I spent two hours with my Great-Aunt Anne yesterday afternoon. The drive from Philly to New Town Square seemed shorter than I remembered, and soon I was turning on to her street. I stopped at Wawa on my way to get her a tuna salad sandwich and a bottle of root beer, her favorites. She is always surprised when I bring them, she herself not remembering that she prefers that combination until its in front of her. We sat down to eat lunch at her kitchen table and she talked, stopping occasionally to apologize for being such a jabberer.
She told me stories of her career as a journalist, several times commenting on my future grad school plans by saying, “I don’t see how they can teach you to write. In my day, you learned by starting at a newspaper. You wrote articles and they rewrote them. Then one day, something you wrote stayed as you wrote it.”
When I asked her how she was feeling, she answered by way of saying, “You see honey, I smoked. I smoked 4 or 5 packs a day for years. They were only $.15 a pack and I started on my way to college. So now I have emphysema and I can hardly breath.” I knew all this, but I listened intently anyway, reading the meaning behind her words, the regret at having made this choice that she didn’t know was bad for her and the people around her at the time. Even still, she admitted that she loves the smell of smoke and will occasionally go near someone who is smoking, just to experience the scent again.
After we were finished eating, the second half of her sandwich wrapped and tucked away in the fridge for the following day, she mentioned that the air conditioning in her car (yes, she still drives, and the entire family finds it terrifying) was only blowing on her feet and could I take a look. We headed down to the basement, where the entrance of the garage is located. I walked slowly behind her as she made her painful, stiff-legged way down the stairs. Instead of turning into the garage, she opened a door that I always had assumed was a closet. It was a storage room that ran the length of the house, and was full with old stuff. We wandered around for awhile, opening drawers and looking at pictures. I spotted an old striped mixing bowl and mentioned how much like it. Before I knew it, it was in my hands. There was also a framed picture of my grandmother that must have been from either her college graduation or engagement. She looked younger and more beautiful than I ever knew her to be. I ended up taking it home as well.
When we left the storage room, she didn’t remember why we were in the basement, until I reminded her about her car. She took a moment to blame the cigarettes from her youth for her memory loss before heading into the garage. I fixed the levers so the a/c wouldn’t blow on her feet anymore and tried to explain to her how to do it herself if they get moved. She looked at me, and then back down at the control panel, and then just said, “I’m not going to move them.”
We headed back upstairs. She could hardly draw breath. I sat on the couch and read a magazine while she breathed in the the wisps of vapors coming through her nebulizer. I stayed for a little while longer, but started feeling antsy to get going. She thrust an old power strip into my hands thinking I could find some use for it, gave me a hug and I walked out the door.
She worries me, living alone, driving herself to the grocery store. She confessed during lunch that she recently forgot the pot of prunes she put on the stove and that she only remembered when the acrid smell of burning fruit and pot filled the house. But she wants it that way and there’s nothing I can do to change her mind.