|"Ethel and Leona" Cousins?|
I was barely out of college when I met Aunt Leona—I, the newlywed, trying hard to make good impressions; she, hovering around the edges of the other side of life’s journey, dispensing with any further need for social niceties. What a picture we form of others when we are introduced to life first from the opposite perspective.
On our long drive to the Bay Area for a visit, my husband would invariably get lost, neglect to ask directions, and drive around in what seemed like interminable circles, before arriving at the forbidding, dark building. Inside, sequestered in her dingy kitchen, Aunt Leona would be waiting for us. I never understood—at the time, at least—why she kept the rest of the house shuttered up. The kitchen was not a comfortable visiting place. We would end up standing, as if at attention before the elderly woman, while we made our inquiries into her wellbeing.
She seemed so lonely, so reclusive, and yet so happy to receive these visitors who went out of their way to pay her a visit. In her gratitude, she seemed compelled to give us something. Mostly, over the years, whatever she gave us amounted to nothing more than what she had at hand at the moment. It often turned out to be things she couldn’t bear to throw away, because they still had some “use” left in them: an alarm clock, faded towels or tablecloths, sometimes even old toothbrushes. My husband always graciously accepted whatever was offered, having learned long ago that it was of no use to rebuff these gestures. For some reason, Aunt Leona felt that people would not come to see her unless they were rewarded.
It may seem idiosyncratic for someone to express gratefulness over the gift of a used toothbrush, yes, but then, when I first met Aunt Leona, she was well into her eighties. Her eyesight was lacking, due to her losing battle with diabetes. The disease had claimed much more of her than that, too, but her spirit was still spunky. How naïve we were at that young age to miss the signals that we’ve since learned to discern in seeing another person’s true needs.
What we saw, as we visited, was what people sometimes refer to as a “crotchety old woman.” There was no earthly way to have been able to turn the clock back so that we “youngsters” could see for ourselves the true being that this aged exterior housed.
But I discovered who she was—who she had been born to be—when I uncovered the few pictures bequeathed to her great-nephew, and by extension, now to me, from their hiding place on a closet shelf. I still don’t know much about this woman, other than what I knew personally from visits with her—I don’t even know the first name of her long-deceased husband—but I can let what I see now teach me that there was so much more to that person than my mental snapshots of first impressions when meeting someone at the end of her journey.
|Leona on left, but who are the other girls?|
Tomorrow: tracing Leona's life backwards, her heritage forwards.