MY SISTER AND I went on a mission to lighten, even if for a day, that gloomy presence often found lurking in senior housing. Aunt Essie’s face shined brightly in contrast to the other residents. Her fiery personality, a semblance of her younger self, persisted, refusing to be extinguished. “If Moses could part the Red Sea, then I can do this.” she used to say, making the most out of her time in her last home.
We were set on doing as much as we could in our short visit—we had to make up for so many years spent apart! On our to-do list was a childhood pastime, a craft that makes the unskilled into an artist: paint by numbers. As she tapped paint onto the surface, she tried to understand how numbered spaces could transform into a butterfly. My sister and I were there to apply a steady hand, carefully filling in the rest. We’d interrupt Aunt Essie’s concentration and take a few selfies. She was already a social media maven in training—her perfectly pursed lips created the duckface that she swore she’d never do making us look more like pufferfish in comparison.
While the paint dried, Aunt Essie gave us a tour, leading our parade in her portable throne. Queen Esther’s light followed, spreading like wildfire. She transformed an ordinary place she’d seen hundreds of times, into something extraordinary, showing us the gardens, and even a sunroom housing the home’s pets. The birds eyed us nervously, while a bunny hid from us, it’s black button eyes peeked through its long fur. The bunny seemed afraid of its own shadow, similar to how Aunt Essie often said she was as a child. It was hard for me to imagine her ever being anything but Miss Popular. Our tour had welcome interruptions from other visitors, some with dogs that marched right up to her, greeting her lovingly.
We gave her a tour of our own and showed her how to video chat on a cellphone she rarely, if ever, used. “Hot Damn!” she said when she called us, and our faces popped up on her screen. Another metamorphosis of the ordinary. She practiced her new skill, calling Chelsea’s fiancè and making him blush when she sped through the pleasantries and warned him to take care of her niece or he’d have to answer to her. I imagined Aunt Essie zipping all the way from the East Coast to California in her electric wheelchair.
I cherish every moment spent with my Aunt Essie: her gummy smile when she refused to wear her dentures; how her TV show critiques were more entertaining than the show itself; how she began phone conversations with “What’s doin’, doll?”; and how her hand felt in mine as she painted my nails, lightly dabbing the polish. I was afraid I held on too tightly, her skin so delicate, but I didn’t want her to leave.
My hope is that others who read this feel inspired to connect with their older family members in new ways like my sister and I did with our great great Aunt Essie, who was too great and a blessing to us all. Collaborating on a craft together, taking silly photos, demonstrating how to use everyday technologies—these are just a few of the ways that can bring younger and older generations closer together.
Dvorah Lewis is the Genealogy Librarian for Sutro Library.