Never Forgetting, Never Forgiving

Many years ago, my mother wrote a poem about herself and I cannot ignore its essence. It speaks quite simply of our mistakes, in a hope that we are always ready to correct them. For years I have carried with me a mistake–a mistake that helped make someone’s final time in their twilight lonely and their darkness even darker.

There’s only one blessing
attached to mistakes.
The chance at correcting
the misses one makes.
I know I’ve forgotten——
I haven’t been nice.
But I need not be
the same way twice.
Therefore, you see——
you can be me.
But never be dirty
as if I pretend to be!

The mistake, which I will tell you about, is one you may find to be acceptable, but for me it was inexcusable because I did not even try to do something, nor now can I even recall many memories from this three-year period.


My Aunt as she was six months earlier!

It was 1982, just before Christmas, I received a call from my father telling me that my aunt, my favorite aunt–his older sister, was no longer able to care for herself in her home and that it was too much for my mother to keep up two houses. H said he was going to sell the house and the belongings at an estate sale in order to pay for my aunt’s lodging in a nursing home about twenty-eight miles from the small town they all lived in.

My hand trembled as I listened and I tried to clutch the phone receiver even tighter because I didn’t want to drop it and I felt the harder clutch would keep the tear inside the eye as it brimmed to the surface. Suddenly I jolted forward as my father yelled into the receiver to find out if I understood the sale was the upcoming weekend and that my aunt was already in the nursing home.

I responded like a silly, dumbfounded kid, rather than a thirty-something executive, when I answered that I would be there, unless I couldn’t arrange for someone to watch over my parties on the weekend. He ended the conversation by telling me my aunt would appreciate my being there. I couldn’t imagine my aunt appreciating my attendance–in her house as they sold it from under her, hearing the possible gossipy women that plague Iowa estate sales pecking at all the reasons for the sale. I could only imagine what they were going to say about us now, especially untrue stories about why my father was doing all of this and in the course of their reasoning they would attack my aunt as feeble and give a scathing account of her life.

That evening and the next day passed slowly as I prepared to leave. Finally, the hour had arrived for me to leave. Even though I had, a three and one-half hour drive I suddenly felt that time was racing forward, causing me to arrive earlier than I would be mentally ready. The muscles in my neck kept twitching, occasionally causing me to choke and clear my throat. I could not understand that this twitching was a metaphor; the twitch was so much like how I usually reacted to my father when I speak to him. Yes, that is unfair. However, during one of the days at home my father will say something that will remind me that I am to live by his canon of obedience and that I do not dare voice too strong of opinions, especially if they differ from his worldview when I am in his home.

After I crossed the bridge, over the Mississippi River, the drive was nearly over. In a few minutes, the route on the Interstate passed by all of the streets in Davenport. The names of the streets brought back memories of shopping and having lunch at the Lend-a-hand Club with my Aunt and Uncle. Suddenly my twitch changed. My hands tightly clutched the steering wheel, my teeth were clenched and regardless a tear fell down my cheek as I realized that my Aunt was somewhere in a strange bed on one of the streets and she was all-alone.

I don’t think my Aunt had ever been alone, especially in a strange place, as well as being nervous and upset. During the final part of my drive I couldn’t get it out of my mind that she was alone and it was unfamiliar to her. Throughout her life, except for the last 12 or 13 years since her husband died, she had always been somewhere she knew and with people, she knew. It wasn’t unusual for people my Aunt’s age to ever have been alone. She was born in 1901 and for most of her life lived on the family farm with her parents until they died and then, after marrying, was with her husband until he died. She grew up in a time and a place that families remained close and family ethics were much more severe than now. Even though I always considered her strong, the effects of her era remained with her for a lifetime.

One of my Grandmother’s creeds was to be respectful of parents and to always acknowledge the strength of the family unit. Her codes were stern and she ruled her children and husband with an iron hand. I have not one memory in which I can see my Grandmother, except for one. It was the night she died. I was ten and after my mother told me she had died and everyone was busy, I sneaked back to her bed. I felt overwhelmingly, compelled to see if she was dead. I knew of death before this because my grandfather preceded her in death. I walked up to the bed, got very close to her and after studying her face and torso I poked her as hard as I could. I was ecstatic when she didn’t move. No longer, would I walk into a room alone and have her call me to her using a demanding voice. When I arrived, she never greeted me, nor was they’re ever a hug; I was motioned to stand to her left and quietly stood while she introduced me. When she was finished she dismissed my by simply uttering one word–“go!” Later in life, I always wondered how my Aunt and Father ever enjoyed one day in their lives while under her control.

