Yesterday was the funeral for my great-aunt Mildred, known within the family as “Auntie” (first syllable “ont” not “ant”), who fell and bumped her head last Friday, and just never woke up. On the one hand, she was 97, so this shouldn’t be too surprising, but a few years ago she moved out of a retirement community, because she preferred to be on her own. We always assumed she’d outlive us all, through sheer orneriness, so this was a nasty shock.
She had a really interesting life. Born a month before WWI, as a teenager during the Depression she got a job for the telephone company and moved out on her own. In 1940, she offered to move to DC, where they needed phone operators as the country geared up for WWII, and she stayed there for about sixty years. Her move out of the retirement community on Long Island was actually the second time she did that– when I was in grad school in the DC area, the building she’d lived in for decades went condo, so she first moved into a retirement community there, and then out into a new apartment, because she hated going to breakfast every morning surrounded by “wheelchairs, walkers, and canes” (which, you’ll note, fits nicely to the rhythm of “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my” from The Wizard of Oz).
She never married, and had extremely particular ideas about how things were to be done. When we visited her in DC, and stayed in her apartment, my father and I were sent to shower in the locker room at the building’s pool, because she didn’t want us steaming up her bathroom. She was very generous with her time, though– at the calling hours, I was reminiscing with some of my cousins about times she had us down to visit her in DC, and would take us sight-seeing. Just about all the kids of my generation got to go down there at least once, and it was a great time.
Of course, her approach to that was also somewhat unique. I spent a week down there one summer when I was about 11, and one one day, she dropped me at the Air and Space Museum with a map showing how to get to the Natural History Museum, five dollars for lunch, and a quarter for a pay phone. Several hours later, she picked me up at the Natural History Museum. My mother was kind of freaked out by that, but I had a fantastic time.
It wasn’t just family, either. While she was very particular, and known to just stop talking to relatives who offended her in some way, she maintained close friendships with a wide assortment of people over a period of decades. My mother’s been going through her address book and contacting people to tell them about her passing, and finding that she’s kept up regular correspondence even with the children and grandchildren of people she was close to at Bell. Or even more random associations– on one memorable occasion, she got on a bus from New York back to DC, and failed to call when she got in as she usually did. Everybody feared the worst, and my grandmother was about ready to call the police, when she checked in at last to say that she’d met three Irish women on the bus who were vacationing in the US, and didn’t have accommodations in the DC area yet, so she just invited them to stay at her place. That boggled everybody’s minds, but she kept in touch with the “Galway girls” ever since, and when my parents and grandmother visited Ireland a couple of years ago, they had to stop by for a visit.
She moved up to Long Island six or seven years ago, after having open-heart surgery to repair a valve defect– not something a typical 90-year-old does. She spent a few of those years in a retirement community, but chafed at the restrictions– she wasn’t supposed to have anything in her apartment with a heating element, and I’m not sure she even had a microwave. She hated that, though, and used to get up in the middle of the night to surreptitiously iron clothes. When she decided she couldn’t take it any more, she moved out, into an apartment closer to my grandmother’s house, which she raved about. We got the grand tour last year when we were down there with SteelyKid (who, having been there on a previous trip without us, helped out: “This is the bathroom! This is a closet!”).
After bumping her head (she fell getting stuff out of a car that was being driven by her 96-year-old sister– that side of the family is pretty darn robust), last week, she went upstairs, put all her stuff away, got ready for bed, then slipped into a coma in her own bed, in an apartment she loved. It’s more or less the way she would’ve wanted to go, only about two and a half years too soon– she often said she wanted to reach 100. A woman less suited to deal with severely impaired faculties would be hard to imagine (and one doctor looking at her EEG apparently described it as “uneventful,” your appalling medical euphemism of the week), so they didn’t take any extraordinary measures, and she died peacefully on Sunday.
Everybody’s pretty broken up about this– I’ve had to stop typing three or four times when I couldn’t see the screen. The world’s a little poorer for not having her around any more. So, while I’m back in town after the funeral yesterday– I drove down Wednesday afternoon, and back Thursday– don’t expect a whole lot from me until Monday.