On Friday I attended the funeral of my Aunt Virginia.
My father’s older and only sister, she lived in Paducah, KY, in her own home, until a month or so before she died, of a brain aneurysm. Last year, at the age of 97, she had a letter to the editor regarding world events published on Time.com. (“Will we all,” she wondered, “just eat each other up, like so many gingham dogs and calico cats?”)
The funerals of the young are heart-breaking. The sense of what-could-have-been and the cosmic injustice of a life cut short make these services a bonfire of emotional pain. But funerals for the very old bring their own sorrow. The parents, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends and, too often, the children of and even grandchildren of the departed are already on the other side, leaving precious few who knew and cared about them to grieve their passing. This should have been true for Aunt Virginia – she lost her daughter to cancer four years ago, and two grandsons to tragic accidents in the 1970’s and 80’s.
But when I got to the funeral home, there were a number of people there and, to my surprise, even some younger folks.
The girl who always did her hair – even for the funeral -- came by to pay her respects. “It was the least I could do,” she said. “I thought the world of Miss V.”
Another young girl, the 16-year-old daughter of the woman my cousin Joe is dating, told me, “We just loved Miss V. I told her once, ‘Miss V, I’m going to help you find yourself a man. And Miss V tossed her head and said, “I don’t need your help. I can find my own man.”
She was a dyed-in-the-wool, no-quarter-given-and-none asked, Southern lady. A tiny woman, the top of whose head barely reached my shoulder, she always reminded me of a parakeet, fluttering from one room to another in her little stone cottage, dark eyes sparking with energy and curiosity. She spoke in the fastest drawl I’ve ever heard, but if you could manage to keep up, there was sage advice to be heard.
“Never pick a man based on his looks,” she once told me. “They all get ugly later on. Pick one that will take care of you.”
“Keep the man you start out with,” was another piece of wisdom, “otherwise you just have to break in another one.”
It was advice she herself heeded in her own way. After she and her husband of 40+ years separated, he continued to bring her flowers weekly and take her out on dates for as long as he lived.
Goodbye, Aunt V.
We’ll miss you.