It’s Halloween. The sun blinds me on this brisk fall morning as I fill bags with candy for the trick-or-treaters who will come by for our neighborhood candy hunt. I set with care the individual bags on our stoop, flanking the iron jack-o-lantern decoration we have enjoyed for years. I feel a tinge of grief since we won’t be home to welcome the goblins and ghouls. Part of me wishes that I was heading out with little ones in tow, gathering treats and enjoying their laughter as they spend hours sorting and trading Kit Kats for Reese’s Cups when they get home. But we have other plans today.
They will be worth it.
We pile in the car to begin our drive. For much of the trip, my adult daughter Marinna, who is fascinated with family history, pummels her dad with questions about his Aunt Myrtle. He savors the details as he remembers. “Well, she was a survivor of The Great Depression and World War II. Aunt Myrtle was always interested in me. I felt like she really cared about me,” he recalls. “As long as I can remember she has had white hair. Such beautiful white hair.” As he continues, he smiles, “I remember going to her house every Halloween. She gave us the best candy.”
We arrive at our destination a few hours later. Pulling up to the stone ranch home adjacent to a narrow bay, we stretch as we get out of the car. Nearby, another car of masked folks is pulling up. We file up the walkway quaintly decorated with pumpkins and into the bustle of the newly renovated house. Aunt Myrtle’s son has recently moved into his childhood home after she moved to assisted living. I peek my head around the corner of the spacious entryway, and I am amazed how many people have assembled during this COVID season.
Some things require us to gather.
The sun shines brightly through the expansive window in the gathering area. The water wrestles wavy as the flags on the nearby docks blow briskly in the wind. We migrate, visiting with relatives we haven’t seen in years. It feels awkward to see them and to get too close, equally awkward not to give them a hug. Small talk ensues.
“Good to see you again! How have you been during this crazy time?”
Little clusters mill around the central dining table. Picture books of black-and-white photos are on display.
“Oh, look at that! It’s Myrtle in high school!”
I pick up a large photo and show it to my daughter, “This is your great-great-grandma and grandpa.” She smiles.
I hear others question “who is who and what is what” as they relish the numerous treasures. We gather, overlooking the realities of our history and recalling disappointments and losses, triumphs and rifts.
The past connects us, and we have come together to celebrate something grand.
On the far end of the room, adjacent to the stone fireplace, sits the guest of honor. We join the queue for a chance to enjoy a few moments with her. She sits proudly on a wooden chair, dressed in an orange sweater with a colorful fall scarf tied around her neck. Marinna and I move in carefully, as if not to bump this precious antique. I speak loudly, “Hello Aunt Myrtle. It’s me Maryhelen.” Her eyes tell me she has no idea who I am. I clarify, “Keith’s wife, Frankie and Marlene’s daughter-in-law?” There is no glimmer of recollection, and she can barely hear a thing, but it doesn’t matter. She is taking in every moment as she sits. A queen in her glory.
Marinna, who is mesmerized, engages. She asks, “When you think of your life, Aunt Myrtle, what do you think most about?” Myrtle pause for just a moment and answers, “My husband and my kids.” She remembers them, and then she continues, “I am ready to go.”
We visit a bit longer and move along.
Other family join us via FaceTime and Zoom, converging with others from around the country. Little ones show off their Halloween costumes while another young cousin pulls out his violin and begins to play. The whole room huddles around Aunt Myrtle to listen. I glance throughout the room at the great cloud of witnesses. Faces are gleaming and eyes are twinkling as we turn to honor the most beautiful white-haired lady we know and love.
With smiles under our masks, we sing out a chorus like we have never done before. She gleams and receives all the awe and goodness she can contain. I take a deep breath and listen while I consider the holy moment.
“Happy birthday, dear Myrtle. Happy 100th to you!”
Maryhelen Martens is a lover of whimsy and play, beauty and depth, all of which she experiences in her relationships. She finds life in authentic conversation, walking alongside others and ultimately Jesus – who has been so kind. Each day, she draws from a larger bowl of grace for herself and others. Maryhelen, a mom of three, currently lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with Keith, her husband and co-laborer of 29 years.