There are watershed moments in your life when you realize that time is moving way too fast. One of those moments came to me on a sunny December morning as I sat on a north bound plane and watched the city of Phoenix fall away from me. I was going home. Going home to close a chapter in my life that I thought would never end. As I watched the city slowly recede beneath me to be replaced by the Arizona desert landscape, my thoughts turned to the last time I made this trip.
It was only a year and a half ago that I was standing in a church and paying my last respects to my Great Aunt Rose. Her sister Clara, another great aunt, stood next to me as we both looked down at Rose resting peacefully in her casket.
“I’m the last one now.” My Aunt Clara said softly in her familiar German accent. “Never thought I’d be the last one.”
I turned my head and looked over at her; this little wisp of a women, mid 90’s, hunched over in a soft lavender dress and sadly looking at her sister. She turned her head and looked at me, forcing a slight smile. “Never thought I’d be the last one.” She repeated.
Rose and Clara, two peas in a pod. It seemed like they were always doing things together. Despite their age, they were always on the go, always looking out for one another. For the last several years they were the last ones left, the last of thirteen brothers and sisters who were part of my very active extended family.
My grandfather had been Aunt Clara’s brother and was the third oldest of this clan. When I was growing up I was constantly being dragged around to birthdays, reunions and anniversaries. As a toddler, my cheeks would be pinched and my head would be patted as my proud grandparents would show me off to their brood. The tiny house in which my great grandparents lived would became a sardine can whenever there was a family gathering. Aunts, uncles, cousins and other extended family members jostled for space in the cramped quarters of the living room. We ate off paper plates that we held in our hands while the adults talked about their families and their jobs.
As each family gathering morphed into another, the faces became familiar, the personalities became predictable and the routine never changed. Couples would show up carrying plates of food with their grandchildren in tow. The house would slowly fill up with people, conversation, and laughter. The smell of German food would soon permeate every room. I would make my way through the throng, slithering unnoticed between the adults and looking for some long lost cousin to play with. Invariably an aunt would grab me to tell me what a cute little boy I was and to ask me who I belonged to. And off in a corner on the far end of the room sat my very elderly great grandparents. They would quietly hold court over the entire proceedings while sitting there in a state of bewilderment.
It was a circus!
By the time I entered my teenage years these family gatherings began to lose their steam as the aging process took its toll. My great grandparents died within a year of each other when I was in high school. The house was sold and the large contingent of siblings divided up their belongings. By the time I was a young adult and starting a family of my own, the aunts and uncles started dying off too.
My grandmother always seemed to be the bearer of bad news. “Uncle so and so died last week.” She would say over the phone. Or “aunt so and so passed away.” With each passing year, the faces I remembered seeing in that crowded house when I was growing up would become nothing more than an obituary, a headstone and a memory. And as the years turned into decades, the old family was whittled down to just two.
And then just one.
Aunt Clara was looking back at Aunt Rose now. She took a deep sigh, closed her eyes and bowed her head.
I felt that the mood needed to be lightened and I tried to say something humorous.
“I wonder if you get a prize for being the last one.” I said, looking over at Aunt Clara.
A slight smile creased her lips as she opened her eyes and looked over at me. Shrugging her shoulders, she said, “I guess someday I’ll find out.” She slowly turned around and hobbled away, disappearing into the crowd of mourners.
After the plane landed in Salt Lake City, I headed for the car rental counter and a few minutes later I was on the freeway heading to Idaho, which was a couple of hours away.
I had plenty of time. The funeral would be tomorrow at 11 am.
Aunt Clara now has her prize.