Seeing beyond the surface

Last weekend my aunt Jan found a body in the lake in front of her house.

I have always had a love hate relationship with my aunt Jan.

My aunt Jan is bossy, critical, and controlling. She demands that things are her way, she doesn’t ask.

When I was a young girl, we used to have family reunions. Every year aunt Jan would pressure me into playing volleyball with the family even though I told her I didn’t want to because I sucked. Then I would play horribly and she would yell at me for sucking. After that happened several times, I had a “negative attitude” by refusing to play.

Games were played by her rules. I remember a few years back being involved in a family board game when she just announced out of the blue that the game was over. We were right in the middle of the game! It really made me mad, but she packed up the pieces and put the game away.

Every year at Christmas time, she demands that Angel and I sing Christmas songs. “You are singing and you are singing right now”. It makes Angel rather angry. But for some reason, I don’t protest or rock the boat by being disagreeable despite hating being told what to do.

Aunt Jan is a clean freak.

Several years ago a few members of our family along with Jan rented a large tent camping site close to her house. In the early morning hours a freak storm popped up. We packed up our camping equipment then huddled dirty and wet in her garage. She would not let us into her house to use the bathroom because we were too dirty.

She recently hosted two bridal showers at her house. She told the guests that they were not allowed to wear spikes because it would wreck her floors. There was no clutter and not one item was out of place. She made it known that children were not welcome. Children make messes. Both times my oldest daughter (17) was invited, but my youngest (13) was not. My youngest cousin who is also a teenager was not invited. This caused a lot of hard feelings.

Unfortunately, my aunt seems more concerned about the state of her house than she is about her relationships.

You may be wondering, like my husband and daughter do, why I don’t just tell her off. Nobody’s perfect. For all of aunt Jan’s perfectionism she is far from perfect, but we love her anyway. Sometimes I need to look beyond the surface of what I see to what I know. For all of Jan’s negative personality traits, she has some really good traits too. 

Aunt Jan is one of the most compassionate people that I know. She has a big heart for those who are suffering.

Out of my mom’s four sisters, I think that Jan was the one that helped my mom through her hard times the most. She spent a lot of time listening to my mom. I could tell that she truly cared. She didn’t turn away when my autistic brother Matt had some of his darkest days like a few other family members did. I saw that she was there for my mom when she needed her the most. For that, I will always be able to overlook some of her annoying quirks. 

A few days ago, someone left flowers on aunt Jan’s doorstep. I can’t imagine how horrifying it must have been for her to find someone’s body in the lake in front of her house. When I was there earlier this month, the lake was cool, calm, and beckoning. It didn’t look capable of taking a life. 

Sometimes our eyes limit what our mind can see.



Grace uncommon, part 16

Sometimes I think that Aunt Grace wanted me to like the things she liked. She wanted me to embrace her hobbies, instead I embraced her habits.

When Aunt Grace was sitting, she was knitting or crocheting. She always had a little piece of paper beside her counting her rows. She could look at someone and knit them a sweater in their size. She tried to teach me to knit, but I somehow always ended up with tight little knots.

In reality, I learned things that she tried not to teach me. Grace followed a very structured schedule. She woke up every morning at 6 AM. On Mondays and Wednesdays, she did book work. On Thursday mornings, she cleaned her house. On Fridays, she got her hair done. On Sundays, she went to church. Every week had the same structure. She was not a cleaning freak, she was a structure freak. I love structure.

She always spoke her mind. She wore a black onyx ring on her ring finger, a ring that is now in my possession that I sometimes wear. After eating, she always pulled out a tiny mirror and put dark red lipstick on her thin lips. Who doesn’t like dark lipstick and interesting rings?? Seems like I took on most of her habits and few of her hobbies. If we didn’t get along sometimes it was because we were too much alike.

Grace has been gone for eight years now. A few years after Grace passed away, my brother Luke had a baby girl. They named her Grace. Little Gracie always speaks her mind. She has an uncanny resemblance to Aunt Grace. She always begs me to put my darkest shades of lipstick on her. Sometimes I feel like Aunt Grace is still with us.

