for a little bit (I think I was 6 or 7 years old) and she told me she didn’t like to get up before 9 o’clock or so. She liked to sleep in! The next time I visited, I remember trying really hard to sleep longer so Aunt Bea didn’t have to get up too early.
I thought of this about 10 days ago when I visited Aunt Bea at the nursing home where she lived. She was in the hospital wing of the home and I visited with a nurse before I left. She mentioned that they’d really like for Aunt Bea to come out of her room for three meals every day, but she seemed to be making it for only one. I said, “Well, if you’re serving any meal before 8:30 or 9, she won’t ever want to come to that.” The nurse chuckled and said, “Yeah, we’ve kind of figured that out.”
The best part of my weekend stays with Aunt Bea was the meal she would cook on Sunday when my family came to pick me up. Aunt Bea could put out quite the spread! Roast, potatoes and gravy, rolls (oh, the rolls! And the butter!), corn (sometimes a special treat would be corn on the cob!), green beans, salad, and all of this just for Sunday supper! She made the best snack mix ever. Yeah, Chex makes their mix and it’s okay, I suppose. But Aunt Bea’s snack mix puts it to shame every time. I have the recipe somewhere…it’s all in how she baked it…you literally could not stop eating that stuff. She made it for us all every time we’d visit her. We’d always get to take an old coffee can of the stuff home with us. Of course, she could make desserts with the best of them, too. I think her use of butter might even put Paula Dean to shame!
While we’re on Aunt Bea’s cooking ability. Anyone who ate my Aunt Bea’s Fudge would just ooh and ahh at how delicious it was. I had people I worked with who clamored for “Aunt Bea’s Fudge” even though they had never met her. Any of us who knew the ingredients of the fudge knew that it tasted as good as it did because of the overdose of love Aunt Bea put into making it. The ingredients themselves were not all that spectacular…just your regular run-of-the-mill fudge…unless Aunt Bea made it.
One of my favorite things Aunt Bea said was “Toodle-oo!” She would say it when she was leaving the room, but coming back in a bit. Or she would say it when she knew she’d see you again, whether soon or not. I remember her saying it a lot when I was little. It’s one of my fondest memories…”Toodle-oo!” she’d say as she waved good-bye after a visit. “Toodle-oo!” she’d say when she set me up with paper and crayons to draw and she was heading to the kitchen to cook.
One of the best memories I have are of Uncle Alex and Aunt Bea standing arm in arm waving goodbye. Whenever I went home with my parents, heck…whenever we left Aunt Bea and Uncle Alex’s house…they’d come out on the driveway and wave at us as we pulled out…then wave at us until we couldn’t see them anymore.
Growing up, my school had “Grandparents Day” once a year. Grandparents got to attend school with their grandchildren. There were usually fun activities planned, a special lunch, all that stuff. My grandparents didn’t live close enough to come for it. But Aunt Bea and Uncle Alex came and they were so cute. You could tell they really enjoyed it. They would split up…one came with me and the other with my sister (the youngest two were not in school yet and my older brother was in high school). They seemed to get such a kick out of the day. They seemed so honored to come and be our Honorary Grandparents. I know my Nana and Grandad were pleased that they could do this, too. It meant so much for us kids to be able to have them there.
I remember when I came back to Kansas to go to college after graduating high school in North Carolina. If I could get someone to drive me down to Ottawa, I’d promise them they’d never be disappointed in the meal we’d get while we were there and the company was even better. I spent many evenings over the course of my five college years visiting Aunt Bea and Uncle Alex. They would give me advice (solicited or not) on what I should do, what I should study, all of that stuff. Uncle Alex was pretty disappointed when I didn’t get my CPA certification. If Aunt Bea was disappointed, she never let on. She was always supportive of anything that meant I was working hard, secure in a job and saving a bit of money somewhere along the way.
The evening dinner visits were much the same–A huge spread of food, great conversation and a coffee can filled with her snack mix for the road. She would come out on her porch and watch us pull out of the driveway and wave to us until we couldn’t see each other anymore.
Uncle Alex and Aunt Bea had an inter-faith marriage. If there was ever anyone who had the patience, wisdom, courage and understanding to live out marriage as a Catholic to a non-Catholic, it was my Aunt Bea. She never said it was easy. She always said it was hard work. And she always acknowledged that sometimes it meant that she went to Mass early in the morning so she could attend services with him later. I know he attended with her sometimes, too.
