During the following week I went through closets and miscellaneous stuff that through the years had collected on the attic floor. Aunt Genevieve saw me working single mindedly, carrying things down the two flights of stairs and toward the back door. There were mini blinds, sticky, greying lampshades, and paper flowers choked with ancient grime from a time when the grown-ups smoked casually in bed, there were moth-ball, musty clothes from a by-gone era and knick-knacks that served as nothing more than dust catchers, all of which hadn’t been touched for years. I felt both good and simultaneously guilty retiring these miscellaneous things from the attic. I could tell however, that Auntie was put out by this. She was not so much put out by the stuff being discarded as the symbolism behind discarding them. The larger picture marking a milestone of life’s transition.
This time Auntie brought THE talk to me. Although she’d said she wanted to stay in the house, I had not given-up. Gingerly, I’d laid my argument before her again and again, respecting the fact that the subject left her nerves exposed. Well this day I must have struck one of those nerves because she was red faced and shaking on the verge of tears. “It seems like you’re ready to throw us away before we’re dead!” This time those limpet eyes bore through me with the last bit of feeble fight they could muster. I put down whatever it was I had in my arms and slumped down on the steps behind me. Aunt Gene was in a place I’d never dreamt she’d be. She felt a victim. Throughout this whole transition I wanted her to feel empowered; I wanted her to know that I would do everything possible to enable her choices. So, with this I knew convincing her to leave the old house was pointless. We had a heart to heart; the outcome of which was to make provisions for the eventuality of outside help. So, I continued cleaning the house, and auntie begrudgingly supported me by letting me continue unfettered. The focus was now to prepare the house for a visiting nurse or weekly housekeeper.
I’d almost finished the two attic rooms by now. They walls were freshly painted with white and I’d covered the windows with new temporary shades I’d purchased from Home Depot. The tow rooms could easily serve as a residence with an adjacent office vis-à-vis sitting room for an attending nurse. Auntie had not gone up there though; the extra climb up to the third floor winded her. Plus I think she still had some latent notion I had unsettled what she’d laid to rest up there years ago. Either way, I was proud of my work. I knew she would be too when she chose to expend the energy to see it.
The floor below the attic was the aunties’ with two bedroom suites and a bathroom off the hall that connected them. I skipped this floor, of course, because there was nothing I could do there that would currently benefit the goal I’d set. The first floor was being used by the boys and me; therefore it was on to the basement. The basement consisted of a family room, a laundry room, a half bath, an unfinished storage area, and a walk-in cedar closet. There was plenty to do down there. Like the attic, the basement was never used aside from the laundry room. I decided to spend a day, just sorting and boxing away the LPs and 45s that were in shelves and crates along with a stereo record player that no longer worked. It was tedious but a little fun to sort through old recordings of Earth,Wind, and Fire, Shirley Bassey, the Jackson Five and countless others. I wrote down each LP title and artist in a log. Perhaps someday I’d get a chance to sell them on e-Bay and they’d actually be worth something. It was quiet in the basement as in the attic. I was able to concentrate and work quickly because I was virtually undisturbed.
I heard a noise from the first floor, my heart skipped a beat and I raced up the basement stairs. The boys were in the kitchen doorway looking a bit ashen faced, but healthy. Past them on the stovetop was the complete hood and fan apparatus that was once stationed above the stove. A gaping hole in the wall brought in a waft of hot summer air from the back yard. When we all caught our breath, and thanked God—this became a “Laugh out Loud” moment—LMFAO!
The irony in things falling from the walls and ceiling! Was this not a sign from above that evidenced an argument in favor of leaving the big, old house? Auntie Gene and I just looked at one another. Had I been able to peel back that impenetrable veneer of hers, it might have exposed her unspoken conviction that staying put meant she’d be less of a financial burden and an independent, not a dependent. But hind sight is 20/20 and her insistence upon staying proved to be the greater burden in the end. However, she insisted on the big house, and thus I began the kitchen construction project.
My rationale was multifaceted. Someone will eventually have to come into the house to cook for them. The now dead stove would have to be removed and another, safer stove would have to take its place. This proved to be more complicated than one might imagine because the old stove was jerry-rigged into the butler’s pantry back before I was born. The gas lines were not up to code and of course no one would touch the project until this was fixed. After a lot of phone calls here and there, I coordinated the project and called my mother, Liz to help out monetarily.