Grace uncommon, part 15

We did everything that we could, but there came a time when we could no longer care for Aunt Grace.

For several months, we were able to provide around the clock care for Aunt Grace. Then one weekend we couldn’t find a caregiver. My dad and I weren’t able to take care of Grace that weekend. It might have been a wedding in the family, I don’t remember. It was another obligation that required a weekend away. The other two caregivers were not available either. My parents had no choice but to have Grace stay the weekend in a nursing home for respite care.

It was a Monday morning when my dad and I waited outside of her house for her return. The van driver got lost on Grace’s return ride home. He couldn’t find her home address on the map for anything. One of the difficulties of living in a very small town before good navigation.

We weren’t quite prepared for the condition that she was returning in. We almost told the driver to take her back when he left. They returned her in a wheelchair unable to walk. She could no longer hold her head up. Her head was tilted to one side. She could no longer speak right. Her words came out in a slurred moan. She couldn’t chew food. She choked on water. 

My parents took Grace back to the doctor. He said that she was starting to have small strokes. We could no longer provide the care that she needed at home. We did the best that we could.


Grace uncommon, part 14

When I was a young girl, some of my best memories were of times spent with Aunt Grace. She would take me on bus trips to see musicals. Sometimes she would let me bring along a friend or my mom and grandma would go. I would stay overnight at Grace’s house the night before. I would always end the evening with a bubble bath. Then we were up before dawn to catch the bus.

One of the first shows that I remember seeing was Hello Dolly in Chicago. I don’t remember a lot about the show. Grace was excited that Mickey Rooney was in it. Plus the main female actress was rather old, maybe around 80. I don’t remember her age…I could be way off. What was old to me then is a lot different than what is old to me now. Heck, she could have been 40 but I don’t think so. Grace was excited that the female lead could do the splits and dance with the energy of a young adult. I remember being in awe of that too since I couldn’t dance, much less do the splits as a little girl.

Then Grace took me on a bus trip to see Oklahoma at the Fireside Theater in Fort Atkinson. I remember the meal before the show. Grace let me sit at the head of the table in a big theatrical wicker chair. They brought food out to the table that was on fire. I remember little of the show.

The next show that we were supposed to see, we didn’t end up going to. We were hit by a big snowstorm the night before and couldn’t go. I was so disappointed. Not long after that, Grace took me to see Annie at a local high school. Then she bought orange material and sewed me an Annie dress which unfortunately I did not wear that much.

When I was an adult, she still wanted to see shows. We watched Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon. I remember glancing over at Grace during the opening scene of Miss Saigon when the women came out on stage in thongs. I thought that she would be appalled, but she loved the show.

I think that all of those good memories prompted me to get on stage despite my shyness. When Grace found out that I could sing, she always asked me to sing songs in church. Then I started to audition for musicals at the local community theater. The first musical that I auditioned for, I took my daughter Angelique to audition as well when she was 8 years old. She has been singing and acting ever since.

The last couple of weekends, Angel has been auditioning for college and a summer performing job. She picked her college and auditioned for both the musical theater and vocal performance programs. The vocal performance program accepted her on the spot. We are still anxiously waiting to hear back from the musical theater program and the summer job which are much more competitive.

I feel that Aunt Grace was very instrumental in my love for the theater. This appreciation was passed down to Angel. I love the way that family blessings have a way of trickling down through the generations. Sometimes you never know the effect that you have on other people. Sometimes I wonder what my grandchildren will be like. Or I ponder over how different my life would be if I never had someone special like Aunt Grace in my life.


Grace uncommon, part 13

It was the scariest night I spent at Aunt Grace’s.

Aunt Grace lived in the same big farmhouse her whole life. However, the family business replaced the farm that should have been next door. My great-grandparents built the house in the early 1900’s. At one time, the unincorporated town that she lived in was bustling and alive with businesses, families, and even a train that ran through the town.

The town grew old right around the time Aunt Grace did. A lot of the major businesses pulled out of town leaving behind vacant buildings. Big old houses, the old grocery store, the dance hall in the bar, and even the old bank that Grace worked at were turned into cheap apartments. Weeds grew along the creek that trickled through town instead of flowers and freshly mowed grass like before. The family business shut down and the windows were boarded.

