God Bless Aunt Nancy

God Bless Aunt Nancy and all the Other “Aunt Nancys”

Mostly, I didn’t like Aunt Nancy and mostly, she didn’t like me. At least that is how it was for most of our lives.

Until I was fifteen, she was the family “Old Maid.” She was uptight, devout, priggish, and wore her hair in tight waves around her face. She led an organized and scheduled life. She was close to forty when she married, but marriage didn’t change her too much. She and Uncle Willis had a quiet marriage and after a couple of years, they moved into separate bedrooms.

When I saw her coming, I saw trouble. I suspect that as a child, I represented a world she would never know and wasn’t the least interested in.

I was a slob, tardy, rowdy, and most often, had a remnant of chewed bubble gum in my uncombed hair. My behavior never upset my parents as much as it upset Aunt Nancy. My existence just plain exasperated Aunt Nancy. For example, when she was the teacher of my third grade Sunday school class, she instructed us to memorize a Bible verse to be recited the following week. The next Sunday, I was the first person she called on; I stood and recited, “Jesus wept,” the shortest verse in the Bible. While the other children snickered, Aunt Nancy fought back tears and, I suspect, prayed for lightening to strike me.

Aunt Nancy’s professional career had been in banking, but in her retirement years, she had me. On my third and final return to Shuffletown due to divorce, like a screw being anchored in hard wood, I was spiraling hard into a depression.

Yet, at the end of her life and the renaissance of mine, it was Aunt Nancy who picked me up, dusted me off and set me upright, again. And I am grateful.

She was there for me. During those dark days, Aunt Nancy became my support group. She didn’t like me any better, nor I her, but during that time we set that aside and accepted that we were family. Unnoticed by either of us, we began to care for each other. We suspended animosities and Aunt Nancy wrote my salvation in indelible ink into her life mission statement.

I led a hard life back then. Wrong choices led into prescription drug addiction, aching loneliness, and eventually cancer. During my recovery, Aunt Nancy was my constant support and companion. I found comfort just sitting beside her and talking. She became the Beatrice of my life, my journey. She had helped me structure a budget to pay medical bills. She balanced my checkbook, helped me set up payment plans with doctors and brought my life into balance.

She kept a straight back chair alongside her big, tan corduroy, overstuffed chair where she sat each day. She kept a pillow for her elbow in the chair. She broke her elbow on a trip to Disneyland with a Christian tour group. The old injury often ached – it was an unpleasant reminder that this same Christian tour group never sent her flowers–while she was in the hospital–in another state–among strangers; nor did they send flowers, best wishes, or acknowledge her return home to Charlotte.

When I came in, I would pick up the cushion and sit down in the straight chair. I guess I wanted to be near her. On the other side of her chair was the telephone within arm’s reach. She spoke on the phone for more than fifteen minutes each hour, except, of course, when her favorite daytime soap was airing.

We rarely had meaningful conversations. We talked about regular things; family news, the weather, what the preacher said on Sunday, and who was sick in the community. I am not sure that we really got a long any better. I think I mostly had learned to steer clear of subjects that would irritate her. I never stopped being afraid of her and I always felt just one step away from reminding her of the child who memorized the Bible shortest verse, Jesus wept.

I needed her; I had begun to care dearly for her; and it became important to earn her love and her respect. Aunt Nancy represented all things good and virtuous. In those times, when I was a slaying dragons, Aunt Nancy sat by me and set aside her judgments of me.

And the times I recall most fondly of those years are Friday afternoons. During the work week, she babysat my little dog, Gracious. I would drop Gracious off each morning and pick her up each afternoon.

In the morning, she and Uncle Willis would always be eating breakfast, I would open the door, set Gracious on the floor, and Aunt Nancy would lay down her wheat toast, slide away from the table, pat her lap and Gracious would run to her. In the afternoon when I arrived, Gracious would be in her lap sleeping while Aunt Nancy watched the news or talked on the phone. It was an arrangement that pleased everyone.

When winter passed and the days became longer, Aunt Nancy would encourage me to stay and visit especially on Friday afternoons. My lingering became a ritual. On a yawning Friday afternoon I would step out of my car and shortly, Aunt Nancy would step lightly down the back door steps. Gracious would bound into the freedom of the yard and I would retrieve two webbed lawn chairs from the storage shed near the car port. Then, we sat in silence, mostly, and wait for the sky to change from blue to orange to blackberry to twilight.

In the gloaming, this twilight time, we renewed family threads and connections. Too old to worry about the differences in our lives, we would slide into the quiet comfort of our company. Again, our conversations covered many things, community, family, births, marriages, and the infirm. During these afternoon visits, Aunt Nancy talked to me about change and if I had a penny for every time she said: “change was the only constant in life”, well, I could pay cash for a Lexus.

Aunt Nancy understood that nothing in life was permanent except the frailty of the human soul and the necessity of faith. As day faded into evening, Aunt Nancy led me back to earth.

Old habits die hard and sometimes, we disagreed. During this time, I returned to writing and each time an article was published, Aunt Nancy would take umbrage with some fact in the essay. We debated the most trivial of things and facts never got in the way of Aunt Nancy’s opinion.

We even argued over when the road in front of her house was paved. To settle the argument, I called the public library’s reference desk to settle the dispute. They confirmed my side of the argument. Aunt Nancy’s reply was, “Well, you can’t believe everything people tell you.”

Aunt Nancy and her home became my safe haven. A place I felt welcome, even when she would turn to me and say: “I am tired; now, go home.”

In too short a time, Aunt Nancy had become the only surviving member of our father’s siblings. She became the lynchpin, the cog that held the Rozzelle family together. She was the clearing house for family information. When times began to change in our world; when old home places were sold; when commerce came to the crossroads and Shuffletown Grocery was sold; and Rozzelles began to move away from the area, she comforted us. Still, as she continued to remind us, “The only constant is change.”

My sister, Jill, reminded me last week that it had been a year and a half since Aunt Nancy died. It doesn’t seem possible that it has been that long. Yet, it also seems like a century since I unfolded a lawn chair and sat with her at sunset. Since her death, it and the world I once shared with my sister and brother exists only in small pockets around Shuffletown. There are only remnants of places where we were once family. We have drifted, like planets escaping gravity, to far away places.

I was acutely aware of this, last month, when I stopped at the red light at Shuffletown crossroads. The crossroads were dark. There were no porch lights on. There are no front porches, left. Aunt Alma and Uncle Ed’s home is gone from the southwestern corner. Uncle Johnny and Aunt Mutt’s house in the Northwest corner stands empty and waits for the next chapter. The swimming pool behind Cousin Phyllis’ house is empty and looks lonely.

Once upon a time, in Aunt Nancy’s era, if you lived more than a mile or two from the crossroads of Mt. Holly-Huntersville Rd. and Rozzelles Ferry lived out of town. Now, I live three time zones away.

Kinfolks and generations of neighbors can be too real and too challenging for many of us. But change has found us and, as it turns out, Aunt Nancy was right about many things.

Change is constant and once it begins in earnest, it picks up speed. Sometimes, I call my sister and brother for no reason other than to remind myself that once we were neighbors.

When Aunt Nancy died in June of 2004, she took with her an era. As surely as the closing of her casket, the door to a time and the memory of a place disappeared into obscurity. It seems as though she had departed a hundred years ago. This is an ode to Aunt Nancy and to all the Aunt Nancy’s of the world: there are too few of them left. If you listen to them…they will right your world.

Ferry Tales, Mt. Island Monitor

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