Her name was Jeannette and woe unto anyone not spelling it with two Ns and two Ts. She would say that any other spelling of that name meant the woman was not a real Jeannette. She was the real one. And was she ever. Cranky, bossy, brilliant, annoying and fascinating. She was a living, breathing truckload of adjectives.
My aunt Jeannette lived and lived and lived and was still alert and demanding at age 104, and when her crowds of grand and great grandchildren often gathered about her to ask what it was like to live “in the olden days” she put on her old crone face and told them she was far more interested in discussing the now and the future than she was in “blathering” about the past.
“Go rent a documentary on the olden days,” she’d growl. “That’ll be far more interesting than my old memories, and besides, a documentary would be better because it would be set to music. I refuse to even hum. And whistle tunes for you? Absolutely not. Whistling girls and crowing hens/Always come to some bad end,” she’d grouse at her supplicants, in particular the girls. In particular me, because I always whistled tunes as I moved through my day. Made her crazy.
But occasionally she’d lighten up and would tell us how things were “back then,” if we all begged properly, and politely. She once told us how it was to be a nurse in a hospital in Chicago to care for the returning soldiers of WW I while wearing starched petticoats and long hot skirts that dragged across the dirty floors, starched white caps and painful corsets that no one quite understood. Aunt Jeannette would tell them how those poor soldiers looked, mangled, smashed to pieces, faces missing parts, bodies missing parts, blinded and burned horribly by mustard gas, deafened from explosions, some soldiers so shattered by the experience they would never recover. We listened in silence, enrapt, horrified, not really comprehending, but fascinated anyway.
We once asked her how she felt when she saw her first airplane flying above her.
“I told you I don’t want to talk about that old stuff,” she griped, and then “Damned fools. We could get anywhere we wanted on a big safe train or a boat. Or a horse and buggy. Why on earth would anyone want to sit in a big loud tin can in the sky? When those things fall nothing can be done. The idiots inside are doomed and they knew it when they got into those machines; aeroplanes are instruments of the devil. I have no sympathy for those fools who crash, not a jot. And after all, if those fools really wanted to float around in the sky where they don’t belong, they should get into a basket underneath one of those big hot air balloons.”
Would she ever take a plane to get somewhere? we asked. “Of course!” she replied. “But just because I’m old don’t try to force me to have some young buck strapped to my back so we can parachute together to the ground. What kind of fool does that?” Aunt Jeannette was nothing if not a perpetual contradiction of herself.
And on the subject of cars. “You’re so old Aunt Jeannette,” we’d say to her, and she’d deliver The Glare that could shatter the hull of an aircraft carrier. “You must remember seeing your first car. Will you tell us about that? How did you feel? What was that like?” and again Aunt Jeannette would grouse that she had no interest in reliving the past, and only wanted to learn everything about the future. And again, she would relent.
“Well,” said she. “As you know I lived in a very small town back then, in Illinois. Not more than 2000 people, but some idiots thought we should all own automobiles. I remember seeing my first one—big smelly and loud, open to the elements, scaring the bajeezuss out of the horses. No one wanted them. We all loved our horses. Good reliable animals. Faithful. Gave us manure for our farmlands. Took us wherever we wanted to go, rain or shine or blizzard. One of our horses, a big bay mare, my favorite, was actually called ‘Dobbinette’ and when she died, we buried her in the same place we buried all our horses; in the grape arbor. We had the best grapes in the state.”
“Eeeuuuw,” said we in unison, mesmerized anyway.
“Eventually our town had two automobiles owned by rich, show-offy people who owned farms many miles apart from each other. Sure enough one fine summer day, they had a head on collision right in the middle of town, directly on top of the town water pump. Smashed the pump and killed both drivers, damned fools,” said Aunt Jeannette, shaking her head. Frowning.
As she aged, and aged, Aunt Jeannette became a little more user-friendly to us, her eager and fascinated young broods, and would talk a bit more about “the olden days.”
“Aunt Jeannette” asked one of us on a fine day when the old lady was “taking the sun” in a big chair out on her lawn. “Can you tell us about the first time you ever ate potato chips? How did that feel?”
“Look here, child,” she grumped. “Potato chips, if you ever bothered to look things up at a library and not on that stupid Goggle thing you all carry everywhere, were first invented in 1853. Furthermore young lady, for your information” (she pulled herself up straight and delivered The Glare with the same finesse as ever,) I therefore cannot recall when I first saw or ate them since we always ate them. I am NOT THAT OLD.” We all laughed. Aunt Jeannette did not.
But finally she was that old, and at 105 she turned and shot The Glare at us one more time as we stood around her bed. She snarled, laughed, clapped her hands loudly, and quickly died. Aunt Jeannette, with two Ns and two Ts had abruptly left us. The pain of losing her? Never.