Aunt Grace’s house was always cold and drafty in the winter. Her house was even cool in the summer. She didn’t have A/C. She didn’t really need it. I remember it being a hot summer night that eventful evening. We slept with all the windows open. The kids and I stayed with Grace during the week without Paul because he had to work the next day. Even though my dad didn’t seem to mind staying up all night with Grace during the week, he sometimes needed a break.

That night after I put the kids and Grace to bed, I settled myself in on the couch outside of Grace’s bedroom. I awoke to shouting in the middle of the night. I looked out the window to see four men violently fighting outside under the street light. Punches were thrown. Men were dancing around in a bloody ballet. Does someone have a knife? What am I going to do? Will I witness a murder tonight? I have to call the police. But how am I going to dial Grace’s old rotary phone in the dark?

I am very afraid. If they hurt each other, what could they do to us? What if Grace wakes up screaming like she usually does? What if the children wake up crying? I feel vulnerable. I can’t protect anyone. I can’t get to the phone. I’m afraid to draw attention to the house. Don’t turn on the lights. All the windows are open with only a screen keeping them out. I am afraid they will see me watching in horror. I am afraid they will hear my ragged breaths.

I watched for those minutes that seemed like hours. The men stagger away into the darkness no longer under the street light. Do they linger in the backyard? Do they mean any harm? The adrenaline pumps through my veins preventing sleep. I can’t believe what I just saw.

Aunt Grace slept most of the night.

Grace uncommon, part 12

I remember it being a very difficult weekend. It probably would have been in the top ten worst weekends of my adult life. But who wants to keep track of such things.

I don’t think that I could adequately describe how it feels to take care of a loved one that is suffering and dying from dementia. It was different from being a caregiver for my autistic brother, Matt. Sure, they both had good days and bad days. With Grace it was a gradual decline. Most days I didn’t recognize her anymore than she recognized me. I grieved for her while she will still living because she was already gone.

I was exhausted to the point of where I thought I could no longer hold on to the loose strings of my sanity. I hadn’t slept. Dealing with sleep deprivation was never a strong suit of mine. My patience was running thin. I was worn down.

It was one of those weekends that Aunt Grace was up every hour during the night. I “slept” on the couch right outside of her bedroom. Just when I was almost back to sleep, she would be up again. The kids would be up in a few hours and I hadn’t slept yet. I was having a hard time.

As I was walking with Grace to the bathroom, she looked right at me and asked me my name. I replied, “My name is Alissa.” Aunt Grace looked at me and responded, “I once knew a girl by the name of Alissa. She was a very kind and caring girl. I think that if you met her, you would really like her.” She was talking about me without knowing who I was.

I think at that very moment, God was looking down upon me with mercy. He gave me a glimmer of light to help guide me down a dark road. It was such a meaningful blessing to me that it motivated me to finish the race strong. It was exactly what I needed to get through.

I will never forget that moment.

Grace uncommon, part 11

And then one day it happened. Grace did what she always told us not to do.

Aunt Grace told everyone not to get old.

My parents took Grace to the doctor for a check up. She failed the dementia test. Soon after that, she was no longer able to take care of herself. My dad, despite all of his shortcomings as a father, was great with his elders. He became Grace’s primary caregiver. He stayed with Grace every night, except on weekends. My autistic brother Matt still lived at home and my mom worked full-time. At the time, I was staying home with my three kids that were between the ages of 4 and 9. I became the day time and weekend caregiver. One other caregiver worked day time hours and another did weekends. 

Aunt Grace needed 24 hour care. The evenings were especially grueling since Grace would wake up at the minimum of three times a night to go to the bathroom. Some nights she was up every hour all night. She would scream until someone came and got her up. Over time, we tried sleeping pills at night. She would still wake up agitated and try to get up but be very uncoordinated. Sleeping pills were not a good option. 

