Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Everybody's Aunt Peg


She's my second cousin by marriage or maybe my first by marriage, once-removed.
No matter. For as long as I can remember she's just been Aunt Peg. Everybody should have one.
She turned 95 this March and now lives in a nursing home in Marblehead, Mass. But that's only temporary -- during her recovery. You know, from her hip replacement surgery. Her second in two years. And she is recovering, making new friends in a new place along the way.

"How are you, deah," she greeted Kathy and me on July 4, a hint of her native New Rochelle, N.Y., still breaking through. It was time for music, singing, laughing and memories.
Around Aunt Peg, it always is. She played the violin every day into her 90s. And though her short term memory is largely shot -- "do you sing, too," she kept asking my brother Dennis -- she can still sing the words and tunes of most old-time favorites. The day after her surgery, she began knitting a beautiful blue wool pullover.

Life hasn't always been easy for Aunt Peg. She lost her husband 30 years ago and a son to cancer in his 50s. You'd never know it from her smile. It rarely deserts her. Her "Carlie" was a man of wit and letters, a man who took his young children to Ireland to try his hand at writing. He had his demons, too, including a penchant for the nip, but that's long forgotten in Peg's memories. She loves the story of the first time they met, when he heard her perform and drove her home in his father's Cadillac. He wasn't much of a dancer then, she confides, but he got better; she suspects he took lessons between their dates.

Peg's reach goes deep through the generations. Last time I visited, one of her grandsons, Andy, played the piano for two hours straight. (Music flows through the family's veins; Peg's brother was a professional trumpet player and she was no slouch on the violin herself.) A granddaughter, Emily, also in her mid-20s, visited three times the week of the 4th alone, coming all the way from Cambridge. But then someone stops by every day; daughter Margaret, who lives a mile away, often multiple times.

For all, these are journeys of love, not guilt. Peg is happy to enjoy the gathering; she needn't be its center of attention. On holidays, more often as not, these gatherings grow larger. My brother's family shows up and and mine. Sundry friends, and the high school and college classmates of Peg's grandchildren, drop over and share time with her before leaving. To them, too, she's Grandma Peg or Aunt Peg or just plain Peggy. She wouldn't have it any other way.

Stop by on one of these holidays, at Margaret's or sister Stephanie's in Carlisle, and you'll likely find Peg, like any Italian mother, in the kitchen, sampling the pasta, helping to throw together a salad, sharing a story. Until a few years back, she'd have had a scotch nearby. Now a rationed glass of wine will do, another of those silly concessions to age.

But some constants haven't changed. Even in the post-operative nursing home, when the music starts, Peg's face comes to life. Her eyes sparkle. Her fingers play their own harmony on an imaginary keyboard.

Soon, she hopes, she'll go back to the Salem assisted living center she has called home the last few years. I'll bet she gets there. And when we all gather around the piano sometime this fall, Peg as likely as not, will carefully put aside her walker, tap her toe and improvise a little dance to test her new hip. It'll be quite a party.


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October 1, 2005 at 10:36 PM  

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