I remember my first basketball game at Allen Fieldhouse…Aunt Bea took me. Of course, I was too young for it (it was on one of my weekend visits and I was probably 6 or 7 years old) and I think it was more of a hassle than she would have ever wanted. I remember saying I couldn’t see and I remember asking if the game was over yet. I think eventually, she really enjoyed seeing my passion for college basketball, and specifically for the Jayhawks. I think she was glad to know that somewhere along the line, I “got it” about Kansas Basketball and how special it was. She had retired from KU and had season tickets to football and basketball games. She finally had to give them up when Uncle Alex and she could no longer navigate the stairs and the driving safely. When I was in college, she allowed me to attend a couple of games with friends over the couple of years that I was in college in Topeka before I transferred to KU. They had pretty good seats and we got to go to some good games.
I remember when Uncle Alex died. I remember when she called me. I was living in a small apartment in Topeka, but working as a Relay Operator in Lawrence. She sounded sad on the phone. We had known it was coming, Uncle Alex had been sick for awhile. Aunt Bea had taken care of him at home up to the end. I remember sitting with her in their living room after he died. It was about a week or so after the funeral. (Details are fuzzy…maybe it was longer…maybe it was shorter.) She was crying. I had never seen her cry. And I never saw her cry again. But she was crying then. I just sat there with her and let her cry. I cried, too. And she said, “It’s really hard.” And I remember nodding and getting up and giving her a big hug. And then crying some more. I cried because I missed my Uncle Alex, for sure. But I cried, too, because I was sad that Aunt Bea would go forward in this life without her sweetheart, her love of her life. They were married 49 years. I had seen 24 if those and had been unable to understand the sacrifice and the example the showed because I hadn’t had the life experience yet.
Aunt Bea got a special place to sit at our wedding. She was walked up as an honorary grandmother and sat next to my grandparents. She got a corsage and everything. Because she held such an important place in my life for all of my life. She was always one of the first people I’d tell about a new pregnancy. Of course, she worried about us…a woman who lived through the Great Depression worries about a family with many mouths to feed. But she was always appropriate with her concerns.
Of course my children have adored her. These past few months, it has been difficult for them to be unable to come and visit Aunt Bea. They have missed her. They have prayed for her. Today, when I told them she died, they were all sad. But they also understood, somehow, what I meant when I told them she’d lived a long, good and faithful life. It was time for her to go and be with God.
I can’t help but feel blessed that I was able to visit her about 10 days before she died, and four days before she entered the hospital for the last time. I was at her bedside for about an hour. We talked. She told me, “Yeah, a couple of times I thought I was a goner!” And she also asked me to help take care of the things in her room when she was gone. She was so happy to see me when I walked in…her face just lit up. A little bit into the visit she said, “I almost didn’t know who you were at first.” And so I decided to ask her if she knew who I was and she got that exasperated tone to her voice and said, “Yes! I know who you are…you’re Michelle!” I held her hand and rubbed her arm. I told her I loved her….so many times. I asked her if I should bring her anything and she said (true to Aunt Bea’s form) “No! Save your money. I have all I need, they take good care of me here.” I told her I would come back and see her and she said, “You take care of your family…you don’t have to come here all the time.” I had brought her a blueberry muffin and she asked the nurses if she could have some butter. She ate about a quarter of the muffin while I was there. We were sure to wrap the rest of it up so she could eat it later. She asked if she could have salt for her eggs. When the nurse said, “I’ll have to check on that one.” Aunt Bea leaned toward me and said, “That means NO.” So, she didn’t eat the eggs sitting on her table. We visited a while longer, but I knew she was staying up for me, so I told her I’d get going, but I’d come back in a couple of days.
My older brother and his family, my sister and her family and me and my family are the closest related family Aunt Bea has. She has great friends in her town, particularly one who was good enough to call and let us know Aunt Bea’s state of health so that we could be sure to come and visit her. I know my first priority is always to my family. I thank God for my husband who was so good and supportive whenever I wanted to drive to Ottawa and check on Bea the last 10 days.