During the week the kitchen wall was being fixed, we made do with the tiny tabletop microwave, another appliance that was on its last legs. Two handymen arrived at 8:00 a.m. every day to reinforce, add sheetrock and plaster, seal and paint until the new wall was strong enough to support a new microwave/vent combo that would be housed over her new stove. Thanks to credit still in good standing, we were able to manage most of this on our Sears credit card. The finished product was so clean and pristine. The whole system reached from the floor to the ceiling with a shiny white stove set crowned by a new wooden cabinet, all standing spritely before a freshly painted wall. Auntie Gene had been avoiding me throughout the project which was easy to do in a house so big, but she finalized my efforts with her seal of approval—a half smile, coyly given, and a belabored thank you. I accepted this for the priceless appreciation it represented.
There were only a few days left to our visit. I’d arranged for a maid service to come wash the windows and give the house a thorough cleaning. The maids arrived a day after the window washer. I knew how Auntie felt about her privacy and belongings, so we secured the silver and she positioned herself in bed with Jaquey atop a discreet pillow that hid the family jewels. Not that they had a lot, but that it was all they had. They didn’t move the whole time. The boys and I shadowed the maids throughout the house in order to guarantee their good work. All went well, and again I was proud of the outcome. I’d finished my basement job of packing up non essentials and the just plain old and broken stuff had either been donated or discarded. The only thing left was to make a long term plan for caregiving help.
I proposed Aunt Gene start with a regularly scheduled housekeeper that could cook a couple of meals for the freezer, or wash the clothes and bring them up the steps for folding. Obviously this would take some getting used to on her side, but I insisted she consider it before vetoing it outright. It was a somber, pensive farewell. I’d accomplished a lot that summer but it wasn’t exactly what I’d hoped for. I’d compromised to save the overall amicable relationship I had with Aunt Gene. I’m sure she felt that she’d compromised too. By her estimation, she had done me a favor by digging her heals in deep and staying put. Afterall, she was the adult and she’d made decisions for herself and many of us all of her adult life.
Tomorrow I’d board the plane with two boys and a dog that were very ready to return home. I decided to spend my last evening walking and letting go of a bit of my frustration. I gathered the dog, her leash and baggies for poopie pick-up, and then shuffled off to the car. We drove out of the alley passing the two akitas that lived across the alley and the pit-bull that guarded the yard at the end of the alley. Their presence was foreboding and I’d loath to think what might happen if ever they breached the security of their chain link fence. Auntie’s house was about six blocks away from the Central West End, but I drove there all the same. At the sixth block it was like entering the city of Oz. Where I wouldn’t dream of walking my little dog down Auntie’s block, I felt a false sense of security by the sixth block. At this magical demarcation the houses were better cared for, the yards tended to, and the neighborhood integrated. Remember: this was where the rainbow flag was hung. I was proud of some of the changes I saw in St. Louis, but it still remained the Midwest and I was glad to leave it behind. Unfortunately, I knew I’d be back. Aunt Gene had chosen to remain in an unsustainable situation. So, I’d be back to either pull my aunties from an emergency or bury them.
My last day had arrived. It was bittersweet. The Pendergrass neighbor that was most closely my peer drove us away. My waving aunties were standing securely behind their front door, like children tucked in for the night. We flew forward in time so appropriately by nightfall we’d arrived in California. I gave Aunt Gene an expected call to let her know we’d arrived safely. She’d taken the time after we’d left to inspect the place which meant she’d been up to the attic floor, down through the kitchen and into the basement. The house was clean from head to toe and the freezer was full of convenience meals. She humbly gave her sincere appreciation for everything. She was pleasantly surprised at the outcome and said so, graciously, this time. Perhaps she just needed to settle down after the obvious stir our visit gave her.
The boys and I had been back for about three days. Their school had started and I was looking forward to getting them and myself settled back into a routine. We’d done our best during our summer visit, and Auntie Gene had made her choice. I’d begrudgingly respected that and resigned myself to wait for THE call, the one I’d discussed with her and tried to prepare for, dare I say, avoid.