August 31, 2012

Aunt Polly

What makes for a person's legacy? The things they achieved? The money they made? Fame and fortune are indeed common measures, usually reserved for ... well, the rich and the famous. But for the rest of us, the measure of a life is more often to be found in the impact we made on the friends and family we leave behind.

Using that as our scale, Pauline Laugelle Litchfield--my Aunt Polly--lived an extraordinarily full life. She was the youngest of twelve, she and her twin Peter coming last but not least. Growing up in such a large family, she must have gotten used to being in a crowd. When she had her own kids, it was perhaps inevitable that the family circle would grow to include any kid who happened to walk by the house slowly.

My earliest feeling about Aunt Polly was that her house was always a place I wanted to visit. We'd swing off the road and park on the side yard next to whatever car they had at the moment--a pickup truck that could hold a hidden stash of deer meat in the door panel or a station wagon wide enough to hold a growing family and their gear or the retired police cruiser that could go like a bat out of hell--and we'd pull open the screen door and walk into the kitchen where she might be making a frittata in a big iron skillet, although it could just as often be her husband Marsh standing at the stove, as he was himself a better than fair cook.

The stories would start almost as soon as you entered the door, after, of course, a hug and a big smooch on the cheek. With some of my relatives, that was a ritual to be endured. With Polly, it was a genuine moment of love given and received. I would sit at the kitchen table entranced by her stories of family and the neighborhood. This was not the polite conversation of parlors, but the honest talk of a plain-spoken woman. If someone was a "g-d sob," you heard about it. Most folks who made it into that category got there because of a failure of generosity or understanding that cut against Polly's own giving spirit.

She never had much, but what she had was always there for someone in need. The labors and sorrows of her life--the loss of Marsh, the struggles to raise a family in tough times--never dimmed her enthusiasm for life or her willingness to help others. As she made her way through life, the circle of people who knew and loved her kept growing and growing.

Polly was no saint. Hers wasn't that kind of life. She wore her heart on her sleeve and could hold a grudge with the best of them. And she wasn't shy about voicing her opinions, either. The same inventiveness she could use to weave a great story would yield equally rich veins of invective. She said the things most of us thought but never had the guts to voice. That willingness to speak the truth as she saw it was something I tried to grow in myself, a process that gets easier with age, I might add.

But none of that mattered all that much to me or anyone else. The love she took was more than offset by the love the made. Whenever we would meet--usually at a family gathering to celebrate a wedding or a funeral or a graduation--she would always greet me with a huge hug which I would return in equal measure. I always felt like the center of attention at that wonderful moment, just as I'm sure all the other nieces and nephews did.

Unfortunately, her strong spirit was not matched by an equally strong body, and the years took their toll on her sooner and harder than anyone would have wanted. She spent her last few months living in Wrinkle Village, holding court to an endless stream of friends and family who were with her around the clock. She faced death squarely and on her own terms. Ready to move on to an even bigger circle of friends and family, she died quietly after a long and event-filled life. Heaven will be a livelier place for it.

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