• Aunt Maud



    One night I was watching the newest mind numbing reality program on TV – Garbagemen Heroes –it reminded my wife to tell me that I needed to take out the trash, since our own Sanitary Engineers (garbage men) were due early in the morning. So did as I was told, stumbled outside, cans balanced on my hip. Flawless summer night – no moon and no streetlights where we lived. I glanced up at the stars and decided to lie down for a few minutes – on the grass at the front of the house.

    I got comfortable on the lawn, looking up into the Cosmos – the stars extremely bright. My boy scout astronomy merit badge kicked in and I could easily identify the North Star, Little Dipper, Orion the Hunter, Cassiopeia, and Jupiter.

    Like millions of others before me, I looked up in awe, thinking how insignificant I was in view of endless space. But then as I thought about it, what did I really think of an infinite universe? The scientists tell us that the universe is 13.2 billion years old with a diameter of 93 Billion light years – somehow those two figures looked suspect to me. Light travels at 186,000 miles per second – 700 million miles an hour – so when you toss something out like 93 billion light years, it just becomes a black mark on a paper and loses any significance.

    Physicists and Astronomers also tell us the Universe is expanding, but not into what. Those experts, along with NOVA shows on Quarks, black holes, the big bang theory, dark energy, wormholes, dark matter, nebuli, star nurseries and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity just made me feel more confused. The Hubble Telescope IMAX program humbled me and made me feel even less significant – showing graphically the fabric of space. Supposedly the light we see from the Andromeda galaxy started heading this way millions of years ago. The thought that it was just arriving now scrambled my brain.

    Thinking about all that was out there depressed me. I know that religious explanations for all this abound, but the immensity of the entire universe overwhelmed me. I guess there is a plan, but it must be one hell of a plan if there are figures like 93 billion light years floating around.

    So here I was on this warm summer night – trying to enjoy the starry heavens – but thoughts kept bouncing around in my head causing me minor anxiety. I decided then and there just to enjoy the galaxies and think pleasant thoughts, trying to be reasonably content with my life. I thought back to my childhood that I had enjoyed so much – family outings, my first Flexible Flyer sled, tormenting my sisters, exchanging valentines, and making lifelong friends. Then as I brought myself forward to about the third grade, the most significant memory of school came to me – Aunt Maud.

    There are quite a few memorial people who come into your life if you think about it. Parents, teachers, and friends – all who have a significant effect as you plug along. Certainly one of the earliest and best memories was of my Aunt Maud. She lived about a block from Central School where I was trying to get through third grade. Since I was new and an out of towner, my normal insecurities heightened. Didn’t know a soul in the small school and was nervous about trying to find new friends. During the first month or so these feelings intensified. I was chosen last for any athletic games and then completely bombed out, being the first to be eliminated in a Dodge Ball Tournament. One bully told me I was such a loser I should paint an L on my forehead.

    I was at a Saturday night birthday gathering for one of my uncles – sitting by myself, thinking that I didn’t know my cousins very well – they were all older than me. Aunt Maud saw me sitting alone and came over to sit beside me on the concrete stairs leading up to the kitchen. She said: “How are you doing Joe, why aren’t you out playing night games and laughing with the others. I looked up and lied, “Oh I just don’t feel like it tonight.” Aunt Maud asked: “Are you sick”? I said, “Just a little”, lying again. “I want you to come and see me on Monday Joe, when you have lunch time at school.” “Will you promise to do that for me?” “Yes”, I said, “I’ll be over at noon”.

    She had spoken to me as she always did, slow, soft and musical. She could quiet the most restless child with her voice. We went into the back yard and she had me look up at the sky. “Do you know where the Milky Way is?” She said. I didn’t, and she pointed it out to me – “what do you see”, she said. “Well just lots of stars in the night”. They have always been there – God arranged them, she said. But those in the Milky Way are special – they are starlight and stardust.

