How do you even begin to describe the family member who was the epitome of tough love? Aunt Ann was tougher than nails; and her heart was tenderly compassionate. Her cupboard was always stocked with candy for her grandchildren, great-nieces and nephews. After she learned that some of her offspring could not eat chocolate, but could eat Smarties®; her cupboard was always stocked with that candy.
Aunt Ann lived barely a block from me while I grew up, and her daughter was the one who I considered to be my best friend. My uncle, aunt and cousins shared half a duplex with my grandpapa and grandma. I probably spent more afternoons at the duplex than anywhere else.
I remember one afternoon when my cousin opened up a freshly purchased half gallon of orange sherbet while we watched some afternoon television. We were so distracted by the show that when Aunt Ann came back from running errands; we had an empty container. I still remember the slightly sarcastic-yet-filled-with-laughter voice she used as she called us by BOTH our first and middle names…and reminded us to “PLEASE LADIES COULD YOU SCOOP OUT 1 BOWL a PIECE NEXT TIME?”
Aunt Ann taught me that no matter what happens, or how painful life gets, forgiveness is a necessary part of life; and family never stops being family…no matter what. I went through a very dark season of life after the miscarriage of my oldest daughter. My grief consumed me, and I became so engulfed by the pain of my loss that I pushed away everyone in my family; not intentionally, but I did.
I was a server at a local restaurant, and my grandpapa insisted that he and grandma come into my restaurant every single week. If they were travelling out of town, they would call to let me know that they would be gone for a while. They would simply sit in the restaurant as I worked, and grandpapa told me later that he was praying for me the entire time that they sat there. Not long after they started that, Aunt Ann and my Uncle began coming in while I was working as well. They intentionally pursued me with their consistency and love in a time when I felt so alone and unsure about anything in life anymore.
Years later, when my first marriage began to crumble at my feet; Aunt Ann was the one who sat with me on my dad’s couch and held my two week old baby. She told me the gut-wrenching truth that I didn’t want to hear but needed to hear. She cried with me as she told me that she knew it would be “Hell”, but she trusted that I was strong enough and deserving enough to move on with my three little kids; and pursue a better life for us.
Aunt Ann was strong and confident in the way that she would tell us what needed to be said; even when it was the last thing we wanted to face. She never once belittled me or made me feel like I had no worth. Not once. We had PLENTY of times when I was so angry at her and where she was angry at me; but no matter what…she taught me that family is forever.
My grandpapa had this unassuming way of simply sitting next to me, oftentimes in silence; to just be with me and love me. In the last 5+ years since leaving my first marriage; Aunt Ann has done the same thing. My sweetest memories involve being beside her through the moments of life. That horribly painful night when grandpapa died, Aunt Ann came up beside me in the hallway of the hospital and we stood shoulder to shoulder; silently crying as we stared out the window. Finally, we leaned on each other as we sobbed.
We laughed and joked the entire way through my cousin’s wife’s baby shower; and when they birthed a son and named him in honor of grandpapa; I felt all the richer because I had BEEN by Aunt Ann in preparation of this new little life.
When I became engaged to my beloved husband; Aunt Ann was the one who volunteered to alter my gown. It is the most breath-taking dress I have ever worn in my life. When I joked to her, “WHY must I have curves like this?” She reassured, “Grace, James LOVES your curves! He’s a smart man! He realizes that your curves show off who you are…a mother!”
She welcomed all three of my “bonus” children with open arms, putting them immediately at ease, and instantly claiming them as her newest great nephews and great niece. It took them mere moments to begin loving her.
The day of my final fitting, as she stood me before her mirror and zipped me up; she kissed me on the check as we both became misty-eyed. She told me how extremely happy for me they were; how well I had done raising the kids on my own for all those years, and how exceedingly proud of me they were that I had opened myself up to James, his family, and his love. “Grace, I’m proud of you! I love you! I know that Grandpapa would be proud of you, too!”
The week after we received news of her Cancer diagnosis; my uncle’s retirement party was scheduled. A blizzard hit, and James and I drove into town anyways. We arrived; Aunt Ann hugged James, and then I embraced her. I whispered in her ear, “I love you, I am praying…and I am so sorry! I am here for whatever you need!” She held me in a fierce embrace, thanked me, and told me that it meant so much to her that we were there.
We sat down, shoulder to shoulder, enjoying the celebration of my Uncle’s retirement. When we got up to leave, we hugged again, and she thanked me another time for being there. I looked her in the eyes and said, “We’re family. Family is forever, right?” and she smiled as she nodded. “That’s right, Grace. It’s forever!”
She died too soon. The time between her diagnosis and her death seems like a hellish nightmare. I know that her pain is gone; and for that I am thankful, but I miss her. I miss her goofiness, her wisdom, her innate ability to whip up the most decadent desserts, and above all; I miss sitting beside her. I miss her fierce kisses on my cheek and her messages whispered through clenched teeth as if they were top-secret encouragement for my ears only.
A few weeks ago, I had a vivid dream.
Aunt Ann and I were sitting side by side on the bench by the pond; laughing and talking. She looked at me and said, “Grace, it’s almost time for me to leave. I need you to keep your eyes focused on Christ no matter what; and I need you to help point everyone else to see Him in this.” In my dream, I turned to argue with her, to beg her to stay; but she was already walking away and her back was turned. “Aunt Ann!” I yelled, “Not yet! Please!” She turned to look at me over her shoulder, and said, “I love you Grace! Remember what I said!”…and she was gone. I sat there on the bench, feeling alone. Then I remembered her words; that He is here, sitting beside me, holding me in His arms, and carrying me through my grief.