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Looking Into the Eyes of Age and Laughing

At 99, Aunt Billie showed us how to live and how to die

By Brenda MahlerPublished 2 months ago 6 min read
Aunt Billie with Dagney. Image shared by author.

A 77-degree heat wave visited us yesterday. The birds provided music as I sat on the porch and watched our dog chase a chipmunk up a tree. She then sat at the bottom of the tree, warning her prey not to venture onto her turf or something would happen. The patches of snow melted visibly under the sun’s rays, announcing the change of seasons.

In the mountains of Idaho, we have five seasons — summer, fall, winter, mud season, and spring. Watching the disappearing snow and the hardening mud teased the thought that a walk might soon be possible. This time of year creates a juxtaposition as the temperatures forecast future warmth, but the surroundings remind of recent cold — a contrast of life and death. I thought of Aunt Billie.

The conflict of the seasons reminded me of Aunt Billie, my mother’s sister, who passed away in February.

We celebrated her 99th birthday earlier this year with cake, ice cream and memories. As the last survivor of four siblings, she embraced life but also hinted at the desire to join the many loved ones she had said goodbye to over the years.

The last time her son, and my husband and I visited, she sat in a recliner with her arm resting on the side of the chair and wiggled her fingers in the semblance of a wave. Just before exiting, she pointed at each of us and said, “I love you.”

Outside the door, my cousin Michael looked shocked. We paused as he shared that his mother rarely publicly announced her affection. Digesting that information, we all fell silent until we stood outside the automatic doors where we talked about life and death. The sun was shining but a cold breeze moved the tree limbs. Maybe she knew then what we only anticipated; this was our last visit.

As a kid, going to her house intimidated me. The majestic furniture never invited us kids to sit but remained reserved for adults. Instead, when we were allowed in the house, we lay on the white carpet, mesmerized by its warmth. Nobody ever explained the magic, but it functioned like a heating blanket and radiated comfort when I felt uncomfortable.

However, the backyard was a wonderland. The house stood on a hill surrounded by enormous pine trees. Venturing through the trees led to the edge of the slope, which presented a view of the freeway below, creating a feeling that I was on top of the world. Deer walked freely in the distance and sometimes even made themselves at home on the grass, where I felt like a trespasser.

From my description, Aunt Billie may sound like a mean, stern woman, but that was not the case. She simply held old-fashioned beliefs that children should be seen and not heard. However, we were never neglected. We were treated with respect, and I never doubted her love.

Meals were her way of sharing her love. That woman could cook! Dinners were homegrown. The beef was raised in Uncle Ed’s pastures, and potatoes dug from the garden, both covered in homemade gravy. A salad completed the meal with carrots, radishes, tomatoes, and sometimes kohlrabi from different rows of the garden. I don’t know, but imagine the dressing was also made in her kitchen. Desserts consisted of pies filled with apples picked fresh from their trees or canned peaches served with hand-churned ice cream, but whatever sweets were presented were fresh and delectable.

While Billie and Mom cooked in the kitchen, we played games. Lawn Darts, the kind with the sharp metal points, were a favorite for the kids while the men threw horseshoes behind the barn.

A favorite memory was the time we watched all the adults play Pinchie Pinchie on the Cheekie. They sat in a circle, and each person, in turn, pinched the cheek of the person beside them. The goal was not to laugh. Unbeknownst to one player, the person beside them had red lipstick on their fingers, so by the end of the game, their face was covered with red fingerprints, and everyone lost the game because nobody could stifle the laughter. I think alcohol might have been involved.

Aunt Billie’s face is covered in lipstick after playing a game with her brother, Don. Image shared by author.

Evenings at Billie’s were filled with music and laughter. When the family gathered, they formed a band. Uncle Don always played the guitar, and everyone else rotated through handmade instruments. I remember everyone took a turn plucking the string on the washtub bass, which consisted of a metal bucket turned upside down, a stick about 5 feet long sitting on the edge of the bucket threaded through a small hole and attached to the top of the stick. Billie pounded on the drums. Someone always played the spoons, hummed into a jug, and everyone sang. Grandpa chimed in with a harmonica and worked the dancing dolls he had whittled and painted.

Aunt Billie playing the drums. Image shared by author.

When Michael moved his mother from her home in Washington to be near him in Idaho, I had the opportunity to be part of her life for a couple of years. She lived in a memory care unit because her recall stuttered sometimes, but Randy and I were welcomed with a smile and excitement with every visit. Only once when we entered her room and were greeted with confusion. She looked at us and said, “Who the hell are you?” Within a couple of moments, with the help of telling her I was Dena’s daughter, my mother, she lit up, and the conversations began.

At the age of 99, this beautiful lady had experienced more life than most of us will only dream about. The joy she shared came from her sense of humor. Billie, 39 years older than me, was an inspiration because she never complained and accepted whatever life sent her way.

She lost so much weight that her teeth didn’t adhere tightly to her gums. When she laughed, they fell out. For some ladies, this would be devastating, but for Billie, she found another reason to laugh and even posed for a picture. She found humor in every situation.

Image shared by author.

The picture below is one of my favorites. On the left is my brother, Nick, and on the right is Micheal. But it is the picture on the wall in the back that tells a story. Years ago, my mother presented Billie with a plant, the real name I do not know. They called it a rubber tree plant because Mom had tied prophylactics on the limbs. These sisters loved to laugh. They found humor in every situation and, if necessary, created a reason to laugh.

Image shared by author.

A lady in her nineties sits in a recliner and holds a teddy bear. On either side is a man. Both men have mustaches and beards. There is a picture on the wall behind all three of a potted plant decorated with prophylactics. In the picture on the wall with the plant are two laughing women.

Our granddaughters also fell in love with Aunt Billie’s positive personality. Eliza loved to visit and always made time to play some music to everyone’s delight. Timberley and Kinsley drew pictures on the sidewalk that told family stories.

Image shared by author.

Image shared by author.

As the snow melts this year, I am reminded that with loss comes new life. In the mountains, the birds are building nests, chipmunks are exploring trees, and the mud is firming to make long walks possible. Somewhere Billie is meeting old friends and family with a hug. She will share stories of how the world has changed, exclaim how proud she is of her children, and hopefully tell my mom about the visits with her great-grandchildren whom Mom never had the chance to meet. And I know for certain they are laughing.


About the Creator

Brenda Mahler


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  • BrettNotGregabout a month ago

    Such a heartwarming story centered on someone who obviously was loved by many and lived a full life!

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