Her door was never locked. Not that I recall, at least. And no one ever knocked. Just whistled through the screen, or called out as they crossed the threshold. It was this way from the start; in that place way back in my memory when my mother’s sister, Mae, was relatively young and lived in their stucco house with the yellow painted side porch there on the corner of University Avenue in the heart of Blackfoot Idaho. In more recent years, after Uncle Les was gone and she moved from the old house to that teeny little place in the retirement community east of Walmart, it was the same. We would drive up from Utah, singing the Idaho State song every time we crossed the border, and land in the parking lot just outside her place. Last time we visited her there she was back in her bedroom in her rocking chair, next to her little portable exercise machine, her soft beaded buckskin moccasins placed tidily next to her bed. I asked her if she ever got bored, and she replied that she hadn’t yet. “Oh, I read, and do a little thinking. And then if I start feeling lonely I just whistle.”
Aunt Mae was one of seven sisters in my mother’s family. Seven sisters and three brothers. Those sisters were a distinct cluster of characters, each one unique and all of them united. There is a sacred thing that happens when the mother of a large family dies at a relatively young age, the way their mother did. The family either falls apart or binds together. These sisters cinched their mother’s apron strings tight around each other, creating traditions and memories that sealed them in their sisterhood. They were famous for their sister parties; gatherings for birthdays and other occasions. My mom missed many of these when she left the fold and moved to Pennsylvania for a few decades. Still, when she could, she donned a crazy old hat and joined the party, passing the paper birthday bag back and forth with crazy silly greetings, playing dueling harmonicas, card games, singing old familiar songs and telling old familiar stories.
It was Aunt Mae who taught my husband Dave how to fly fish. Out there in the Arco desert, smack in the middle of nowhere Idaho, on that pristine piece of water that flows eternal. The Little Lost River, my favorite fishing spot. We camped under the old owl tree, drifting off to the rhythmic rippling of water and the whispering Idaho wind working its way through the sage brush. First light, we could hear the music of her reel as she pulled the fishing line a full arm’s length from her rod. My mom and I never did embrace fly fishing. We preferred the mind freeing banks by the deepest holes, and the great mystery of a worm wiggling underwater out of sight. But Libby and Dave -they stood there in their waders, upstream or downstream from my mother’s older sister. When one of us hooked one on our line, we let out a Native American holler, “Woo-Wooo-Wooo”, our pitch rising and falling like a bird call. We could hear each other all morning, and clear into the deepest sunset, hollering our successes up and down stream.
Last year, before Aunt Mae fell and broke her hip and moved into the nursing home, we picked her up and took her for a ride. She had bequeathed her car to her granddaughter Krishna years ago. It was a noble thing, handing over her keys, knowing she was doing the most responsible thing. I respect her deeply for it. I ache for her having to do it. She was 90 years old then, and she figured it was time. Still, it makes me weepy to think of it. So we picked her up in my van and drove her to Walmart, where we bought her a CD player to replace her old cassette tape machine. And then we took a drive out past the old Asylum, out to the old ranch where she spent much of her childhood. “There on the corner is where the school wagon picked us up.” Before there were buses, children were transported to school on horse drawn wagons. I imagined my mother and Aunt Mae climbing up into the wagon bed, their woolen stockings stretched out at the knees and drooping. I picked a twig of sage and put it in the dip of a handle in the door inside my car, inhaling as I drove, looking out over the sand dunes that were the backdrop of my mother’s youth. Aunt Mae played harmonica for us all the way back. Her breath control was amazing, and she cupped those arthritic old hands around her instrument, fluttering her fingers to create a haunting vibrato. Her mournful song echoes in my memory, and I can hear, if I am still long enough, the distant rippling of water behind it.
|Aunt Becky & Aunt Mae|
My Auntie Mae’s harmonica sits cold and faithful at her bedside tonight. There is no more breath in her. Sometime this morning she left that old body that housed her spirit for nearly a century.
I imagine there is some sister party going on up there in that heaven place right now. I imagine all six of them peeking over their silver lined card table, winking down at my Aunt Becky, the last sister to remain on earth. Aunt Mae takes her place at the table, her shoulders square, her chin up. She holds a fan of cards in her hand, licks her finger and rearranges them, glances over at Mary, trying to remember how to read her, and lays down her first card. My mother sits across from her. She is young, and beautiful, and she is herself once again. It is a happy scene, and if it is not so, then I do not want to know.
I lay my head on my pillow tonight with this image in my head; my mother and my beloved aunts are huddled around a card table, or a kitchen table, or a campfire…the scent of sage and earth and water and campfire smoke fills my nostrils, and the melodic strains of Let the Rest of the World Go By will play me to sleep. My Aunt Mae’s toe taps the beat as her chest rises and falls, her head cranked to the side, her arms drawn across her heart and her hands cupped in front of her lips. I hear her still. Always will.