My Aunt Sis died yesterday, November 9th, at age 93. She was the last of her generation, having outlived all her siblings and cousins. With her passing, I lost my last living link with a world that now exists only in my mind.
Stuck away in the mountains of northern Arkansas, for many years it has been my habit to make an annual trek to visit Aunt Sis. Kind, gracious, and hospitable to a fault, we would sit around the kitchen table, drinking coffee and sharing the old stories. She kept her mind until the end. She became forgetful, and prone to repeat herself, to be sure. But this was the little stuff. On the big items, her mind remained clear. She always knew exactly who she was, who you were, and where she was. On my last visit, she recognized me immediately, and we became teary-eyed before any words were spoken. Towards the end, her mind become more focused on the times of her youth, with events 80 years past more real to her than the events of the day. I believe that to be a great blessing.
On this last visit, she shared a new story, and I think I heard it a half dozen times before I left. For some reason, her memory had focused in on an incident from over 75 years ago, involving her uncle and a parrot that “spoke” Portuguese. A little background is necessary.
My grandfather and his two sisters--all born within 4 years of one another--were always close. The sisters called him Brother. Due to advantageous family connections, all three were able to attend Wedemeyer’s Academy in Bell County, Texas. The girls went on to graduate from Mary Hardin Baylor College. The sisters were true Edwardian ladies--prim, proper, and polite. They were easily scandalized, and my good-natured granddad took especial pleasure in shocking them, to which they would gasp, “Oh, Brother!”
The sisters lived their entire lives in tandem. They went to college together, became teachers and taught together, and eventually married brothers. The older aunt married last, and even after marriage maintained much of the air of an old maid about her. The two couples lived just outside of Fort Worth.
After the great tragedy that befell my grandparent’s family, the aunts stepped in to help as they could. The older aunt offered to adopt my youngest uncle, then an infant. My grandfather, a proud man, refused. (I wonder how my uncle’s life would have been different, had he grown up in this aunt’s stable environment. But while his path might have been easier in life, he might not have become the quirky, funny, happy-go-lucky man we loved so much). Aunt Sis and her baby brother, nevertheless, did spend extended periods of time living with their aunts.
When they moved out to Lake Worth, the youngest aunt and her husband purchased their place from an elderly Portuguese immigrant. They bought the place, lock, stock, and parrot. The old man’s bird “spoke” in Portuguese. Up until the last two years, my Aunt Sis could, remarkably, remember and repeat what the parrot would say, though she had no idea of what it meant. The large parrot and its cage was her responsibility.
Her aunt’s husband would sometime tease the parrot. Once he even gave Polly a cigarette. The bird bided its time. Finally one day, as my uncle was walking through the house, the parrot flew onto his back and clawed little vees into the back of his shirt. He hollered for Aunt Sis to get that bird off his back. She found a handy broomstick and lifted the parrot off of him.
What happened next is the thing that stuck in her mind. The parrot got down on the floor and on its side, squawking and twisting in circles. In Aunt Sis’s eyes, the bird exacted its revenge and was now laughing at our flustered uncle. My aunt described in great detail how the parrot’s eyes looked, and how they pivoted around.
Our memories are funny things. At the end of a long and well-lived life, it fills me with wonder that it was this little thing that filled her consciousness, the eyes of a happy parrot from almost 80 years ago.