Auntie Bea (Beatrice Buell) 1917-2015
Talks like this are never easy, and something would surely be lost in the emotion of it all, if I tried to do it off the top of my head. Such talks are a piece of this puzzle we call living and dying. We do them because of those that are gone, but especially for those still present. What we share can be revealing glimpses into the lives of the ones that have left us that can be added to the memories of our own.
We can only trust that the things we say, also got said while the person was still alive, or at least that we are OK with pretending those things did not need to be said. In general my family had lots of moments like that.
The “word” love was not thrown around freely in my family, but there was never any question but what love was there—you learned how to read between the lines. I have attempted to be better in this respect with my own kids, but I am sure it is still not enough.
Toward the end, Auntie Bea was a lot freer with the word.
I am sure that we all wish we could hear what people might have to say about us after we are gone–but then again perhaps not. Fortunately, one fringe benefit that comes with being 99 plus is you don’t have to care much about what people think. It really doesn’t matter too much whether you brush your teeth before you go to bed or whether you eat only lemon meringue pie for supper.
While she outlived most of her peers, I think she would be quite impressed if she could see the size of this crowd here today, and she would probably wonder what all the fuss was about, but she would nonetheless take it all in stride.
While Auntie Bea, was not my birth mother, she was for all intents and purposes the one that raised me.
At some point, I started acknowledging that fact to her directly, and I know she appreciated that. I had the good fortune of having had many mothers in my life, including my birth mother.
Growing up on the farm, in the two family house, my Aunt June, who just lived a hallway away, also filled that role, as did Aunt Theresa, who lived a short sprint through the rocky pasture away. Today I have the opportunity and pleasure to hopefully make Aunt Theresa blush a bit remembering a certain snake in her basement that attempted to take years off her life.
I am quite sure, as a kid, I needed all these mothers in my life. I feel incredibly lucky to have had them.
But today is only a little bit about these other mothers and a lot about Auntie Bea.
When you get to be 99 years old, it means you have witnessed a lot of changes in the world. When you are young, you think what is important should last forever. When you live to be 99, you have had to adjust your life theories many times, to better reconcile the number of times you have had to accept that nothing lasts forever—that “should” is not even part of the equation. We have to embrace nothing lasts forever, yet live our lives as if they do.
Life is full of surprises and it is better to roll with the punches than to be taken out by them. It is easy to maintain theories that never get tested. It is a sign of strength to adjust when necessary–when stubbornly refusing to change means risking losing everything. The impermanence of everything in our lives is painful at times but eventually it morphs into a kind of freedom that cannot be arrived at in any other way.
One of my last conversations with her, just two days before she died, was about her realization of how much work it can be to just chew. But I could still hear the “Auntie Bea chuckle” in her voice. To her it was just one more thing that she had not realized she had taken for granted. It had taken her 99 years to realize this one little thing.
“We can’t take anything for granted,” she said to me.
You know you have arrived at the “very basics,” when all the things you once could easily do while chewing, have been stripped away.
The last few years I called her the “energizer bunny” because she always seemed to take a licking and keep on ticking—bounding back from one close call after another. Somehow she always found a way to recharge those batteries and stay here with us, leaving those around her with a sense that she would always bounce back.
For the two people in the State of Connecticut born before 1971 that never had Auntie Bea for first grade, I can’t imagine how you got through first grade.
I know that my own experience of first grade in 1953 was much different than the experience of first graders in 2015 and even the first graders toward the end of her career. She received several teachers’ awards during her career that were proof of her ability to change and grow with the expectations of a changing world.
I’ll bet it is a very small group of people that have ever actually had their mother as their own first grade teacher–it probably is not even allowed anymore. When I had her for first grade she was closer to the beginning of her career and likely some of the disciplinary actions she employed (like being tied in my chair and having my mouth taped shut) would be frowned upon today. But it was consistent with what I said before about having lots of mothers growing up—and probably needing all I could get. Those were different times for sure.
Today they have books full of labels and cabinets full of medications for kids like that.
Which method is better for the kid, or whether there are as yet undiscovered methods that will prove to be better than either, remains to be seen.
I have managed to get to be 68 years old so she did get to have a good laugh, and get even with me, when I turned 50. You see, when she turned 50 I made a big deal out of her being “half a century old.” When you are a kid, a half century seems like a long time. When you get older you realize it is but a blink of an eye. I had really hoped to give her an equally hard time when she actually reached the “century old” mark, but I reminded her enough about the “turning-50-joke” the last couple of years, I am sure she got the point anyway.
No doubt my brother and I challenged her wits at times. Her frustration would sometimes boil over and she would magically turn us into one person, thereby cutting the problem in half, as she would combine our names into “Chon!”
Auntie Bea had an incredible ability to allow me to be who I was—within reason, and always supported me throughout my life even when at times I probably seemed un-supportable. Perhaps she was just good at keeping her displeasure to herself. Sometimes we could all benefit from such a skill.
She would take me to art classes on Saturday mornings at Ris-D, and make me stay in Saturday mornings to work on math problems. Although I will always wonder if that is why, to this day, math and I are not friends—even on facebook.
All of my kids pretty much grew up on a modified version of her rice pudding, and I have several of her recipes, like the one for coconut brownies, and blueberry buckle typed with an actual typewriter. Auntie Bea is likely responsible for me not being afraid of cooking, doing laundry or washing dishes.
As I went through a couple of divorces and other life changes, I could always count on her to embrace my next seemingly poor choice with only an occasional, “Charles Albert, I didn’t raise you that way!”
You always knew you were in trouble when the middle name came out.
Auntie Bea always allowed me a certain amount of “outrageousness” or “eccentricity” that would sometimes make her smile and giggle. She would play at being outraged, but the twinkle in her eye, and the bear hugs when it was time to leave, would give away, if not her secret approval, at least that she still loved me regardless.
We are thrown into the world kicking and screaming, charged up like energizer bunnies, hop around for a while, sometimes for as long as 99 years, and then our batteries wear out.
We can all only wish we had her batteries.
I am sure she will continue to hop-on in all of us.