By the time she was 13 she was a beauty, appearing older than she was and having experienced much more of life than someone twice her age. When she was in her 70’s she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and was having difficulty with the common tasks of daily living, yet her long-term memories were still intact and vivid. She spent an afternoon relating some of the events of her life. A few were happy memories, though tinged with the realities of a young life spent in abject poverty and paucity. Others were tragic and horrible. It was a sign of her disease, I believe, that enabled her to discuss both pleasant reminiscences and heartbreaking vile memories with the same light-hearted tone. Remembering the past no longer brought her pain or pleasure. She just seemed to need to unburden herself before she became unable to recall anything and was lost to us as well as to herself.
When she was 13 she worked as a waitress at a local diner in Johnson City, Tennessee. Many of its patrons were truck drivers who stopped to eat and rest and refuel before continuing their cross-country journeys. One of the handsome diners was especially taken with the allure of the young waitress. He often traveled that way on this truck route and would stop in whenever he passed. They talked and flirted, and she was thrilled by his attention. He eventually asked her to marry him and go with him to his home in Florida. She readily agreed. He was 35 years old, handsome and most importantly, it was an adventure that could take her away from the hardships of her life. I asked her about the twenty-two year age difference and she just grinned sheepishly and said, “Well, he thought I was actually 16.”
Soon after they were married the two of them left her old home in Cuba Landing, Tennessee, to travel to Florida. Her family stood by to see them off. My mother, years later, wondered why the family wasn’t concerned that an older man was taking her away. She only remembers feeling relief that her sister had an exciting chance to escape from the misery of their life there in the hills of Tennessee. Most of the rest of the brothers and sisters and their mother eventually fled to Florida as well. I often wonder what my life would’ve been like if my mother had not followed my aunt.
Soon after moving to Florida they had two daughters. Aunt Gwen tells of not being able to breastfeed and my Uncle Gene sewing nipples from pieces of leather to attach to bottles to feed the babies. They were married for over 50 years and to me always seemed like a happy couple. After Uncle Gene died and Aunt Gwen began to become more forgetful she would often talk to him as if he were there and set a place for him at the breakfast table.
I saw Aunt Gwen recently. She is in a nursing home in Florida. I helped feed her lunch, she has forgotten how to eat and must be reminded to open her mouth, close her mouth and then to swallow. They say soon she will probably forget how to even do those things. She is mostly nonverbal though she does attempt to talk but the jumbled mumbling resembles a sentence that cannot be understood. She smiled a few times. And she looked at our faces with a troubled look like she was trying to remember who we were. When I left her room I kissed her and told her I love her. She uttered the one word I could understand, which was “yeah.” So I will hold on to that and believe she knows I love her and am comforted that her 'yeah' was her way of saying she loves me too.