My favorite aunt just turned 89. Her red curly hair has turned gray; in my mind, it frames her face like a halo. As far as I’ve known, beneath that halo, there’s always been a smile.
Aunt Marianna has brought a smile to my face plenty of times. Take for instance one Thanksgiving when I visited her house. I brought an uncomfortable marrow-deep chill with me and couldn’t get warm. Aunt Marianna poured hot water into a basin and set it on the floor before me. “Here,” she said. “Soak your feet. It seems that when feet are warm, the whole body feels warmer.” It worked. I smiled. I smiled too when she made her typical breakfast of fried rice, a tradition carried on from being a missionary in Japan.
She’s an adventurer. She and her husband back-packed around Europe when they were in their 60s; over fence stiles and into pastures of curd-chewing cows and wooly sheep. Years later, those stories enticed me to do a walking trip through the Cotswalds in England.
She’s an inspiration. From early on, she and my uncle opened their home and lives to international students – and in my adult years I was motivated to do the same.
When I taught a graduate class on aging, I asked who had a role model for growing older. Not a hand went up. Every student, most in their 20s, looked puzzled.. “Older” might have been age 40. Their assignment? Choose a grandparent-age person who they admired, and write about that person.
Now in her late 80s, she regularly reads stories to five classes in a nearby school. Reading isn’t “just reading,” it comes with visuals, items to touch, and conversations. Easy? Aunt Marianna has an inherited hearing loss.
Now in her late 80s, she walks a mile around the college track. Easy? Not with health issues that come with “almost 90.”
Now, in her late 80s, Marianna and her daughter, Sharon, regularly visit female inmates in the county jail who are awaiting trial, and the state prison. In the county jail, they sing along with a CD and have a Bible study.
Easy? No. Some days, at the county jail, mother and daughter are turned away due to a lockdown in the jail.
The prison is worse. “Easy” is not a word found anywhere. The guards don’t assume Marianna is a benign little old lady – dressed neatly in a red brocade kimono top. Who knows? She could be carrying contraband, a crowbar, drugs, a chainsaw, explosives, chocolates. She has to empty her pockets, pull up her pants legs and show the bottoms of her shoeless feet; then, because she cannot go through the metal detector due to her pacemaker, she is “wanded.” She also has to point out her two hearing aids and show a written statement from her doctor for wearing them.
Some days are more worse than others. The prison does not allow visitors to wear hats, hooded jackets, or carry an umbrella. During the Christmas holidays, just before her 89th birthday, Marianna got drenched in a cold downpour while waiting to go in. Out of sensible concern for herself and her mother, Sharon urged, “Let’s go home, Mom. We can come back another day.” My role model with a dripping halo could have done just that: shed wet clothes for a cozy robe, put her feet up, and sipped a cup of steaming tea; instead, she replied, “We’re already here. I want to see one more woman.” These are not nice women and nice visits. Several women they regularly visit are in for murder. All the same, the stringently searched angels of grace and mercy buy the inmate lunch, read the Bible, pray, and encourage her.
Now in her late 80s, my aunt’s home and kitchen table welcome college students, long-time international friends, and ex-inmates. Much like the father of the Prodigal Son, when she heard an ex-inmate was coming to visit, she set out a festive table with lit candles and brewed hot tea, and greeted her with a warm embrace. The ex-inmate could have repulsed many people. Easy? Not for a judgmental person. But, even though Marianna has a strong moral compass, she isn’t judgmental. When confronted with someone’s hideous and unspeakable crime, she asks, “What would Jesus do?” She manifests the hands and face of Jesus through open arms and the gift of unconditional love and grace.
All the same, she acknowledges that what she does wouldn’t work for everyone.
“My elderly next door neighbor would be horrified if she found out I was entertaining ex-inmates in my home,” she says with a soft chuckle.
Aunt Marianna isn’t climbing Mt. Everest, wrestling alligators, cleaning up a town after a hurricane, saving the whales, or learning to hang-glide, but she’s an adventurer. Her adventures are a prescription of her own. They match her God-given personality, passions, setting, and resources. And, her adventurers are encouraged by a family of cheerleading children, grand-children, great-grandchildren, and a host of other people who call her “mom” and “grandma.”
Age Doesn’t Matter When it Comes to Adventure