So the weekends I spent there, I was up all night with Grace getting at best a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. Then my kids would wake up early. I was so exhausted. I had to be within two rooms away from Grace at all times because she would try to get up from her bed or rocking chair by herself and fall without assistance.

It was difficult to do with the kids because although Aunt Grace could not see well she had great hearing. If the kids made any noise at all, she would call them over so that she could flail her arms at them. She would yell at them and try to hit them. I often told the kids to leave her alone and set up a play room for them at the opposite end of the house. I find it sad that they remember her as a crabby old lady, not knowing the wonderful person she was before the dementia took over her person.

We spent a lot of time together. While we sat with Grace I helped my oldest daughter with her multiplication facts. Aunt Grace was a math wiz. She always jumped in with the answers before Angel could. But she didn’t remember our names. She didn’t know who we were. I spent a lot of time scrapbooking nearby. It was a time in my life where I was forced to sit in silence and reflect a lot.

By the time I became Aunt Grace’s caregiver, I had a lot of experience. Not only did I have 3 kids of my own, I  provided care for my autistic brother. I worked my way through college as a caregiver for an older gentleman with paranoid schizophrenia and an elderly woman with dementia. So it really didn’t bother me that I also had to bathe Aunt Grace. After awhile when she could no longer stand in the shower, I helped give her sponge baths. She was pretty angry with me for bathing her since she was always cold. Even on the warmest summer days, she needed her electric blanket turned on high. 

Our goal was to keep her at home as long as we could. It wasn’t easy because she was no longer the Grace that we remembered. In retrospect, even though it seemed like a long time while we were going through it, it really didn’t last that long. Plus it felt good to know that we did everything that we could to be there for her in her darkest hours even if she might not have realized it. 

Grace uncommon, part 10

Aunt Grace did not like to be touched. But it seemed to go beyond shirking away from hugs. My family was never the affectionate touchy feely huggy group. However, Aunt Grace’s dislike of touch went far beyond the human touch. She liked animals but had a great fear of them touching her. I found this to be quite peculiar. Even the least affectionate person that I know loves the furry touch of cute kittens or puppies.

I knew that Grace liked animals. She always threw out stale bread for the birds to eat. She put out milk or food scraps for the stray cats in the neighborhood. Her care towards them told me that she liked them. But if an animal came near her, she would shriek.

Once I brought my dog with when I visited Grace. He got away from me and jumped on Grace’s lap. She screamed, “Get it off of me” over and over in fright. When we were little kids, we thought that her fear was rather comical. Now as an adult, I wish I understood why she was so afraid.

Grace uncommon, part 9

One day while at the small local grocery store, I saw Aunt Grace come in to buy a beer. She wanted one beer. She wanted the store owners to open a case to sell her just one beer. She wanted the beer for a beer brat recipe. Aunt Grace did not drink so she did not need the other beers. She always said that sitting on bar stools made women unattractive. She also told us that we shouldn’t drink until our mortgage was paid. I sure hope that she didn’t roll over in her grave a little that time I was at Coyote Ugly. Hhmmm.

Aunt Grace was a religious church goer. She attended every Sunday but never took communion. My mom thought that Aunt Grace didn’t take communion because there was alcohol in the communion wine. My mom went on this big campaign to have the wine replaced with grape juice. She said that there were so many medications that people were on (Grace included) where they weren’t supposed to have alcohol. Finally the pastor switched over to grape juice. Aunt Grace still did not take communion.

Aunt Grace became bitter in her later years. She was very upset that people of the church did not pay their garage bills. She said that kind people were not always kind when they owed you money. Money that they didn’t seem to have to pay their bill even though they could afford nice new toys. She was very upset about this after her brother Harold died and the family business closed. She said that he worked so hard all those years for nothing. She was angry. She was bitter. She couldn’t stop ruminating about it. It found a way to trap her. Some things were hard for her to let go. 

The bitterness ate her up inside. She was the type of person to hold a grudge. She felt like she should not take communion with an unforgiving heart. It was too bad that she couldn’t see that she was only hurting herself. She wanted things to be fair and right, but the world doesn’t always work that way. 

