Ursula Carlson: My family’s sweetheart

 My aunt, Tante Baiba in Grand Rapids, Mich., is closing in on 102 years. She still lives in her little “circle house” as my granddaughter Abby named it three summers ago — to my aunt’s delight — and is doing well.
The youngest of four daughters, Tante Baiba grew up at a time when my grandfather still kept a horse and buggy or horse and sleigh for travel, the girls bundled up in wool undercoats and fur overcoats, with wolfskin blankets tucked around their legs. As a girl she stuffed earthworms into her dress pockets just to show her older sisters that she was no namby pamby.
Today, she is equally undaunted, describing how she cleverly managed to drag a folding ladder down into the basement because she wanted to turn off the water line to the outside spigot only to discover that after climbing the ladder, she didn’t have the strength to budge the stiff faucet. When I asked how she got the ladder back upstairs, she laughed: “slowly dragged it up a step at a time.”
Although Tante Baiba thinks nothing of going out into her snowpacked backyard to bury her compostable fruits and veggies, she admits that her three-pronged cane is a bit lurchy and she has to watch her balance.
She’ll shovel the snow off her back steps, too, but says that it’s probably not wise to try the driveway.
Since COVID-19, she has not gone grocery shopping, and her macular degeneration keeps her from reading the Latvian newspaper, so she is restricted to the local radio station for morning local news and the television for evening newscasts. During the past year she routinely quizzed me on American voting procedures, especially wanting me to explain the electoral system which she maintained was illogical.
Given her reluctance to ask anyone for anything, I assumed she wouldn’t be voting in November’s election. But I was wrong. She voted. Now she worries that the United States is flirting with fascism. She sees Hitleristic behaviors in our former president.
Self-sufficient as she is, the past year has shown us that Tante Baiba needed help. Suddenly she would be hungry and would grab whatever was ready-made, which usually was nothing since she generally cooked from scratch. Frustrated, she either lost her appetite as she struggled with frying a frozen chicken leg in the pan, or resorted to opening a can of soup which was not very filling.
My cousins, my brother, and I discussed various options. Finally we settled on Meals on Wheels and fresh fruits from the market which another cousin delivers on Mondays.
Bank business and investments were too difficult for her to manage simply because her vision was a problem. One cousin took on finances; my other cousin took on health and insurance issues. We all participate in three-way emails and phone calls since we live elsewhere: California, Arizona, and Nevada. My cousin on my father’s side (a Grand Rapids resident) fills my aunt’s daily pill organizer for the week. My brother checks in with her and peels her an orange and opens cans or does whatever else presents itself. It takes a village, as they say.
Today when I talked to Tante Baiba she wanted to talk about Dick, the guy who lives next door. She knows him from the day he and his family first moved in, Dick holding a baby girl in the crook of his arm. Later there was another daughter and Tante Baiba watched them both grow up.
She was there after his heart attack, his divorce, his life alone. She baked him brownies and cookies; he mowed her lawn. She never set one foot in his house, but he was a part of her life. The other day an ambulance came and took him out via a stretcher. She says he probably won’t be back and it makes her sad. We agreed that change is unsettling, no matter what.
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.

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