I called her Aunt Joy. She is the aunt of one of my best friends, Sarah (“Leaping upstream with….musical friends”), who insisted that if I was near Boston I must meet her Aunt Joy. From the moment we spoke on the phone, I knew I was in for a special treat.
I walked into her large home in Lexington, Massachusetts and saw collections of a life lived full of music, books, and art. Aunt Joy continues to play piano and viola, swims at least 1000 strokes a day (yes, she counts them), signed up for three classes (and to her grave disappointment was only given enrollment in one teaching Homer’s Odyssey), and is turning 91 next week! She drove a car until 6 months ago when she decided to give up driving because her eyesight was giving her too much trouble. She has difficulty hearing and makes it clearly known if you are not speaking distinctly and directly to her so she can understand. If she could not hear a word to her satisfaction she would ask me to spell it and then we laughed as she finally figured out that I was saying “Coombs,” not “coons.” Her mind is extremely bright and she readily rattled off phone numbers for me when she wanted to make calls.
I arrived all in a frazzle, as I had done the unthinkable and locked keys, purse, and phone inside my car as I was leaving to pick her up. I had no way to call her and let her know that I was going to be late and by the time I borrowed a stranger’s phone to call AAA and had them come and rescue me, I was an hour late to Aunt Joy. I called her as soon as I got my mitts on my phone and she was gracious and understanding, relieved to finally hear from me.
So without much ado we headed to our pre-planned destination to Rockport, MA on the eastern coast. It rained all day, a constant drizzle, and she had trouble seeing out my blurry car windows but managed to get us the 45 minute drive to the beach without too many detours. She directed me to a quaint little restaurant called My Place By the Sea, and we miraculously snagged a parking place right next to it. We had her wheelchair in the back seat, but we parked so close that we decided she didn’t need it and she leaned on my arm for support.
Being hard of hearing she made the young waiter speak uncomfortably slowly and clearly. He was a bit put out, and I was embarrassed for him that he couldn’t accept infirmity with more patience. But Aunt Joy doesn’t suffer fools lightly and was firm and solid in her desires to understand and be understood. I admired her chutzpah, this was no shrinking wildflower I had on my hands! Her eccentricities made me laugh, like when she picked up her soup bowl and put it to her lips, and when she said “oops my leg is coming off. Did you know I lost my leg?” as she proceeded to unbuckle and rearrange her prosthetic limb. By now, my eyes and those of the three French ladies at the table two feet away, were large with disbelief. Sarah had mentioned this detail at one time about her aunt, but it had TOTALLY slipped my mind! Clapping the buckles on like a pirate strapping up his boots, she was off swaying to the restroom leaving me to find my composure and smile winningly at the ladies next to me.
I can honestly say that I have never met anyone like Persis. She told me all about her family, she ADORED her parents and speaks of them with such devotion that I so wished I had met them. They had a Shakespeare Club that met every other Monday night in their home and they would assign parts ahead and then get together and read the play. She recalled that her parents loved to read aloud and her dad would read them The Christmas Carol every Christmas Eve. Her parents were the muses of her musical heritage as well and inspired her to attend Oberlin College and graduate in 1944. She would look at me and say, “You would have loved my parents,” with a knowing, glowing smile.
We ordered clam chowder while looking out at the gray bay, and split an order of fresh haddock. I asked her if she knew what a haddock looked like, since I did not, and when she didn’t either, I looked up the image on my phone and showed her. She was SO AMAZED at the miracle of the internet and said, “I just have to get one of those phones.” I hope at 91 I am still desirous to learn and keep up with technology. I find it a lot more typical in aging seniors that they dismiss “new-fangled things” and are content to stay in the dark ages. Not Aunt Joy, she has a computer, even though she is still figuring out how to use it, and her attitude is one of curiosity and lifelong learning.
After our lunch we were back in the car to drive by her favorite place, Seaward Inn. She has stayed there with family for many years and I could tell was reliving memories as she looked out on the beautiful coastline. We continued on to Cape Hedge Beach, she had to spell H E D G E for me before I could hear it correctly (this spelling thing works both ways!). It was still wet and sprinkling but I wiped down a bench with a towel and laid down a jacket for us to sit on and we sighed as we companionably relaxed, held hands, watching the seagulls and waves. I still hear the sound of the surf, and her cheery voice telling me stories of her family “dragging” her out past the waves so she could swim, and then confiding how she lost her leg in a biking accident. We must have been there an hour and I was starting to get pretty wet, so we reluctantly blew kisses to the view and hit the road.
I have often seen the elderly lose their sense of self-consciousness as they age, and she was no exception. She needed to use the restroom so she had me boldly stop back at the cute inn and we marched inside and she just chatted up the receptionists making fast friends, getting me a brochure, and popping in the restroom. When she was snapped back into her seatbelt she said “now wasn’t that much better than using the gas station facilities?” And I had to agree that yes, it was much superior.
As we drove home we daydreamed about buying an oceanside cottage and sharing it, exclaiming how much we loved the sea. When we got back to her house in the dark she ushered me in and made me peppermint tea and served mint Klondike bars. Then she asked me to speak Shakespeare’s words to her and I, with my best diction, recited three monologues. I was about one foot away from her face gazing into her eyes, making sure she could hear and understand, and we both had tears in our eyes. She made me repeat them again and said she could hear them over and over as long as I was willing. What a joy to have someone WANT to hear my voice and hungry for Shakespeare’s words, and so appreciate their beauty. I was enchanted.
We moved into the living room where the beautiful portraits of her grandparents stared down from the walls. I asked her to play piano, and with hands curled with arthritis her fingers coursed over the keys. Then she invited me, who has NOT PLAYED PIANO IN YEARS AND YEARS, to sit beside her and play a duet. The music was thankfully not too difficult, and she was so patient, and I was terrible, but what fun it was. We played the same simple tune over and over and she would say, “you get better every time!” I imagine she was an amazing teacher, and still is.
My friend Sarah, somehow knew we would be kindred spirits and she was right. Aunt Joy wants me to move in with her and offered me a place to stay if I ever need it. We could play piano duets every day, start a Shakespeare Club and drive to the coast and watch the world go by. It is lovely to be wanted, to know I have a home in someone’s heart and hearth, and to feel a sublime gratitude for the wisdom of age, time passing, and the beauty of goodness. I am changed, colored by the heritage of a family that was fortunate in love, laughter, artistic expression and divine intellect. I continue to journey with complete gratefulness into lives that welcome me and hold me close. How am I so lucky is my continued mantra.