Our elders, ourselves

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, August 23, 2015

Thirty minutes until my workday begins and I am on Main Street sneaking in a late bi-monthly transatlantic call to my aunt Michelle — who, at 90, is the undisputed matriarch of the family. I am about to receive a bit of a tongue lashing from her, which I deserve.

As the phone rings, August sunlight is filtering through the quaking aspens, grazing my shoulders. But when I hear her voice, the San Juans fade away. I can picture this woman, the middle of the three sisters in my mother’s family, as clearly as if she were standing in front of me.

Her dark, thinning hair is carefully curled. Under a perpetual cardigan, she is wearing a crisp peach or sky-blue blouse, buttoned to the top, with a silk scarf and brooch. Her A-line skirt is knee length and her shoes sensible but elegant. There is probably the remainder of the day’s lipstick on her lips.

She has never wavered from the attention given her appearance, even after her husband of over 60 years passes, taking a large portion of her heart along with him. And no matter what is going on — pain or heartache or worry or just plain weariness — her smile is exceedingly quick, youthful and captivating. I don’t hear much of a smile today, however.

Bibiche (bee-beesh’), the nickname we Americans use for her (biche means doe) is still sharp as a tack: she talks French politics, American forest fires, Downtown Abbey, radio interviews, all manner of topics and details. (In the past year, she has had to give up her English language class, for which she registered at the age of 87.) She has lunch a couple of times a week with her only son and daughter-in-law and, of course, keeps close tabs on everything related to the family.

After a brief hello and thank you for calling, she is doing one of her little tricks: telling me things I don’t know about one of my own siblings, a brother who is in the process of moving after 30 years in the same place. Really, I have no idea. She quizzes me on the others and I share news, both good and bad. She listens politely, remembering everything in order to update the French side. I tell her I am ashamed not to have written my great cousin, Francoise (72), after having promised — again — to be better about it. Well, she says, Francoise is also really busy, you know, what with the grandkids, cycling, her theater group. At the same time…

…I can’t keep doing this. You younger people are going to have to step up and keep in touch with each other. I’m getting old. You know, after my 90th birthday party, I sent you and your siblings photos — all of you — and not one of you acknowledged receiving them?

There is a pause and I hear the worry and concern in her voice. Here she is, at her age, still tending to the nuts and bolts and fabric of our family across the pond better than we are. I know her mission after my mother’s passing has been to hold it all together, not to forget the sister she idolized, or those of us who stand in for her now. We have not helped.

I’m sorry, I begin. There’s really no excuse.

I know you’re busy, she says. But can you find out if your oldest brother has those photos I gave to him? And the only reason I know about your other brother is because I kept calling him until he finally answered. I wasn’t sure I had the right address or phone number.

She has always fretted over letters containing photos and mementos landing in postal purgatory. And though she has recently acquired an iPad, electronics still make her nervous. I assure her I will try again to use her iCloud address to send photos. Her goodbye is weary.

On our visit two years ago, Bibiche has us over for a “simple” lunch of shrimp salad and duck confit, serves us coffee and dessert, and then presents us with gifts from the local chocolaterie and yet another envelope of photos. She waves to us from the door of the garage knowing it may well be the last time.

I think about everything this woman has done for me in my life — besides just simply being my aunt and loving me. She has given me an appreciation of care, both for self and others. An appreciation of connection, to family and the world at large. An appreciation of marriage and deference. Deep concern for people, as well as a light touch.

Our phone call reminds me: she is an example for you. Take advantage, now!

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