When the world watched war breakout in Europe and then cross the waters to America my Aunt was a blossoming, young teenager. I am sure she was as excited as any other teen when she saw the men dressed in uniform and heard them talk about the glamour of fighting in a foreign country. One of those men eventually became her husband in 1957 following my Grandmother’s death. However, she had fallen in love with him in 1917 when he was a dashing man ten years older than she was. Even though she expressed their love and her hope of marriage, her mother immediately vanquished her. My grandmother demanded that she dissolve the relationship and maneuvered her into becoming a spinster on the farm, a penance that lasted for forty years.

As I drove up in front of my parent’s home, I wondered what the atmosphere would be like. I would be the only one there with them; I knew that my sister would not be there. When I walked in, I saw or felt everything the same. My Mother came to me as always with her outstretched arms to give me a hug and my father continued to sit in his big chair. It did not think a discussion could happen that night. She said my father had a difficult time telling my Aunt what he wanted to do, although he did not want to let my Aunt discuss it with him. Then she quickly added that it was best since my Aunt couldn’t afford to stay at home, and that it was just impossible for her (my mother) to watch over two houses!

My mother encouraged my father to place my Aunt in the nursing home. I had forgotten my mother was never able to forgive her for their interplay when my mother and father moved back to the farm at the demand of my grandmother. My mother has agreed with me now that she feels most of the problems between them was instigated by my grandmother. After my grandmother died it was apparent that my mother and aunt never argued. Even though they didn’t, it took until now for my mother to understand how much their relationship had changed and it is unfortunate that my mother could not see this while my Aunt was fully functioning during her twilight. If it had, then possibly, my mother would have said things differently to my father. She was the only one who could have persuaded him that my Aunt should remain in her house.

To remember my Aunt’s home brings so many wonderful memories to me. My sister and I stayed with her many times while we were in school. We did this in the winter when the snow did not allow my father to bring us back and forth to school. Each of those occasions brought smiles of anticipation to our faces because we knew my Aunt would have amazing crafts for us to work on, or help her cook new foods and listen as she told us tales of our ancestors and their journey’s to America. By the time I had grown and moved from the little town, I never stayed with her overnight again. I wish I had, I wish I had spent much more time with her as she moved into that time of her life that lies somewhere between how you were and where you are going.

Since there is not a predetermined entry age that led my aunt within her Crepusculum, my thoughts of her are when her path diverged from the safety of her home to the reality of never having one again. This is when she was eighty-one years old. From then I can subtract the years and arrive at an initial, more dubious and uncertain time, an imperfectly illuminated stage in her life when she fell and broke her hip doing spring cleaning in her home. Up until then my Aunt lived her life completely and was in charge of her destiny,

This day suddenly changed everything for her, particularly because it was a change that was within her body and mind. The fall caused her immense concern and the worry from it eventually became detrimental to her health and joyful outlook on life. The fall and the physical act of falling frightened her so much she believed another fall would happen. Her fright kept her from doing many things that she normally would do and it was inevitable that my father sent her to a nursing home.

Each time I visited my Aunt in the nursing home I was aware of how unhappy she was. When I arrived, she was always sitting in her room all alone. Since she spent most of her sitting by her bed, I asked one day if she would not enjoy a small television that could set on the night stand in front of her. After a little coaxing, she finally agreed and promised her I would bring one on my return. The next trip after I brought the television to her I asked how she enjoyed it. In a very somber voice, she said she did not need a television and that the sound from her television could bother other people. During my next trip home, I stopped to see her and give her an earphone so she would not bother anyone.

Just then, as I lay across her bed she asked me not to come back. I was dumbfounded and finally asked why she said that to me. She felt I was young and I should not be bothered with old people’s problems.

My mistake begins at this particular moment as I sat with her that day. If it happened now I would not have left her room, nor would I allow her to say that without defining a lot more and letting her know I could read between the lines.

I sat there and and didn’t argue or try to persuade her to let me do something. I left that day with a heavy heart as I kissed her good-bye and agreed that I would cease my visits. By the time I arrived at my parents I was extremely upset and tried to talk to them about it. My father simply said if that is what she wants then do it. My mother just gave me a kiss and said for me not to be upset. In another day, I left for home and as I drove towards Davenport, I knew should not have driven away and that I should have stayed to speak to my Aunt again.

That feeling of unfinished business is always with me and I try to question why I did not stop to see her. The memory of her face was emblazoned in my memory and yet, I continued to drive. Today her face haunts me…sitting in an armchair; her slightly rounded shoulders held her head tipped downward as she talked to me. I was on the bed and our heads were at the same height. I sat by my Aunt who had given me everything I ever wanted, particularly huge quantities of love and watched as tears welled up in her small brown eyes as she asked me not to see her again. I sat there and I did not even try to tell her that I could help. Instead, my silence hastened her journey into her final darkness all alone.