There are certain family members that have a hard time forgiving and forgetting. When I said that Grace never forgave me for saying shut up to her, she really didn’t. I struggle with this myself at times. I find that being angry, criticizing, or condemning people for their imperfections is much easier than forgiving them. When someone screws me over, I want to cut them out of my life. Now this is much harder to do with family. LOL. Seriously though, forgiveness? Letting go? Forgetting? I find it much easier to form a hard bitter wall around myself.

Paul is one of the most forgiving people that I know. He tells me again and again that I am only hurting myself when I don’t forgive someone. That doesn’t mean that I have to be best friends with the person or trust them again. Forgive, forget, and let go… I can do this now, it just seems to take awhile until I can get over it. I feel a little sad that Aunt Grace didn’t seem able to do this. 

Grace uncommon, part 8

Aunt Grace was way ahead of her times. Aunt Grace was the Vice President of the local bank.

Aunt Grace earned what would be equivalent of an Associate Degree in Business in a time when most young ladies like my grandma only received an 8th grade education. She loved money and finance. She was most likely the richest woman in our small town. But she was never greedy. There once was a bank employee whose husband left her with several kids at home. One day an anonymous letter arrived at the bank with money in it for that woman. We all knew it was Aunt Grace because that was the kind of thing she would do. Another family had a tragedy where their house burned down. Aunt Grace took the children shopping to buy them new winter coats and clothes.

When it was our birthday, she would give us $50 in an envelope marked love always, Aunt Grace. At Halloween, she didn’t give out candy. She gave out rolls of nickels and dimes. At Christmas, we all received $10 worth of McDonald’s gift cards. If she ever gave someone a gift, she would wrap it in the comics section of the newspaper. Grace herself was a miser, it was sad to see how destitute she lived when she could afford to take better care of herself. Her washer didn’t wring out her clothes and her dryer took 2 hours to dry a load of clothes. Her clothes were old and worn. I didn’t find out how cheap she lived until I stayed with her at the end.

Grace worked as a bookkeeper for the family business. She also worked at the local bank. When I was a young girl, she was the VP of the bank. She would give me suckers and take me into her private office. She was so excited, she wanted to be President of the bank but women just didn’t do that in her day. Everybody knew her and respected her.

She always told me that I could do anything that a man could do. She went to a conference and brought a duffle bag back for me that read never underestimate the power of a woman. She was very upset that I didn’t go to college for business.

There were some things though that she thought that women shouldn’t do. She frowned upon me hanging out in the garage with the men. I didn’t hear the end of it if I went in there with shorts on. I loved the smell of rubber from the tires that were on sale there and even the scent of gasoline brought me comfort. But I never even learned basic things about cars.

One day while I was in college, I had car trouble. It happened on the day of a snow storm. I flooded my car. Today things are so easy, I step on the brake and push a button to start my car. Back then, I had to push the gas pedal to the floor once. Then while I had the key in the ignition I had to pump the gas to get the car to start. The day of the storm, I flooded my car. I knew that there was a way to pop open my hood and pull up on something to ease this problem, but I didn’t know how. I ran back inside to find a pay phone to call my grandpa who spent his whole life as a mechanic. It was all a fool’s errand because all I needed to do was pop the hood and about 10 guys offered assistance. I miss calling Grace or my grandparents for guidance. Now somehow I am supposed to be an adult with all of the answers. 

Last night all of these memories came back to me like a flood. Stupid things. Silly things. I felt overwhelmed by nostalgia, a longing for my loved ones long gone. I asked myself why I seem to be so plagued by these memories. Then I reminded myself that I opened the door by thinking and writing of these things. I feel very compelled to write everything that happened down so someday it won’t be forgotten. While I was studying genealogy, I searched to understand, to really know, the people that came before me. All I found were names and dates scratched on a piece of paper. It really meant nothing. Aunt Grace kept our family geneaology. The funny thing was that after she was gone I continued it for her. But with the internet and all of modern technology, I did not get any further than she did.

My childhood has been gone for a long time now. Now the childhood years of my children are coming to an end. It has been a difficult transition for me. I struggle with accepting change, even if it is for the better.

I have to keep writing.