When Aunt Grace moved into a seniors care home, we all held our breaths. We expected her to hate it.
She had run her own life with no-nonsense efficiency and was quite happy to step in if someone else had trouble running theirs. She was also the soul of generosity. Where would she find outlets for her take-charge personality, her confident independence, and her endless generosity in a facility where someone else wrote the rules?
Uncle Dewey was dead. So was her son, Dewey, Jr. Her only surviving sister and her granddaughter lived far away. So did my brother and I. She had no interest in uprooting from the town where she had lived for decades.
Years of excess weight had taken their toll. Aunt Grace needed a walker for mobility. A residential facility was her only option. She seemed surprisingly sanguine about the prospect of moving into one room. At least the home was familiar. She had visited friends in it for years.
By this time she had already sold her home and given away much of her small accumulation of material goods. In her seventies she had started working as a live-in caregiver for elderly people. She was eighty when looking after people in their late eighties and nineties became too much for her.
With little fanfare or regret, Aunt Grace pared the rest of her belongings down to what would fit in one room. She moved into the care home, and we all held our breaths.
During the settling-in period, Aunt Grace was striding down the hallway with her walker when she saw a man shuffling along ahead of her. The home’s activity director described what happened next.
“You!” Aunt Grace called out, not knowing the gentleman’s name.
The old man stopped and peered over his shoulder. Aunt Grace gave one of her she-who-will-be-obeyed looks and said, “You get in your room and take off those trousers!”
In years of gradual decline, the old man had never once had a woman tell him to take off his trousers. He looked startled but went into his room and closed the door.
Aunt Grace waited outside the door. When it remained closed, she banged on it.
The old man opened it a few inches. “I told you to take off those trousers,” Aunt Grace insisted.
Aunt Grace waited outside the closed door, certain this time her order would be heeded.
When it wasn’t, she banged again. The door opened slightly, and my aunt shook her finger at the frightened old man.
“Now you listen to me,” she said. “We may be old in here, but we’ve got our pride. Your trousers are dragging on the ground. Take them off, and I’ll fix them for you.”
Next time the door opened, a thin arm handed out a pair of trousers. My aunt, who had brought along her sewing machine, hemmed them to a respectable length.
That was the start of her new enterprise in the care home. She hemmed trousers, let out seams, mended tears, and patched holes. She figured out how to hook a bag to her walker and offered laundry service for those who were no longer mobile enough to use the facility’s washer and dryer.
Aunt Grace became such a beloved fixture in the home that when I joined her for lunch during one of my rare visits to my childhood hometown, her table regulars were disappointed by her abandoning them for the visitor table.
That visit was my last. She had become less mobile so had moved from the side of the facility where people could come and go freely to the side where people were too disabled to travel farther than the nearest hospital…or graveyard.
We talked and laughed for hours. I slipped her a hamburger and milkshake. “I’m 84, for heaven’s sake. Does my doctor think I’ll live forever if he starves me?”
Visiting hours ended at eight. “Close the door,” she said.
We talked another two hours. By then she was looking tired. As I left her room, I turned out the light and started to pull the door shut behind me.
“Leave it ajar,” she called. “There are a lot of old people in here, and sometimes they need someone to talk to in the middle of the night.”
I never saw Aunt Grace again. She died shortly after my last visit. But sometimes, when disappointment, hurt or anger overtake me, I think of Aunt Grace. I remember her acceptance of whatever life brought her, her deep love for the people around her, and her unfailing generosity. I miss her unconditional love.
Is your door open, Aunt Grace? I need to talk.