Saturday, June 13, 2009

Lessons in Love

Here, in the South, people don't necessarily have to be related to you for you to call them "aunt" or "uncle." That title can be bestowed on anyone-- from your Mom and Grandma's friends to an elderly neighbor. Larry's sister and I were best friends when I met their Aunt Willie, so it just seemed natural that she became my Aunt Willie. That was close to 30 years ago. How convenient when Larry and I got married, years later, that I was already calling her by her rightful name!

Everybody knows that when you marry a man, you marry his family. Well, I've teased Larry for years that I would have married him just to get Aunt Willie! She was my favorite person in his family! Don't worry---- I don't think that anyone else will be offended if they read this, because I'm not the only one that felt that way. Aunt Willie was everybody's sweetheart! If I could adequately pay tribute to her, you would love her as much as we do. (If Calley had known her, she could have written this for me--- far more eloquently.)

This picture of her sits in my living room, next to my grandparents.
As beautiful as she was here, she was even more beautiful on the inside!

I know very little about Aunt Willie's early years. I do know her mother died when she was very small, leaving three children under five behind. Her brother, the youngest, died in the war in his early twenties. She married Roy, suffered through two miscarriages, and was widowed at around 40 years old. Damage from the miscarriages left her unable to have her own children, but didn't stop her from mothering everyone she had contact with, including my mother-in-law. She helped her sister (Larry's Gammy) raise her six. She and Gammy remained close until Aunt Willie's death in 2005. (Gammy recently turned 95!)

I remember going with Tracey (Larry's sister) and their mom to Arkansas to visit Aunt Willie when I was just a teenager. She lived in a duplex with another older lady, perched atop the steepest driveway I've ever seen and next door was an ice house. The house was small, so when you divided it straight down the middle, each lady ended up with an apartment that resembled a shoebox. From the porch, you stepped into the tiny living room that was barely big enough for the sofa bed, TV, chair and shelves full of knickknacks. The only door out of the living room led into the small kitchen/dining room/laundry room. Yes, all in one tiny room. Head straight through the kitchen and you were in the bedroom. The bedroom had a dresser, hope chest and a twin sized bed. The bathroom was off to the side. Everything was spotless and in its place.
Aunt Willie did not own a car, so she walked everywhere she could. She worked hard, saved her money, and made do with what she had. I remember, as a teen, feeling sorry for her and wondering how in the world she could be so cheerful and content without a family of her own and in such meager surroundings. I never imagined that so much could come from someone with seemingly so little to offer. That's when the lessons began, or at least when the first seeds were planted.

For Aunt Willie, there was no distinction between immediate and extended family. From her sister, to her nieces and nephews, to her umpteenth cousin twice removed, they were all simply family. She loved every single one, kept in contact with each, and even sent birthday and Christmas cards to each family member recorded in her address book. This was not a perfunctory gesture! She made special trips to town, on foot, to hand pick those cards, buy those stamps, address them by hand, and get them in the mail at exactly the right time. So, even though she sent those cards to everyone, when you opened yours you felt loved by her. I don't know how she made everyone feel like we were special to her, but she did.

Eventually, the time came when Willie needed to be closer to family. While she still kept her own house and could work circles around people less than half her age, she didn't have family in Arkansas (except for a few older cousins) that could drive her to get groceries or to the doctor and walking long distances gets hard when you're near eighty. I was elected to go to Arkansas and help her start the process of packing up and transferring over 70 years of her life. It was probably the first time I'd ever spent time completely alone with her and I loved it! I loved it even more when she was finally in the same town with us.

For the remaining ten years or so of her life, Aunt Willie became one of my best friends. =) It may sound funny when I say I fell in love with this old girl, but that's the only way to describe it! It was like opening a gift and finding another grandparent! (Maybe, even better because I knew that she didn't have to love me. =) There were so many sweet moments with her. I told her often, "Aunt Willie, you're one of my favorite people on the planet!" She would reply, "You're one of mine, too." To which I'd always fall out laughing and tell her that she was the only person that had ever said that to me. Sad, but true. LOL

She insisted that my mother-in-law bring her to my grandfather's funeral. Although, she'd been to my grandparents a few times over the years with me, she didn't know Poppa very well. She came because she loved me. I know this because... standing by the grave, during the quietest moment of the entire service, she looked over at me, and loudly proclaimed, "Penny, I love you." Of course, with her hard of hearing, I had to yell, "I love you, too, Willie." I'll remember that moment with fondness, and humor, forever. ;)

Aunt Willie showed genuine appreciation for every kindness shown to her. Right after she moved here I became her ride to church every Sunday. She insisted on paying me for gas and would stick it down in my purse when I refused to take it. Even though I reminded her that it was on my way and wasn't costing me a dime to pick her up, we went through this scenario weekly, until Larry suggested I stop "fighting" with her. I made sure she didn't see me drop that $5 in the collection plate during services. ;)

Although Aunt Willie attended church faithfully and, unfailingly, tithed her small Social Security check, she never "preached" a sermon. She didn't have to-- she lived compassion, love, humility, and trusted Jesus daily. She forgave any wrong ever committed against her and I never heard her dredge up old hurts. If someone in the family spoke ill of someone else, she was quick to find at least one thing good to say about that person. At her graveside, I shared these things about her and how we should all emulate Christ like Aunt Willie did.

The last year of her life, her health and mind started to deteriorate quickly. Anesthesia during gall bladder surgery started the downhill slide. In the ICU, recovering from the surgery, she was confused and kept asking the same questions over and over. When the nurse asked her if she knew me, she said, "Well, yes, that's Penny _________! I've known her all my life!" I was so touched that, in her confused state, she remembered me.

Her body and mind never fully recovered from that surgery and she ended up having to go into a nursing home. My heart was broken every time I visited her there. Two or three weeks later, she fell and broke her hip. In the ER, she kept crying out, "Jesus, help me" and asking us to pray for her. In all her pain, confusion, and fear, she didn't forget where our help comes from.
A few days later, my mother-in-law asked me to ride over to the hospital and check on Aunt Willie. It was late in the evening and I was tired, but this was for Aunt Willie so I obliged. She kept asking me, "What are you doing out so late?" (The clock over her bed read 8:30 and she could see the darkness through the blinds.) I kept answering her, "I came to see you." Each time she would giggle with glee and shake her head in wonder. She never understood how much we all loved her and couldn't figure out why anyone would drive so "late" to see her!

Aunt Willie had that effect on everybody! To know her, was to adore her! I honestly don't know anyone that met her and didn't absolutely love her. When Aunt Willie passed away four years ago, Bro. Paul gave a beautiful, touching eulogy that only comes with a personal relationship. He cried through the whole service! How precious to affect people that way! People that had been estranged from the family for years attended her service. One of them said, "Aunt Willie was always the peacemaker in the family." I ponder that statement often. Even after death, her lessons live on.

Blessed are the peacemakers, but oh how blessed are their families, too!


  1. Between you and Cally I just sit at the computer now and cry reading these sweet posts!

  2. i will NEVER forget that week i had to stay with Aunt Willie at her vidalia apartment, right before she moved into the nursing home. i think i got more hillarious stories out of that one week than ever. "old dirty good...throw out." i must've told daniel those stories a million times by now =)

  3. she is so pretty, and such a sweet post!

  4. What a sweet post.
    I love your blog. I enjoyed reading it today.
    I had some time to do some blog hopping...
    Hope you will stop by and visit me.
    This month I am posting on our Disney trip plus a June a new grandson that will arrive on Tuesday....

  5. I LOVED this postabout Sweet Aunt Willie! Thanks for sharing about her- this was beautiful. :)