The next time I saw my Aunt was the evening she died. My parents told me she asked for me continually that day. I knew why immediately why my Aunt requested me to be there. She needed me to be there with her so that she could leave this world peacefully.

When I arrived, my Aunt was no longer speaking and had difficulty breathing. I told my parents, who were there, to go home and I would stay until the next morning with her. I sat by the bed, unsure of what to do and particularly lost in how to tell her all that was in my heart. Finally and uncomfortably, I took a hold of a finger and told her I was there and that I would not leave. She gasped for air repeatedly and deep within her, I could hear a chilling rattle. I stopped suddenly and without much thought let her know it was okay to leave and that I loved her. She took a final, horrible gasping breath and then became very quiet.

Sometime, in one of the many years that have followed, I thought of that time and what I didn’t do. I asked over and over why didn’t I say something and I cannot find a valid reason. I can think of excuses to make me feel better, but not one that helps me. During those days we lived in Evansville, In. We had a large home and even though we took care of M’s mother who had Alzheimer’s the house was large enough to have my Aunt. I could have had her there. I could have paid for any help I needed. I am sure she would have been happy.

I have a large picture of her on the wall in our Foyer. It hangs to the right of my Grandfather’s desk. Above the desk are two large oval photos, one of my father and her as children and one of my Aunts when she graduated from school, about the year she fell in love with the dashing soldier. When I pass by her pictures I always stop to talk with her and often I know I have stopped not to reminisce, but to take the time to apologize for my mistake. I hope one day I will feel that she understands. I hope one day I will accept what I did and never all anything like that to happen again.


3 thoughts on “Never Forgetting, Never Forgiving

  1. Frank
    It would seem that you and I come from the same “neighborhood”, in the sense that I understand your feelings and predicament with your aunt. I too had favorite aunts and uncles that played important roles and occupied special places in my life. I know about the custom of having one of the children to stay on the farm to care for the parent. The only reward for the undertaking was that the farm would pass into the hands of the caretaker. It was the way of things in that generation. In my family, it is included into the abstract of the deed to the property. (My German ancestry were sticklers for detail)
    For you to cross the authority( your father) to care for your aunt was too daunting of a task and your aunt would have told you, “No”. She would have loved you all the more for it, but she would have said that you didn’t need to have her as a burden. Can’t you hear her voice, Frank? I understand how your heart wanted to care for her, but the “rebellion” would have brought with it a high price because it would have made you mother and father feel guilty.
    The comfort that I want to share is a small one, but it is the only one that I have and it is this:
    I believe, when we leave this world and we are in a place where nothing is hidden, all things that were behind a “glass darkened”, it becomes clear. All questions have answers there. All things that were totally confusing are made strait. In your aunts heaven, your heart and its love for her is know to her. She knows how much you wanted to do this for her. She knows everthing about your heart, Frank. She loves you more than you ever know here. …
    For those who have never grown up around these old mores and customs, they will find this confusing at best. But, those standards were very strong and it determined your standing in the “gossipy” community (your parents would have lost face) and it was too much to go against in 1982. My mother’s family was Old World German (Not many would understand what I mean by that description, but I think that you would) and I know exactly about children were to be seen and not heard. There was no tolerance of childish behavior. I never spent one night with one pair of grandparents. I spent a few summer visits with the other pair, but my grandfather never uttered a word to me the whole visit…It was a different time and era that seems so long ago, yet it is a great part of why we do the things that we do today…We are blessed to have these deep roots…
    You are a wonderfully loving person, Frank. Your Aunt has great peace with knowing the depth of your love, give yourself some of her peace. She would want you to have it as her legacy to you….


  2. Yes, not only can I hear say say that now, I am heartened when I read of your family and I believe it was exactly that–the old world German holding on to the ethics they had and unwilling to look around and see where they were.

    My father had a lot to do with my not bringing it up…….In those days I was rarely listened to by him. Now, my mother did listen, but was fairly helpless against him, as was my aunt, unless it was something he was unable to gain control.

    It appears our German grandparents had the same outlook. I can’t imagine being like them, but then as you say, we would not be as we are with out those roots.

    As usual you have great insight. I think for some things I’ll wait for that time when thing are clear to have the questions answered. I will go on and search out my path without those old questions anyway. I think of how you and your husband are doing almost everyday-if not the day then the nighttime I think! In any case you remain in my thoughts and I always wish your days and nights to be as good as they can be.



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