    The next school day went as usual – I sat towards the back of my homeroom. We were studying Geography. The teacher asked me to come up and locate Greenland on the map. I picked out Iceland and was immediately ridiculed by our instructor, Mr. Taylor. Of course then I had to stand up in front of the class as he asked me to identify Tasmania, Outer Mongolia, and Finland. Now I was 0 for 4 and got to listen to the snickers of the other students as I slunk back to my seat, head down.

    At noon I headed for Aunt Maud’s before anyone else could further shame me. I trudged up the street kicking a rock through the October leaves. I felt like a failure – the only thing that saved me from being an outright dunce was math – numbers were always safe.

    I climbed up the porch stairs and knocked on the kitchen door. Aunt Maud softly said: “Come in,” and immediately let me know that I never had to knock again – to just come in. She was tall and spare, dark hair with gray streaks – graceful wrinkles around her eyes – not pretty really, but beautiful like the pioneer women you see in old pictures. She leaned down dressed in her clean blue pinafore apron to give me a hug – smelling of fresh bread – her hands cool and firm. I took off my earmuffs, mittens, overshoes and coat and sat down at the kitchen table. Cutting a slice off a freshly baked loaf, she coated it from crust to crust with cream and then sprinkled sugar on top. This was not my normal twenty-cent school lunch with mushy string beans. It was the best delight in the world. She had the second one ready as I finished the first.

    “Tell me about your day, Joe”, as she looked at me with those tired pale blue eyes. I said it was going okay, but she wasn’t buying it. “No, Joe, really, tell me about school”. I flinched and told her about being picked last and being a fool in Geography plus a bunch of other times that I felt like a loser.

    She moved over close and took my face in her hands. “Don’t ever think or say that, you are not, not now, not ever, and your time has not yet come”. You remember that and that you are my favorite person in the world. I want you to come up at least twice a week during your lunch period”. She always looked directly in my eyes as she talked – and I could feel my concern and anxiety slip away. I knew that I was loved.

    And I did exactly as she ask – twice a week during third and part of fourth grade. She always had that kind expression on her face with a slight smile, always had time to sit down with me, never hurried, always had a treat for me. There was just something about her – her gaze exerted her faith in me when I had none in myself.

    Even at the tender age of eight, I knew there was something magical about my Aunt Maud. Somehow she built my confidence. I did well in school, made friends, and was accepted by my classmates. I eventually stopped going to see her except once every two weeks or so. She seemed to know exactly the right questions to ask – most of the time she wanted to know how I felt – specific questions, not the typical “how are you”? I didn’t understand then, not even now, how that soft voice and gaze brought such tranquility to me – and banished my phobias. After going to see her, I felt that I could deal with whatever challenges faced me at school and home. I liked the way she sat right next to me when we talked. Each time there was fresh bread with cream and sugar, or if I was really lucky, fried potatoes with pieces of bacon mixed in.

    I loved my Aunt – she was the kind of person that I wanted to grow up to be – everyone loved her – she never criticized, just helped each person to become their best self. She never cared for herself – the time she spent with others went way beyond just caring, since it calmed and strengthened them. I don’t know if she knew how special her gift was, I think she realized that in the encouragement she offered she gave away something of herself. Other members of the family had had experiences similar to mine – as I found out later.

    She died at 56 of a heart attack, when I was 15. I’ve never cried so hard in my life. At her funeral there were twice as many people as they had planned for – many that were unknown to the family but that had been touched by Aunt Maud. One of the main speakers sobbed so violently that he could not find his voice and finally sat down. I was sick that I had not gone to Aunt Maud and told her how much she had changed my life. But somehow, I think she knew and would have probably been embarrassed by my praise.

    As I lay on the lawn, I looked up the heavens again, with tears on my cheeks, thinking about the effect this marvelous woman had on me and many others. The Universe was still there with its endless measurements and definitions. But right now, as I looked at the Milky Way and thought about my Aunt Maud, all I could see was Starlight and Stardust.

    Joe Ollivier
    March 2013

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