My Great Aunt Elizabeth was a total joy. We all have family members who strike us just the right way and she was one of them. Actually that whole generation in my mom’s family seemed to be the most wonderful accepting women in the world. She lived until she’d passed her 100th birthday. But I didn’t really get to know her very well until I was sixteen and my mom had moved to a house not far from her on a small island in the Atlantic. By then she was a widow and had moved, from what had once been a summer house for her and her husband, to a nearby condo right on the oceanfront.
I was an awesome swimmer and a sometimes surfer. So shortly after I moved to the island, I discovered that the kids went surfing every morning at a particular beach because they could. Most beaches were posted NO SURFING. The town permitted surfing on one beach at daybreak until the lifeguards appeared at 9 AM during the summer months and anytime during the winter months. Yippee! Toss my surfboard on the top of my car and this little surfer girl was off!
I park, grab my board, and head for the water, but before I got there… Surprise! I discovered my great aunt sitting on a park bench watching the surfers with heavy sunglasses clipped into her regular glasses. Hey, I’m the new kid in this small town and I barely knew anyone who was local. Totally shocked, I realize I’m about two blocks from her building. Next to her is a basket and in it are car keys, wallets, watches, etc. and two small hand flags. HUH?
The sun has just cracked over the horizon, and there’s a dozen young people on the beach or in the water on boards. Flabbergasted, I asked what she was doing. I propped my board on a nearby rail and sat beside her. She smiled and asked for my keys and whatever else I had. My aunt looked as though she had just conned every surfer out of their land possessions. She was the keeper.
She asked if I had met the local surfers. And I hadn’t – I didn’t know a single one. Surfers have always been known for their longer than average hair and my dad thought it was terrible that boys wanted to look like girls. It was useless to even try to counter his opinion. But here was this old lady pointing to the various boys and telling me their names and voicing her opinion of each one which was always good.
Did I know Mike? He had the longest blond hair and wore bright orange shorts. My great aunt had found him special elastic bands that didn’t contain metal so that he could pull all that “cute” blond hair back and not worry about rust on the metal clip. She proceeds to tell me just how adorable these boys are with their long hair and wild surfer attire. I just about slid off the bench.
She pointed to each one and told me their names, what grade they were in school, how old they were, what cars they drove, and who had a girlfriend and who didn’t. Then she promised to set me up with Mike because he was the best surfer. Yeah, he was – he and Joanne. I dropped my little bag that contained my land stuff and headed for the water. I wasn’t a super surfer, but I could stand up on a board!
Actually I had the wrong board for the waves there and eventually I wound up trading my board for someone’s old board. It was a good trade. He was going to the West Coast and then on to Hawaii to surf. He needed my board and I needed that smaller board. Plus I was much more casual about surfing. For me it was fun, but I wasn’t dreaming of surfing tournaments.
I discovered why she had flags. At twenty minutes before nine, she’d raise the little yellow flag and wave it at us. At ten minutes to nine, she’d raise the yellow and the red one. At five of, she’d raise the red one. If we were on the beach at nine o’clock with a board, we were subject to arrest. There was this woman, who I’d been taught to give ultimate respect to a family member of such age, being soaked by a handful of surfers as they dripped salt water on her while kissing her cheek. The deal was you gave her a kiss as you grabbed your keys, etc, and left. She never asked for such treatment, but everyone did it. They all called her Grandmom and she loved each one of them as if they were part of her family.
Turns out Mike was in my grade at school. He was cute, but he really didn’t interest me as I had a boyfriend who was older, but Mike became a friend and morning surfing buddy. Of course, they were shocked that I was related to this old lady. But three hundred sixty-five days of the year, my great aunt sat on that bench keeping their things while they surfed.
My mom would often invite her to dinner and usually I picked her up and brought her to the house. My mom always made sure I had her car because it was large and comfortable compared to my little sporty convertible. Finally my great aunt asked when she’d get a chance to ride in my car! Well, um, it really was little and let’s just say she didn’t fold up very well. She swore that didn’t matter. She wanted to ride in it!
I told my mom and she was aghast at the thought of trying to wedge Aunt Elizabeth into my tiny car. I think my mom thought I was trying to be mean to the woman. But after a phone call and my mom pleading for her to reconsider, I was allowed to pick my great aunt up with my car. First I sat my aunt on the seat and put her cane in the trunk since there were no back seats, because if I tried to put it between the seats, the cane would have interfered with the stick shift. Next I had to figure out how to stuff her legs from the ground into the car. No, she didn’t fold well and I was afraid I’d hurt her. But after some serious pushing and shoving I got both legs into the car where they belonged. Then she tied a very colorful beaded scarf over her head and around her neck, then snapped her sunglasses into place. She was ready for her new adventure.
The problem with living on an island is the speed limit maxed at 35 MPH. That wasn’t fast enough for her. So I stopped at home and told my mom I was going to take my great aunt for a spin on the mainland. Certain I was making up stories, my mother goes out to my car and has a fit. Nope, my great aunt refused to get out until she could have a serious Grand Prix experience.
Yes, I took her to the mainland and if a cop had caught me, I would have been given a ticket. Although I suspect my great aunt probably would have talked the officer out of it and then demanded a spin in his car with lights and sirens running. Yes, she was a hoot!
She had Parkinson’s Disease and no one had ever heard of that back then. But her mind remained sharp until her death. Her teeth chattered as she spoke and how she ever managed to get food to her mouth or sugar in her tea was amazing to watch. She had a heart of gold and an acceptance for people that made everyone love her.
For her ninety-eighth birthday, someone in the family had picture taken with all of her family present. There were six generations in that photo. The youngest was a set of newborn twins. She said she had lived too long and life had become lonely. She had outlived her husband, several of her children, and all of her friends. She often wondered why she was still alive.
Maybe it was because we needed her to remind us when to get out of the water, face our responsibilities, and to trust our fellow man.