Grace Upon Grace

Aunt Di
by Grant Christensen

My father never liked the name, "Dianah." When my sister Eleanor was born--three years before me--my mother wanted to name my sister after her favorite aunt, Dianah. "What do you want to go and do a crazy thing like that," Dad would say (or at least so he said in the re-telling of the story after I had come along). "Dianah, is the name of a Greek goddess. Man-o-man! I'm not going to name my daughter after a Greek goddess!" The preacher in him couldn't see to naming a daughter after a pagan goddess, because I suppose he thought such a name might not be the best witness in his work as missionary; but neither could the preacher in him also see that to choose Aunt Dianah's name was to honor her. In deference to my father, Mamma, being mostly British, settled for a very British name, Eleanor; and Mamma lost an opportunity to express gratitude to a woman who was more a friend--maybe even more a mother--than her own mother. The conflict was never really settled, for over the following years Dad in recalling the story would often speak of the quirk in Mamma's grandmother for ever naming a daughter after a pagan goddess.

I have no recollection of Aunt Dianah before the age of six, other than the memories that faded black and white photographs bring of a woman well into her eighties holding a bundle of baby that might've been me--hair coal black--except for an eye left in permanent squint. Aunt Dianah had come to visit Dad's sister's farm where Mamma was staying while recuperating from the delivery. But my memories of her--now fading like the black and white photographs--didn't begin until our next furlough home from Japan.

Upon our return we stayed the summer with my grandmother in Boise, Idaho. She lived in a white frame house with a large lawn all around and rose bushes, flower beds, raspberry bushes, and steel wicker love seats that shone brilliant white in the Idaho sun. I remember driving from that house leaving the irrigated lawns and yards, the streets lined with maples and oaks, past the cemetery where I was told my great grandfather William was buried, into the desert beyond--sage brush as far as the eye could see, and tumble weed now and then--aimlessly blown along--like souls in search of a lost home. Sagebrush and sand gave way to pine trees and conifers, as the road wound into the mountains. Soon all about the trees sighed with a rustling of the wind. The fresh mountain air was tinged with the pungent smell of pine pitch and mountain flowers. Sunlight glanced through the trees, past branches, playing cat and mouse with our eyes, as patchwork quilt shadows of branches and trees whizzed over the polished hood of the car. "Are we almost their yet?"--half excited about meeting Mamma's "Aunt Dianah, "--half anxious about meeting this woman so ancient as to be nearly as old as the forest itself.

After an expanse of trees and sunlight and fields fleeted by, Dad slowed the car as we came into McCall. Soon he was parking the car--backing it up just so--while Mamma was anxious to run inside, into arms and embrace--held for long moments. I have faint flickering images of Aunt Dianah holding my mother's shoulders and with eyes as sharp as eagles and as mischievous as wood elves gazing into Mamma's face, taking in every feature as if for the first time, and for fear that it might be the last. "It's been too long!" "Yes, it's been too long," not enough words for expressions of the heart. Soon re-introductions were being made while we hid behind Mamma's skirt, until Aunt Dianah's beaming smile and the wood elf glint in her eye had won us over. "Your Uncle Ray is out in the strawberry patch, picking berries just now. Why don't you go and fetch him in." So we went out with Mamma to give her Uncle Ray a surprise. Walking down the lane to the strawberry patch I remember seeing his wide brimmed straw hat, set ascant on his head while he squatted over the strawberries. He neither moved nor acknowledged our approach, until we found that he was fast asleep, comforted by the warmth of sun and the delicious fragrance of ripe strawberries--needing only a little cream and a small mouth to eat them.

