Old Lady Lee

We arrive at the height of raspberry season.  Great Aunt Helen beams at us from the front stoop, her toothy smile at once knowing and mischievous.  A feisty five-foot-three, hers was a force to be reckoned with.  Our family’s annual expedition to Penticton—six long hours on the windy, river-hugging road—promised water slides, lakeside fireworks and long, lazy days under the radiant Okanagan sun.  And yet, my fondest memories belong to Aunt Helen’s charming turquoise home and garden of towering sunflowers and immaculate rosebushes.

Despite my shy adolescence, Aunt Helen always greeted me with the same vim and vigour.  My self-appointed job?  To pick as many raspberries as possible.  Three generations of family sat down to share vanilla ice cream with freshly-plucked berries.  The very essence of summer.

I got a letter from her once.  As I unfolded the single piece of paper, scrawled in oversized cursive, I checked the signature:  “O.L.L.”, short for Old Lady Lee.  Since Aunt Helen married into the family, we don’t share a blood relation, but we do share Lee:  being my first name, and her last.

Old Lady Lee wrote letters to everyone.  Well into her eighties, she remained determined to do it herself, even if she dotted her I’s two letters late, and the loop of her lower case G’s hung down like nooses for unsuspecting letters on the line below.  “Congratulations on your graduation,” she began.  “Life is full of the unexpected, isn’t it?”  She filled the remainder of the letter with a zany anecdote, quoted Shakespeare’s “a light heart liveth long”, and concluded with five words of wisdom:  “Eat your veggies and swim!”

Not long after, at the insistence of her daughter, she reluctantly moved to Calgary, where she became the city’s oldest woman to buy a house.  I didn’t see Aunt Helen as often.  But I heard stories.  The time she demanded to board her cancelled flight to China, despite the tanks in Tiananmen Square.  Or the time in Hawaii when she decided to emulate her wave-jumping great-nephews.  As she tumbled head over heels in the rollicking surf, a concerned tourist rushed to the rescue and carried her to shore.  “Let me be!” was her indignant response, and she marched right back into the ocean.  These tales confirmed my vision of her:  a fiercely independent, white-haired world traveller.  Not your average old lady.  If she had one fault, it was her ability to drive family crazy with her plainspoken advice.  She once remarked to her teenage niece at a dinner party:  “Betty, when you put all that makeup on your face it just makes your pimples more obvious!”

Aunt Helen was 97 the last time I saw her, now living with her daughter.  She didn’t recognize me.  I was all grown up, and she had lost that sharp mind of hers to age.  As I tried to explain who I was she mistook me for my father, and proceeded to tell me how I was such a very good man, and how once, confined to a hospital bed for weeks, my mother came to visit her every single day.  “That was so kind of Dorothy, I’ll never forget that,” Aunt Helen said, more than once, with an almost heartbreaking affection.  In fact, I lost count of all the stories she retold.  Her family behaved apologetic toward her forgetful repetition.  Yet I knew she was speaking with loving appreciation, and I cherished every word.  This woman, who for years carried her prize-winning day lilies to the seniors’ home, despite being older than most residents, truly understood the nature of giving and gratitude.

Aunt Helen died soon after.  Sadly, her grape arbour is now a carport, and the garden has lost most of its colour.  Yet the way I remember Old Lady Lee is at home, napping in her favourite chair, a large-print Agatha Christie flopped on her lap.  There I am, camped in the backyard amidst a minefield of predawn sprinklers.  Up on the vine, ripe and proud, shine countless bright red raspberries.

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