My Aunt Polly died recently. A vibrant woman, she claimed to have, among other things, dated a French prince and befriended members of the mafia in Italy. And all of this, according to her, took place during the “slow years,” when America was at war or recovering from one. Imagine what I did during the “boom years,” she mused.
Polly was my grandmother’s sister. They were raised in segregated Arkansas at a time when women, especially colored women, had few options. Yet Polly, like my grandmother, never took kindly to limits. They were pioneering women who tested society’s boundaries by shortening their hems and raising their voices.
Growing up, I could always find Polly at family functions by following the trail of beads and peacock feathers that had fallen from her dress. Her hats were so big they announced themselves from blocks away. And she was known to wear fur stoles with the animal heads still attached (as a warning, she said, to those men who dared step out of line). Even as a little girl I knew Polly would teach me a few things.
If your dress slip were hanging, Polly would tell you, regardless of your age or station in life. She would point out lipstick stains on your teeth and mispronunciations you “quite frankly should be ashamed of.” Polly was vocal.
So when, months before she died, she appeared on a morning television show to complain about how hard the harsh winter had been on her and other elderly people who lived alone, I knew the end was nearing. Polly wasn’t bedecked in brooches. Her cheeks weren’t rouged. And she wasn’t wearing a single sequin. She looked lost which was startling for a woman who always knew her place.
But like many senior citizens who live unassisted, Polly needed a helping hand. By all accounts she looked sickly. But how long had she been ill? More important, why hadn’t I asked, sent a Christmas card, or stopped by for a visit? I suppose I thought I was too busy.
Months later she died of natural causes. It was then that I realized that I must do better by our elderly. I must offer help before they’re forced to ask. I believe they have earned it. I believe Polly would have shooed me away even if I’d offered to fly her to a warmer climate or offset her heating bills, but I know she would have winked proudly at the offer. I believe I can care for the elderly without embarrassing them, and I believe firmly they deserve this much.
My generation must learn to anticipate the needs of our older folk, and act in a manner that not only honors the advice they’ve passed down, but the experiences that taught them as much. Now I understand this. If in life Polly taught me to act like a lady, then in death she taught me how to treat one.
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