What we remember of one held so close seems so arbitrary, memories with little context, suspended in midair like a spider's web, or an Autumn leaf drifting down, or a solitary cloud in summer. I recall shadowy pictures of Aunt Dianah's and Uncle Ray's yard, big piles of polished rocks--agates, thunder eggs, obsidian, petrified wood--in the shadows of the pine trees, and an old food pedal driven sharpening stone with a heavy round wheel of coarse rock. I remember Uncle Ray showing us his treasurers, collections of rocks tucked away in neat boxes, with titles beneath, polished smooth as ice so that they reflected light in a kaleidoscope of colors and patterns. I remember my brother, Harry, named after my mother's father, wanting to be a rock collector like Uncle Ray, and my own envy of both of them. From other shards of remembering, I recall that Uncle Ray spent much of his life with his brothers prospecting for gold in the Idaho mountains, in the rivers and streams of Montana, and who can tell where?--collecting rocks along the way, while all along over twenty years they kept searching for the fabled Lost Dutchman's gold mine. They of course never found it, but I sometimes wonder about the stories they could've told of places and of adventures and of people they met--now lost to remembering along with the Lost Dutchman's mine.

In stark contrast to Uncle Ray's treasures, Aunt Dianah's treasures were kept museum like on the first floor of the house. Aunt Dianah and Uncle Ray lived in the basement now, too old to climb the stairs to the first floor where their bedroom, sitting room, and dining room had been. We helped them up the stairs, and I found myself in a room like a china shop where children shouldn't be. An all glass china cabinet was filled with egg shell porcelain tea cups with wild flowers and bamboo leaves and rose petals. There were cut crystal and old milk pitchers with hand painted farm scenes. There was a peacock fan--and the most intriguing treasure of all was a large hollowed out ostrich egg amidst the teacups and crystal. Aunt Dianah brought the egg out, letting us touch its smooth sides, telling us it was the largest egg of any animal in God's creation--as we marvelled at places far away where ostriches ran and peacocks dazzled with prisms of colorful tale feathers. A whole life time of collecting filled the room, lending maybe a stability and permanence to lives as illusory as the rustling of the wind in the pines, or the fragrance of mountain wild flowers, or of the trickling sound of melting snow. A polished black baby grand piano stood at one end of the living room, while slippery silk sofas and chairs were set about a polished coffee table, no clutter of magazines nor any water stained rings from coffee cups. In the bedroom was a four post brass bread, with a thick mattress and white bed spread. Black and white photos hung on the walls in round frames of bespectacled men and sturdy women, faces stern and serious. The rooms were frozen as if time had stopped and the clock on the mantel always ticked away yet always read 3:00 in the afternoon--time for tea and cakes and coffee and strawberry pie. We crept quietly out of the rooms--cathedral, sanctuary like--back down to the basement, comfortable and lived in, magazines and old newspapers thrown mishap on the coffee table. It is a place I can imagine Uncle Ray returning to just at dusk when shadows are growing long, hurrying in from the nip in the air, after a long day of panning for nuggets of gold or searching for the lost mine--and finding that at least home was not yet lost.

But beyond their treasures, and the wild adventures they sparked in a small boy's imagination, it was their laughter I remember the most. Aunt Dianah would tell stories of things she did until tears streaked down all our faces--unbridled and unashamed laughter. And Uncle Ray would laugh great rolling peels that began deep in the heart. Aunt Dianah would often tell us the story of the time curiosity got the best of her. There was a "Holy Rollers" church in the town in which they then lived. After hearing all the rumors of people rolling in the aisles, and dancing--unbridled and unashamed--she took it upon herself to visit on a Sunday morning. She dressed herself in her best Sunday dress and topped it off with a large hat, affixed with long hat pins. As she told the story the gleam in Aunt Dianah's eye was full of foreboding, while all the unseen wood elves just outside whispered like the sighing of trees, doing their best to hold back their giggles. "Well curiosity just got the best of me," Aunt Dianah would say. "They were carrying on such, and I just wondered if all this was really true. I suspected it was not! A woman was rolling on the ground next to me, back and forth. So when her back was to me I pulled out a long hat pin and gave her a jab in the ... Well, you know. The next thing you know she was up hopping mad." And Aunt Dianah was transported by the spirit of the moment onto the sidewalk outside.

