LETTER from JIM ATWELL
How’d it happen?
Suddenly it’s 2020, I’m 82, twice a widower, living in a comfortable assisted living home. Well cared-for.
But, essentially, alone. The pandemic has us 18 residents quarantined, even from one another. Lots of time alone in one’s room, even with meals brought to us on trays.
Just now, however, despite prescribed aloneness, I have kept my room crowded with vividly remembered adults; ones who, because or in spite of me, shaped my life’s values. And one of those who loomed large was my Great-Aunt Mame.
In fact, you’d hardly think she could loom large in any way. Born in the 1870s, Mame stood just short of 5 feet. She was a registered nurse, though Lord knows how she changed bed sheets and helped patients turn over. But she did.
In late 1917, Aunt Mame felt a patriotic call to join an overseas nursing corps: She would cross the Atlantic and nurse the wounded boys then fighting “over there.”
That dear little woman had her trunk packed and was ready to climb a gangplank when – wouldn’t you know it? – the war went and ended on her!
Crestfallen, Mame ended up back in Annapolis. Because my mother had mailed the trunk for her, it was delivered from the train back to her home. Mame went there and unpacked it, including the stash of chocolates that she had been sure would cheer the injured doughboys. She left the trunk behind.
Donkey’s years later, after Mother’s marriage and my brother’s and my plopping onto the scene, that small green trunk became a major prop for our childhood games. We’d climb in and out of it, fire volleys at Hitler and company from behind it. You won’t believe it, but I once took down Herman Goering and Heinrich Himmler with a single shot!
During those times, though still a part-time nurse, Aunt Mame was a regular visitor to our house, and she shared many meals and stories with us. Among the stories, ones about her quashed trip across the Atlantic figured strongly. And between us, Denny and I created fictions of her exploits, as if she’d actually gone there.
When I think of our visits with Mame, we three were often together under the dining room table, propped back against the comfortable curling legs. Mame, of course, was of a size to be at ease under there, and happy in our ready acceptance of her as an equal in games.
I was grown and in the Christian Brothers as Mame grew old, deaf, and steadily more infirm. Pulling some strings, I got her a place in a Catholic nursing home just outside Washington, D.C.
Our dear mother took care of Mame’s now-empty house. She had spent a hot, humid July day at Mame’s, mowing grass and taking down dusty lace curtains to bring home and wash. Those curtains were soaking in our basement when, upstairs, she was stricken.
It was a massive cerebral hemorrhage, and she stayed conscious just long enough to groan protest to Pop’s picking her up from the floor and carrying her to their bed.
My brother and sister-in-law arrived at the hospital just after they brought Mother in, and after a 30-mile drive through pelting rain, alternately clearing the windshield and wiping away tears, I got to the hospital just in time to kiss my mother’s lifeless forehead.
Days later, my brother, his wife Shirley, and I went to Washington to tell Mame. She brightened at the sight of us but was looking behind us for sight of Mother.
Mame was profoundly deaf by then, and it fell to me to kneel, face inches from her ear, shouting “Mother has died! Mame, Mother is dead!”
And I was just that close to Mame as it dawned on her face the terrible thing I was saying. Within days, it was the death of her.
Those are awful memories, but by no means my strongest of that diminutive lady. Perhaps the strongest is from my teenage years when, while I helped her up onto our front porch, she took a step ahead, and bright-eyed, smiling, faced me head on.
“Boy! You’re just growing too fast! I’m going to have to put a brick on your head!”
No need for a brick, dear old girl! Especially to stop growth of my love for you!