Our Auntie Dorothy Ellen, my mother’s older sister, was 94 when she passed away this January. I’m not sure if “matriarch” is the appropriate term for someone who never married or had children, but it feels right here: after the death of my dad a decade ago, she – in no uncertain terms – assumed the mantle as the head of our family.
I know that Auntie would be pleased that I chose this particular day – a day set aside each year around the globe to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women – to pay her tribute. She was a strong, life-long supporter of equity and education for women and girls (long before it became fashionable to do so), and exemplified throughout her life that a woman can be strong, independent, happy, and capable; married or not.
Like my father, our Auntie was a teacher, and I can’t remember a time when she wasn’t teaching me something. She inspired me and cheered me on in my first artistic endeavors. She impressed on me that attention to detail matters, and if you are going to create something, make it the best you are capable of. She taught me countless lessons passed on from her Girl Scouting days, which later motivated me to become a Girl Scout leader for my own girls. She introduced me to Native American art and cultivated my appreciation of their cultures. She taught me what it meant to be a big sister, long before I knew I had a little sister out there in the world. She helped me with my homework, and encouraged me in my pursuit of a teaching degree. She taught me that little things matter.
But it is the lessons I learned from my aunt as she got older that I am finding the most valuable now. Our Auntie did Old Age right, and I took notes, because I can already hear that train in the distance, and it’s coming faster than I ever imagined. (If you are one of my 20- or 30-something readers and are skimming over this because you think you have all the time in the world, be careful not to blink.)
Sure, physical, emotional, and mental health are somewhat reliant on genetics, but my aunt showed us all that living into your nineties with a sharp mind takes more than good genes, and it doesn’t happen by accident: among other things, it takes drive, dedication, tenacity, and a solid group of friends and family.
Cultivate and nurture a strong, supportive circle of friends.
Auntie taught us all that aging with grace takes work. (A bit of a stubborn streak probably doesn’t hurt either.) She exercised, she read, and she challenged herself mentally and physically. She stayed actively engaged with her book club and other organizations far longer than anyone ever thought she could. But most importantly, at least from my perspective, was the circle of friends she fostered and kept close around her to the end.
As she got older, Auntie wisely made friends with younger people, and by the time she hit 90, nearly all of her close friends were younger than her by at least a few decades. (I mean, when you’re 90, you don’t have much of a choice.) But really, she loved her friends – especially those longtime neighbors who supported her, kept her company, watched all those hours of basketball with her, shared their families with her, took her on outings even when it became cumbersome – and even pushed her when she needed it. Particularly in these last few years, She would not have had the quality of life that she did without them.
I don’t think there was ever a time when Auntie didn’t say thank you when something was done for her. She meant it too, and that made a difference. Even hard things are easier to do for others when you know that your efforts are appreciated. Moreover, there is significant research to suggest that having a grateful heart can improve overall health and happiness, and extend life as well.
Be where you need to be. Be present.
There wasn’t much else I could do for our Auntie in the last days of her life, but I could read to her, so that’s what I did whenever I went to visit. On that last day, I read to her from “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” It was a favorite book of both of ours. As a child, I was a precocious reader, and I can still remember the day my aunt pulled her copy off the shelf from its place next to For Whom the Bell Tolls and put it into my hands. I was ten or eleven, and it was my first “grown-up” book. Anyway, on that last day, I sat there reading chapter after chapter to Auntie as I had on previous days. Unlike previous days, however, her eyes were filmy, and only once – for a flickering moment – did I catch even a glimmer of life. Her fire was gone, and I had the overwhelming impression that this would be the last time I would read for her.
That day, we were planning to take Em downtown to celebrate her birthday, and I knew we needed to get going, but I kept reading because I wanted to end on a happy chapter. I knew in my heart that this would last time Auntie would hear anything from any of her beloved books, and I wanted to give her something beautiful to take with her. In that moment, I felt to my bones this lesson: Be where you need to be. Be present. So I kept reading.
Leave a legacy of love.
I had the privilege of being in the room on one of the last visits from her neighbor and dear friend Elizabeth, and as I watched Elizabeth lean over my aunt’s bed and look into her eyes, and I saw so much love.
In fact, every person I saw come through my aunt’s bedroom in her last days – including off-duty caregivers who came on their own time – who came because they loved her – every one of them seemed to offer her this singular message: Thank you for being in my life. You are so loved.
In that moment, watching Elizabeth say goodbye, I thought to myself; that’s what I want. That’s what I want. When I leave this earth in my last days – if I can be surrounded by people whose only message is, “You are so loved,” I will know that I have lived well. If I can do that, then I will leave the legacy that I want to leave.
The one our Auntie left to me.
She will always be so loved.