I suppose Dad was right about the quirk in Mamma's side of the family--these lapses of sanity--where all that mattered was laughter, no matter how silly or strange. The quirk had certainly lodged in Aunt Dianah, but somehow it had failed to warp Grandma, who was stern and cantakerous, and who could with a hot temper put anyone in their place--which was usually low! Maybe the quirk had a dark side, and it was this seen in Grandma, or maybe it was an eddy of a darker stream passed on from ancestors whose memories are long since lost. Mamma's half brother, Bill, had received an extra portion of the ridiculous. At a restaurant with Grandma and Mamma he once put toothpicks in his nostrils and then tucked the other ends in his bottom lip. Then he walked around the restaurant looking at people, as they stared in dismay. This was too much for even Mamma's mischievousness, but Grandma, well I suppose she thought about the after life--and the great judgement to come.

Before we left for Japan, Mamma moved Aunt Dianah and Uncle Ray into a nursing home in CaldweI1--30 miles from Boise. We visited them there once or twice before leaving but I have little recollection other than an image of Uncle Ray sitting in a chair in his room--too old to pick strawberries or hunt for lost mines--nothing left to do now but to wait for the dying to come. All of Aunt Dianah's treasures were left behind now--boarded up in the house where time had all but ground to a stop. Here the clocks were ticking, keeping an even and steady time.

After the summer in which we drove to McCall, I didn't see Aunt Dianah for another four years. When we returned on furlough from Japan, we moved in with Grandma in Boise, where we lived for nine months of the year. Uncle Ray had died while we were in Japan, and Aunt Dianah was left alone in a place that was no longer home. I remember driving along the road to Caldwell every week. Past pastures with grazing cows, and beehives set in rows. Just outside Caldwell we passed a large sugar beet factory, the sickly sweet smell of sugar beets piled up like mountains of coal--ready to be refined into fine granular table sugar. When we pulled into the parking lot of the nursing home, I would search the windows for Aunt Dianah's face. Huddled around the front door in wheel chairs were old people--husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles--waiting for the visitors who seldom or never came. Aunt Dianah often sat by the front door, maybe so she could she the sunlight glancing through trees in the parking lot, and remember the rustling of the wind in pine boughs or the smell of strawberries just growing ripe--and maybe she too waited for the those lost to return home. When she would see Mamma's and our approach, her face would beam in toothless smile. We'd tell her all the week's news. "How's Nettie?," she'd ask. Mamma would tell her how Grandma was getting along--emphysema and all.

Yet, even as the weeks passed Aunt Dianah's mind faded as if the less significant memories had detached themselves and fallen away until only the memories that had left the deepest impression remained. Aunt Dianah was haunted by these fragments, broken shards of a life once whole and nearly complete. A far away look would come into her eyes and she would tell again two stories to us as if it was the first telling. "I remember once when the house next door caught fire. The family inside were all sleeping--mother, father, children. They were all in their beds. They were all burned. I remember the screams. I can't forget the screams. They were all burned." Tears would well up in Aunt Dianah's eyes. "And I remember the time Ray and I were at the carnival. A young man--he couldn't have been more than 25--was riding a roller coaster when he saw his girl on the ground. She was waving and smiling. As he stood up and waved, a support wire stretched above the car took his head clean off." Aunt Di's voice would fall off just then. And in the stillness that followed we too all saw this young man's head tumble to the ground as his girl looked on in unbelieving horror. "You just never know." Silence followed these stories as Mamma would pat Aunt Dianah's hand.

Six days before Christmas of that year, her sole surviving sister, Nettie--Mamma's mother--died while in the hospital when a nurse accidentally turned her oxygen up instead of down. We continued living for the rest of the year in the white frame house with a large lawn all around. And every week we would drive past the sugar beet factory to visit Aunt Di, as Mamma fondly called her. Aunt Di would be sitting by the door, and her face would again light up, traces of the wood elf glint in her eyes. We would tell her the week's news. "How's Nettie?," she would ask. "Don't you remember, Aunt Di. Nettie passed on before Christmas." Tears would well up and brim over, streaming down Aunt Di's and Mamma's faces as Aunt Di lived the news all over again as if the telling was for the first time; and Mamma bore through the pain of both the death of her mother and of the gradual loss of her Aunt Di.

