Monday, March 19, 2012

Monday Mimisms ~ Aunt Evelyn

She would take me with her. 
Early on Saturday mornings when my sleepyhead wanted to sleep, she wanted company....and help. Yes, that too. It wasn't a long drive to our misty destination, just five miles down the road through southern foggy chill.
She was all kinds of proper and buzzed around the house like a swarming hive of bees, my great-aunt Evelyn. If you didn't get out of her way she'd put a dust rag in your hand or a pan of garden peas to snap. Idle hands you know....
I haven't thought of her lately. I don't like to think of her.

But every spring when it's time to plant flowers, I remember her gladiolas and crocus. They grew on the fence behind her house between the persimmon trees and the tobacco barn, lined up pretty and pristine on that honest-to-God white picket fence. But what does God have to do with any of this?

Well. I'm getting to that part.
We would pack the car with all things ammonia, clean clean rags for dirty cleaning, a vacuum cleaner and a vase sitting sturdy in the back floorboard of the car in a cardboard box - full of fence flowers.  

Just getting there was a small testament to my penchant for dangerous adventure. You see, Aunt Evelyn did not like to drive. Except slowly. And she was afraid - I mean afraid - of the middle yellow line. All approaching cars were met with a sharp swerve to the right into gravel and my face buried in a backseat gladiola, praying for one more chance not to die at the hands of a very proper woman who ran off the road every two minutes.

As soon as we'd pull into the old Methodist Church driveway, I would thank God once again for automobile mercies, but Aunt Evelyn, who had no clue that her driving was something out of a horror movie, could care less about my near death experience. She would stare out the crank-handled window at the empty little clapboard church in the country with a look something akin to what mission bound soldiers' faces must look like on the cusp of a well-planned attack. Aunt Evelyn's stealthy battle plan was simple.

Clean the church.

And I mean clleeeeaaannnn the church. Equipped with a mop and a broom and a box of crocus - it was a foolproof strategy. There was just one problem.
I hated to clean. And I loved to talk, especially in an empty church with acoustical echoes of my own making where children were not supposed to otherwise utter a sound.  It was downright blasphemy.

I only tagged along because I knew that as soon as I heard the hum hum humming of the vacuum cleaner way down in the adult Sunday School room, in a place she couldn't possibly see me from, I could do what I actually came there to do.

My job was to dust the wooden pews with glossy furniture polish. And take the little tiny pencils out of the holes in the back of the bench, replace them, and dust there too. Pick up all the stray papers, handkerchiefs, and teenage left-over notes written on the back of offering envelopes and dust. Everything. Even the pencils. Oh, it was tedious. Painfully tedious. And there were monumental glaring distractions everywhere. Fanning fans from the Funeral Home left on seats that just begged me to fan them. The handles looked like Popsicle sticks and it always made me hungry. An organ with a do-not-touch sign engraved on the lips of my aunt's stern face, and a huge picture of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane hours before his crucifixion, flanked ever so brilliantly behind the preacher's stand with the most colorful round stained glass window you've ever seen. I wasn't supposed to dust it you see....but it was just

Dreary like dust before an inevitable resurrection, except in those days it made me sad to see Him so sad because I knew how the story would go. I liked the sun through the stained glass better. But I digress.

I could only fool her for so long. As soon as the vacuuming started and I was sure she couldn't see or hear me, I would climb up into the choir loft behind the sacred pulpit, say hello to Jesus, and then on the long way back to the pews that still needed dusting, I would conjure up a sermon about what he might be praying and say a few words to the invisible people.

She never knew that's what I came there for.

As soon as the vacuum noise ceased, it was time to return to the dust from which I came...or something like that. And in a hurry. She would sashay out of the hall of now perfectly perfect classrooms and walk right up to the place I'd just been preaching with nary an amen let me tell ya. In her hands she carried a vase full of gladiolas and crocus, now kissed with water, and arranged just right for the Sunday's altar. I figured out many years later that she wasn't just there to dutifully clean. It brought her great joy to ready and adorn the church she loved. 

I don't know why I'm thinking of her today. Except that I miss her sometimes and wish I could tell her how much those cleaning trips meant to me. And how it shaped my spiritual self in ways I discovered later in life, remembering how she served without asking for payment or praise, and how she never scolded me for leaving so much dust on the wood.

 A few years after my great-uncle died and she was alone for the first time in her life, at fifty-two years of age, she had a stroke. I thought she was invincible and strong. Driven and dedicated. Selfless and kind....and deserving so much more than her fate. She spent the next twenty-five years of her life in a nursing home. And it pained me more than anything. When I visited there was only one word she could say. That word was "home." She would cry openly and beg me to take her with me. I made promises I couldn't keep, but I tried.  No amount of Gethsemane praying was going to make that dream come true for her. And so without the benefit of children of her own, she stayed in that miserable place. There were long seasons of time when I simply couldn't visit her. Not because it was physically impossible, but because I knew I would have to tell her no and watch her cry. The look of disappointment on her face was more than I could take. And my guilt when I didn't visit, was just as painful. One day I picked a bouquet of her ever blooming fence flowers and took them to her. It only made her miss home more and I never did it again.

If I could, for just one day, I would like to go back with her, in a swerving white car full of crocus, to the churchyard where she's now a permanent resident and talk to that Jesus on the wall. I would ask Him how one who dedicated her life in service to others in so many ways could end up alone and uncared for. I won't get that chance. The sanctuary burned in a fire not long after she went away. The only thing they salvaged was the window and the painting.

But I have so much more in my memory bank. 
So much more.

 Henry Meynell Rheam (1859-1920) "Arranging Flowers" watercolour
Public domain


Lee I said...

What a sad and beautiful story.

Michelle said...


How tragic. Sometimes, being childless, I have panic moments at what my old age might be. I have no younger neices or nephews who'd ever visit, even briefly as you.

It never bothered me before, but as I have watched my grandmothr's generation go into nursing homes and watch my parents' generation reach the beginnings of that... I sometimes am afraid of what could be.


I'm depressing me and you today. Sorry!

lumbers off like Eeyore...

The Gal Herself said...

Oh, Mimi! I believe this is one of your very best reminiscences! You recaptured your young voice perfectly (preach it, Sister Mimi!) and your compassion and sorrow regarding your aunt is ringingly sincere. Thank you for sharing this.

Fi said...

What a wonderful if ultimately sad memory. I have so many memories of the old faces (some of them really were old) whom I grew up with. Magical times. I could feel the emotion in your writing and I especially loved this phrase,

'with a do-not-touch sign engraved on the lips of my aunt's stern face'.

Thank you for sharing.

Carol Apple said...

This is a beautifully well-written story from beginning to end. Your aunt sounds like a strong and wonderful person and her early stroke and nursing home life very sad. It brings up a lot of food for thought for me about the unfairness of life and God's role in justice and how some things are just beyond comprehension. The fire and what survived is an apt ending.

Anonymous said...


The guilt gets you either way. There is just no easy way with these situations. Life isn't fair sometimes.
Thank you for sharing and for being real.

Mimi Lenox said...

Lee - Very sad indeed.

Michelle - So much to think about.

Gal - She was a wonderful person.

Fi - Thank you for visiting. I've wanted to write some of her story for quite a while.

Carol - It really was tragic in so many ways. Thank you for reading.

Dawn - To be alone and old and sick must be one of life's greatest fears and sorrows.

Travis Cody said...


I think if you could ask her now, she would forgive you for not being able to take her home.

Mimi Lenox said...

I hope so, dear Travis. I am glad she's free from suffering as she did. Sometimes there are things we can't fix, no matter how much we want to.

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