Life lessons from Aunt Elaine


By Mary Petersen

My husband’s Aunt Elaine is turning 95 this month. Forty-nine years ago when he moved to California, he stayed with Aunt Elaine’s family and she is like a second mother to him. In fact, she’s like a second mother to everyone who knows her.  She’s a grandmother of 11 and a great-grandmother of 21. Every Christmas she remembers each family by baking cookies and breads for all of us. (That’s a lot of baking!) At parties, Aunt Elaine is dressed in matching pastels with color-coordinated shoes and accessories.  She still lives alone, but lately she and her family are considering whether it’s time for her to have more assistance.

Throughout her life, Aunt Elaine has enjoyed, perhaps insisted on, independence. Her soft-spoken demeanor (I have never heard her raise her voice) belies her inner tenacity and quiet strength. When Elaine and her family moved to California and her husband didn’t have work, she took a part-time office job. Then she attended community college, earned an AA degree in business, and in her forties, became the office manager of a company overseeing mostly male employees.

Having lived alone since her husband passed away over 30 years ago, Aunt Elaine has created a fulfilling lifestyle centered on her family. She delights in new experiences and is fortunate to have traveled extensively, eagerly learning about other cultures and creating scrapbooks of her life-changing excursions. 

It isn’t that Aunt Elaine has never faced depression. She has encountered hardships and tragedies, most recently, the death of her youngest daughter. Yet despite misfortune, she faces each day with resilience and strength. Accepting the bittersweet ebb and flow of life helps her to carry on. “When I feel down,” she says, “I try to think positively, recall good memories, keep busy and read inspirational stories.”  

Perhaps Aunt Elaine’s greatest asset is her flexibility. Years ago when she needed to relocate out of state, she looked at it as an adventure, an opportunity to explore new sights and relationships.When the time came to renew her driver’s license at 90 years old, Aunt Elaine made the decision not to renew. “I think it’s time,” she said. “When I get in the car, I feel anxious, and that’s not a smart way to be behind the wheel. I’m hanging up my keys.” Such wisdom, flexibility, and dare I say maturity?

Now she has the same perspective. When given the choice to stay with her daughter, have caretakers live in her home, or live in her own apartment in an assisted living facility, she determined that the latter was the best choice for her. “I’m ready to go on. I have been depending on others more and more,” she says.  “This will be a whole new adventure. And I think I noticed a few men there on our last visit.” 

I’m making a mental note to evoke Aunt Elaine as I move through each stage in my life. Not resentful or resistant, she embraces each transition with flexibility and an open heart. She teaches me to accept life as it unfolds, to bend without breaking as I adjust to ever-changing circumstances.

Mary Petersen is a retired COC English Instructor, 30 year SCV resident, and two-time breast cancer survivor.

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