Thursday, March 15, 2012

When Irish Eyes...

I first met Aunt Betty when I was very young. I remembered the bright red hair and the lilt to her voice. She was short, round, and had a Minnesotan accent. She was darling. Whenever we'd go to her house, we filled up on hard candy that she insisted we pick out of her special glass dish.

I hadn't seen her in many, many years. But when I moved to Arizona to live with a cousin for a short time at age eighteen, there she was. Her husband, Uncle Don, had died and she'd lived somewhere in the vicinity of our cousin and her family ever since.

Aunt Betty was their "Nana", and they knew her much better than we did. What we thought were cute little phrases, the grandkids viewed as annoying. What we thought was a lovely casserole called "Wednesday Night Special", the grandkids viewed as gaggy, and the 'same thing every week.' Their parents, (their mom was my cousin) got Aunt Betty set up in a nice little apartment in Mesa. Once a week, the younger set would drive over there to spend some time with her. Teenagers only was the rule. She wanted to know all about us and would have the cheesey, potato-y casserole with the crumbled potato chips on top waiting.

Whenever she needed a ride to the store, she'd try to buy me something, a tube of lipstick or a hair product I used. Sometimes I'd have to insist that she didn't spend her limited money on me. I adored this lady.

To me, Aunt Betty was larger than life. She'd been my father's favorite Aunt growing up, and I'd heard so many wonderful stories about her. I felt happy to be able to be around her so much while I lived in Arizona. But it was explained to me by a teenager or two that Nana used to live with them, before she got her own place, and that since they had to deal with her every single day, it wasn't always 'fun'. Nevertheless, I still viewed her as somewhat glorified in my eyes. She was just a cute, spunky, red-headed little lady with a great sense of humor. She called me "DollBaby" and bought me stuff and made yummy food for me once a week.... What's not to love?

My favorite memory of Aunt Betty was on her birthday. She was Irish to the core, and in honor of that, her daughter and son in law took her out to dinner. The rest of us joined them. We went to an authentic Irish restaurant there, Aunt Betty's favorite. She laughed and her eyes twinkled, and she had herself a beer. It was adorable to watch how much she was enjoying herself. But the best moment of that evening was when they presented Aunt Betty with a beautifully wrapped box, large silken bow and all. As she removed the paper and took the item out of it's box, it was evident that she was already touched, no matter what it was. You could see the, "For....ME???" in her eyes. But the kicker was when she figured out exactly what the item was, and the thought meant behind it. It was a ceramic of an Irish-type dwelling...that was also a music box. It played "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling", Aunt Betty's favorite song.

She immediately began to cry.

So did everyone at the table. Because even though she was Nana and she bugged them, and she didn't get around very well anymore, and she made the same thing every Wednesday night for dinner....she was their mother. She was their grandmother. And she was my great-Aunt. Her phrases and her chronic Wheel of Fortune-watching, her piles of magazines in her apartment, her nicknames for each one of us, and her some-times annoying ways....were all a part of her. And she'd been a part of us for a long, long time. An integral piece to the puzzle that was our lives. And none of us could imagine our days without her.

She played that music box more than once before we even left the restaurant.

It's been twenty-four years since that birthday. My cousins moved from Arizona and went to San Diego, a place they'd always gone for vacations. They took Aunt Betty with them, and it was said that she was not doing so well. I worried about her and wrote her a few letters.

A couple of years later we got the news that she'd passed away. I later learned that she hadn't been in very good health when we'd all lived together in Arizona...she'd actually been in a lot of pain then; I'd had no idea. She never griped. All she did was make casserole, watch Wheel of Fortune, and buy stuff for loved ones, whether they wanted it or not. Never heard her complain once, the dear soul.

So when I hear that song, "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling", I'm suddenly back in that little Irish pub, watching Aunt Betty drain her beer, and then seeing her open that treasured music box. Her Irish eyes not only smiled that night; they glistened, too.

Here's to you, Aunt Betty. I'm sure you've found your pot of gold by now.

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