We moved to Tacoma at the end of the school year to prepare for our return to Japan. Aunt Dianah died in June when mountain flowers are just pushing their heads up through the grasses. Mamma traveled back to Boise to bury the last of her family. She, and we her children, were her family now. Mother, father, aunts, uncles, brother, cousins--all gone. The stories that surfaced in Aunt Di's remembering were not recalled merely because of their shock, but because in the retelling Aunt Di expressed in shadowy recollections of strangers' lives her own gathering darkness--the inexpressable pain of growing old and lonely--and of waiting for the dying to come. Aunt Dianah, Uncle Ray, Mamma, and her brother Bill had all fought this foreboding, this dying, with a quirk--a lapse of sanity--laughing in the face of unspeakable pain until tears streamed down all of our faces.

Mamma knew the tragedy that lurks just beneath life's surface, caught in the scent of a chilled Autumn wind when the leaves of trees turn brilliant colors just before their gradual, and sometimes sudden descent to the earth. Her brother Bill--a sailor and a handsome man--spent most of his life an alcoholic, until he met a woman named Mary, who loved him in spite of it all. He quit drinking and married her. On their honeymoon--thirty six hours into their life together after a long's day driving he died of a severe heart attack. And as if the cruelty was not enough, Mary died several years later in a car accident--leaving Mamma a bit more alone.

After Aunt Dianah died, a distant cousin and husband sold all of Uncle Ray's treasures for five dollars a pile. The things of value from the first floor of Aunt Di's house were sold off quickly too. Even the diamond ring which Uncle Ray had give Aunt Di, and which Aunt Di wanted my mother to have was broken up--the two larger diamonds either sold or given to those who little knew Aunt Di. A smaller imperfect diamond with a flaw was left to Mamma. My wife Nancy wears that diamond on her wedding band. And it's brilliance along with it's quirk reminds me of the one upon whose hand it last was worn.

The same summer Mamma discovered the lump beneath her arm, and after three years, in which the pain of cancer drew out all her laughter, she died in the month of June when mountain flowers are just blooming up near Paradise. She made us a tape three weeks before she died. She said, "I wish I could be my old silly self and laugh and tell jokes--but I can't. Not today. I just can't."

Eleanor, Harry and I are Mamma's side of the family now, and I suppose the quirk--the lapses of sanity--have been passed on. Before Mamma died she made us promise that we wouldn't fight over who got what of her things--and of her mother Nettie's things, and of those things left from Aunt Di. One day we set all these family treasures around my brother's house, and then took turns choosing the things we wanted until all that was left was the unwanted. My share is stored away in card board boxes--cached away in a barn--and has been for almost fifteen years. Someday, when we are finally settled down, I hope to bring Aunt Dianah's things out and display them--museum like--in memory of Mamma's Aunt Di. I long for the stabililiy of a life whole and undisturbed, a life rooted to a place and time--where home is made up of people and things well familiar--always there in an expected orderliness.

Yet, for as much as the people who grace our lives, and the things we own and the orderliness within which we keep them, lend a certain security and permanence to our lives, one day we like the rustling wind in the pine trees will pass on. Why do we tell these broken, tragic stories and recall these memories but if--by grace and through faith--to find the hope that one day all things will be healed and made whole: Aunt Dianah and Uncle Ray, my mother and father, Uncle Bill and Mary, a young man on a roller coaster and his girlfriend below, children and parents once asleep in a house at night, and all those beyond my telling who whether by death or by shattered relationships are now distant, beyond the reach of even are brightest and best laughter. And our memories--however tragic--become our sense of hope.

© 2018 by Grant Christensen