My yogi niece advised me, when having trouble sleeping, to picture a mountain, a candle, a lake, a child. “Look into an old lady’s face,” she says. And, half asleep, I do. When I realize that I see the same face night after night, I have to figure out who the half-closed eyes and wrinkles belong to.
“Aunt Betty,” I say one morning. “That’s Aunt Betty’s face.”
My great aunt, Bertha Heyman, known to me as Aunt Betty, died in 1965, and I’ve hardly thought of her since. Why in the world, I wonder, am I thinking of her now. But before I can deal with that question, I check a few family photos to verify her identity.
Yes, the photos tell me, it is Aunt Betty’s face that I have looked into on my way to a good night’s sleep. But why? I know so little of her life. She was my grandfather’s older sister, never married, and lived throughout her life in West Point, Georgia, my grandfather’s birthplace. Periodically she came to Atlanta to visit Nana and Granddad. Mother would take my sisters and me to our grandparents’ home to see her. She always greeted us each with a dollar bill and a stick of Wrigley’s chewing gum. To a young child, that made her memorable. I don’t know if she was blind when I was young, but she was in her later years. She would type letters to us, and as the one in my family who was learning to type, I would decode them when her hands were one or two spaces off the home keys.
Now that it’s too late to ask anyone, I wonder if she worked, and if so, at what? Or did she fill her days with volunteer work for the small Temple, other organizations, and perhaps a host of individual kindnesses for her family, friends, and neighbors? All I know for sure is that I have fond, if limited, memories of my Great-Aunt Betty.
So, I continue to ask myself, why has she returned to me now? In the almost half century since she died, her name has come up only occasionally, invariably when I’m talking about my strong genetic heritage. Aunt Betty died just shy of her 101st birthday. Her older sister, Jennie, lived to be 107. My grandparents on that side made it to 79 and 84. On the other side, my grandmother made it to 103. My parents: 82 and 92.
Perhaps it’s the family longevity that I’m seeking when I peer into Aunt Betty’s face. Years ago a so-called fortune teller read my palm and told me I would have a short life. I didn’t believe her. After all, I have these great genes. At 73, I was working out daily and paddling my solo canoe all summer.
I expected to wear purple, perhaps with a red hat, and jitterbug or paddle my way into my eighties and nineties. Cancer simply wasn’t on the agenda. But then, I’ll bet that blindness wasn’t part of Aunt Betty’s life plan. Of course, when blindness robbed Aunt Betty of sight, it didn’t necessarily deprive her of vision.
Maybe this is what she has come to teach me: Reality has a way of catching up with and reshaping our imaginings.
Here’s to you, Aunt Betty! And here’s to making the most of my unexpected limitations. My new vision still includes friendships, visits with grandchildren, reading, and writing. And, if I’m lucky, another grand trip and a few more paddles.