The phone rang. I grabbed the receiver.
“Dah-ling?” she said in that lovely lilt that always reminds me of the women in that generation of our family. It’s as if they adopted an accent and made it their own.
“Hello, my dear Aunt Rose,” I replied.
“How are you?” she asked.
“I’m fine, Aunt Rose. Especially now that I’m talking to you. How are you?”
“I’m fine too, Dah-ling.”
Her voice took on a slightly aggrieved tone. “But why don’t you call? I can’t hear from you at all.”
Before I could defend myself, she continued: “At my age, I shouldn’t have to be the one calling all you young people all the time. You should be calling me.” Aunt Rose lives with her daughter and son-in-law in the U.S., but her relatives are all over the place: England, Jamaica, the US, Canada, and so on. We were obviously not keeping up with the person, who – by dint of both personality and seniority – has become the family matriarch.
“That’s so true, Aunt Rose”, I said. “You’re absolutely right.”
“If I’m so right, why don’t you call more often?”
“Aunt Rose, I do call. I left a message on your phone just last week. Did you not get it?’
She was not backing down. “No,” she said firmly. “I didn’t get any message.”
I tried a different tack.
“So how are you, my darling Aunt?”
Her voice softened. She recited a short litany of ailments. Followed, as usual, by: “But I’m still here, giving God thanks.”
Gratitude. It’s one of the many things I like about her. To Aunt Rose, every day is a gift.
She asked about my siblings, uncles, cousins. And my children. And, of course, her favorite person who lives in this house.
“How’s my boyfriend?” she asked, suddenly giggling like a schoolgirl.
“He’s fine,” I replied. “Always sends his love for you.”
“Well, you tell him I send my love for him too!”
My great-aunt has a crush on my husband, and she never lets me forget it.
She called one day while my husband, the real chef in our family, was cooking dinner. Aunt Rose had insisted that I relay her love to him while she was right there on the phone.
“Your favorite girlfriend sends you her love,” I yelled across the kitchen.
“Tell her I wish she were here,” he called back, laughing affectionately, a twinkle in his eyes.
Aunt Rose giggled happily. “You tell my boyfriend that if I was just a little bit younger, I’d give you a run for your money!”
I pretended to be completely shocked.
“Oh yeah?” my husband replied when I relayed this remark. “Ask her what’s ‘a little bit younger’ ”.
Aunt Rose’s laugh was louder now. “Well, maybe just 20 years or so. Not much.”
This time, I was speechless.
Aunt Rose, you see, is 107 years of age, and that conversation took place about a year ago. She was still feminine, still funny, still eloquent. Still vivacious. You should have seen her at her birthday party just a few years before. She danced all the younger women off the floor.
“I’m glad you’re twice my husband’s age and living in another country,” I always tease her. “I couldn’t stand the competition!”
I love Aunt Rose. Both my mother and grandmother have passed, and Aunt Rose has tried to fill a small part of the gap by telephoning me often from her home in the U.S. Over these years, we’ve talked about many different things, almost all of them related to our family’s history.
She remembers minute details. From decades, even a hundred years before.
Sometimes the memories come complete with dialogue, or tiny details such as the style of a dress or shoes that someone wore. Or the time her older sister (my grandmother) became famous as a small girl, for spotting a mistake in the textbook used to teach the subject in Britain and its colonies.
“Did I ever tell you about the time when…”
The moment I hear this, I grab pen and paper or whatever’s handy – journals, notebooks, the backs of envelopes, the sides of calendars, and, just once, a paper towel.
Aunt Rose nonchalantly admits that the past is easy to remember – it’s the present she has trouble with.
Some recent events, however, remain in her mind, even as her health has diminished and her voice weakened.
“I’m so proud of you,” she told me one day recently. “I just finished reading your book.”
Aunt Rose is mentioned twice in the book. Among other things, she helped perform the role of fact-checker for some of the family stories in it. But I know that her daughter True and other relatives had to read it to her once published. Aunt Rose was now weak and bedridden.
But something else was on her mind that day, as her life edged closer to its end. She was focused on the future of a great-niece whom she’d helped enlighten, comfort, and encourage in countless telephone calls over the last several years.
“It’s a very good book, you know, Dah-ling. But I want you to promise me something.”
“Yes, Aunt Rose?”
“Promise me you’ll write another one. You have to write a second book.”
I hesitated. Her voice was weak again, but I could hear her waiting on the other end of the line. The trouble is that I’ve never lied to Aunt Rose and I didn’t plan to start now. What if I never write another book? I’d have broken what’s likely my last promise to Aunt Rose.
“I’ll try, Aunt Rose.”
“No! That’s not good enough, Dah-ling.” Her voice suddenly got stronger. “You have a God-given talent. Trying is not good enough.” There it was, that firmness in her voice that I know so well.
“Okay, Aunt Rose,” I said. “I’ll do my best.” This sounded like a promise without technically being a promise.
Aunt Rose wasn’t fooled. But she laughed gently and said, “I know you will. My Dah-ling.”
Today Aunt Rose lies in bed, no longer eating, no longer speaking. We’ve been told she’s in her final days. We will miss her greatly , but we also know it’s time to say goodbye to this beloved woman.
Bon voyage, my Dah-ling Aunt Rose. Fare thee well. Thank you for so much. For your faith, grace and astonishingly clear memories that kept us connected to ‘home’. And — above all — for your remarkable love and patience with us younger ones. You occupy a special place in our hearts.