When I returned about 3 days later, it was clear that Aunt Bea was a bit more tired and not doing so well. I kept my visit much shorter, but she did see Vincent, since I brought him with me. She always loved the babies, and this day was no different. She looked at him and smiled at him. Of course, she mentioned how sorry she was she couldn’t hold him. But I got him close enough that he might have slobbered a little bit on her, but she loved it. Shortly after I left, they took her to the ER and she was admitted to the hospital.
Tuesday, I got the word that Aunt Bea’s body wasn’t fighting this pneumonia like it had other times. The antibiotics weren’t able to do their thing because Aunt Bea’s body just wasn’t up for it. Craig brought me an overnight bag to my work and I went down after work to spend the night with Aunt Bea in the hospital. She was having a good night when I saw her. She was pretty feisty. She was telling me what to do (“Go to sleep!”) and fidgeting around under her covers…when I asked her if she was okay, she said, “I’m just tryin’ to get comfortable!” She joked with the nurses and told them she liked their hair. When I left, I told her I was leaving to go to work and she apologized that I’d been there all night. I told her not to apologize, I wanted to see her, I didn’t want her to be alone and that I loved her. I also promised her I would be back in a couple of days.
The priest in Ottawa came on Wednesday and Bea received the Sacraments of Reconciliation, Holy Communion and Annointing of the Sick. I was so relieved when I heard this had happened, because it was something I was concerned about.
On Christmas Eve, I was in tears as I drove toward Ottawa. I was thinking of Aunt Bea, all alone in the hospital on Christmas with no one to be with her. I knew I couldn’t stay long, but I had to stop in and check on her. I was overcome with positive emotion at the sight of Uncle Alex’s grandson, whom Aunt Bea treated as her own grandson, too, who is a diocesan priest in Kentucky sitting there next to Aunt Bea. She wouldn’t be alone after all. I sat on her bed for a little while. She was in a semi-conscious state, it’s common for end of life. She had a full oxygen mask on to help her breathe and she was on her side a little bit. Her eyes were closed, but the one closer to the pillow was a little bit open. I looked at her, I stroked her hair. I held her through the blankets. I talked to her. I told her I loved her. I told her we all loved her, my sisters and brothers, my parents…she was so important to us all. My life was infinitely better because I had her in it. She squeezed my hands a little through the sheets on a couple of occasions. I felt like she was letting me know that she heard me and knew I was there. When I left, I hugged her, kissed her cheek and her forehead and told her I loved her and Merry Christmas.
On Christmas morning, I got the call that she had passed away. I think perhaps I was the first person he called. With it being Christmas morning, I made some quick calls to get the word moving, but hadn’t really had time to process it all.
But now, I am sitting here and as I write all of this…the tears have finally come. I’m not sad for her, though. I miss her, sure. I’m sad that I won’t have her here with me in this life anymore. But, for the last 5 years, she’s been pretty forthright in letting us all know that she was ready to go, when the time came.
I think about all the things she lived through and the events that impacted her and made her who she was. I think about the people she influenced and touched in this life. She means so much to me that I am really not doing it justice with what I’ve written here. There is a hole in my life now that she’s not here. There haven’t been large dinner spreads for many years now and no coffee cans full of snack mix for about 5 years. But those were always just material/physical representations of the love she had for us anyway. She has continued to love us all. She spent time with us. She enjoyed our children. She gave so much love to us that it’s hard to imagine I could ever experience such a thing in my life from anyone else. She loved in a motherly way. She loved unconditionally and fully. You know, she had a strong devotion to Mary through the Rosary. I wouldn’t doubt that our Blessed Mother Mary was extending her love to us through Aunt Bea.
A little over a year ago, on one of my visits, Aunt Bea mentioned that she had flipped on EWTN when she had awakened in the middle of the night recently to see that Brother Andre
had been canonized. She relayed the story about how in 1934, she shook his hand. What a blessing for Aunt Bea to see that a man she knew about, had encountered in her life, a man she had touched, was in Heaven with God and all the Angels and Saints.
So, as I wrap this up tonight, as I think about Aunt Bea, I am comforted that she departed this world in the friendship and communion of our Lord, Jesus Christ. I hope that she is reunited with her husband and her father and her mother and her sister and brother, her cousins…especially my Grandad and Nana who loved her so.
I will miss Aunt Bea, for sure. But I have faith that she left this world well on her way to sainthood.
Toodle-oo, Aunt Bea.