She laughed, her voice tinkling as clearly as any silver bell, "Oh yes! Did it at midnight we did! Wanted to see who came!" And she grinned mischievously at me, waiting for my obvious question. She is frail and tiny, not much more than eighty pounds soak and wet. Her legs don't work very well any more, but there is nothing wrong with her sense of slyness and mischief, evident in dancing eyes and a quirky little smile. Nor is there anything wrong with her sense of audience, and her love of a good story.
My aunt, nearly 90 years of age, may well have a bit of trouble remembering what she had for breakfast, but she has absolutely no trouble with the past. Now it is true that many pieces of her past are pieces that I remember myself, and her memories are not always entirely accurate, and frequently embroidered with details from another story. But who is to argue with something she remembers from seventy or eighty years ago? Certainly not I! And all too many times, her stories have the ring of truth, and always an interesting twist.
We had been talking of my son's recent marriage, and the topic of "old beaus" had come up. She twisted in her wheelchair to peer at me mischievously. Grinning, she told me of her youth and of the perils involved in "courting" two beaus at once. I laughed, thinking of my very traditional old aunt as a young attractive schoolmarm caught in the age-old dilemma of wondering which beau to keep. (Actually it turns out she "kept" both of them, and married both, at different times of course, marrying the second after being widowed by the first).
And then she glanced slyly out the corner of dancing eyes at her sister, elder by a year, and grinned again, "We tried to figure out which would be the keeper, didn't we, Sister?" Although this Sister generally has a very good memory, she didn't remember, much to my aunt's frustration. She frowned, and if she could have stood to her feet, I am sure would have stamped them smartly and given Sister a quick rap on the head to jog her memory. "Oh yes you do too remember, Sister!", emphatically pronounced this aunt, who has a great deal of difficulty remembering just where she lives these days, but considers the past in sparkling clarity. "It was the night we had the dumb supper!"
I had been listening with amusement, quite used to this exchange of sibling frustration between the two. But now, I knew I was going to hear a story I had never heard before, and my spine straightened as I scooted to the edge of my chair, ready to hear yet another story. She responded to my eager questions with her typical slyness, unwinding just a bit of the tale at a time, teasing me to ask another question, and yet another until the whole of it was unwound. And this, I take, is the gist of it:
"Reba was who put us up to it," she said, laying the blame on a neighbor girl a lifetime ago. "Reba it was that filled us in on most things." She glanced surreptitiously out at the hall; to make sure no one was in passing, then lowered her voice to a slight whisper. "She told us how babies got here! And she was the one put us up to the dumb supper too!"
Ever ready to work a tale to its end slowly, holding the audience in suspense, she waited. And of course was rewarded by my next barrage of questions. "Well," she said, pausing for effect, "You have to wait till after dark. They come at midnight, if they are going to come. Mama and Papa were asleep of course. We didn't tell anyone what it was we were doing! Don't you remember this, Sister?"
Sister didn't, and my aunt shook her head sadly at the thought of her sister's forgetting.
"Set out the supper and turned off the lights and waited," she said, pausing again maddeningly.
The Dumb Supper, was of course an old tradition, but one at the time I was unfamiliar with, and it took a bit of our give and take of teasing hints and eager questions before I realized that the "dumb supper" was a way for hopeful young girls to catch a glimpse of the "shade" of their future bridegrooms. The idea was to lay out a supper, backwards, in the dark. Then the eager and somewhat nervous young girls would await to see what phantom foretelling of the future would appear at the door.
"Well???" I asked as the suspense built, "Did you see him??"
"Heard him," she answered.
"Heard him??? What did he say???"
"Oh, he didn't say anything," she said, lowering her eyes, and smiling. "He knocked something down out on the porch!"
"Well who was it? What did you do?"
"Put that supper up and went to bed!" she declared, and her laugh again tinkled as surely as any silver bells. "Spect someone overheard us talking and decided maybe to scare us!"
I laughed and she looked at me thoughtfully, "But weren't any tracks in the snow. And Mama and Papa were in bed!"
And so ended yet another tale. They never fail to surprise me, these aunts of mine, with the things that pop out in conversations so unexpectedly. I have known them all of my life, and yet it seems each time I visit, they have yet another surprise I have never heard tell of. It is true these jaunts to the nursing home are sometimes tiresome. They mean meetings with doctors and nurses and social workers. They mean endless discussions over medications and treatments, diets and well being. They mean searching for a "missing" bit of laundry or misplaced partials. In looking after two elderly aunts without children, I have often wondered what on earth the Lord is preparing me for, so thoroughly has he made sure that my education included any possible feasible problem that might arise in the care taking of the elderly.
But this I also know. A good deal of my education has been in appreciation. It seems the older they have gotten, the more time I have had to actually sit down and listen. And the more time they have to actually sit there and talk. And it is amazing, the fun and good times that have come of that. It is amazing the chapters of family history that have unfolded because of that. In the days I was a child, I had no time to listen and they had no time to tell. In the days I was a harried young mother, I had no time to listen and they had no time to tell. In these my middle years, and these, their twilight times, it seems the Lord decided to throw a special lesson in to sweeten the parts that have been so hard. It was forced upon all of us, this time, and none of us wanted or expected life to evolve quite as it has. But there is sweetness in it. And everytime I come, I think we are having something of a "dumb supper" together, sitting the table to see what will jolly good story will come through the door next.
Just a thought,
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