Whenever the chickens saw her coming, feathers would go flying as they nervously scurried and flapped and ran in all directions looking for a hiding place. The same tiny woman with the big voice and the skinny legs that scattered the grain, occasionally got one of them by the neck never to be seen again. And apparently that wasn’t lost on the chickens as the sight of her seemed to set off some sort of silent alarm.
That tiny woman was my mother’s sister, my Aunt Shirley. She died yesterday afternoon at the age of 79 of ovarian cancer. She died in her sleep, peacefully and without pain. At home in her beloved farmhouse and surrounded by her four children, she slipped easily from this world and into the next. And for that we are grateful.
Aunt Shirley was one of those people born exactly into the correct time and circumstance. She was born to be a farmwife and by all standards, she excelled. By the time she could walk, she could catch a chicken, wring it’s neck and fry it up for dinner. She was the oldest of five children, and at her mother’s knee she learned how to tend a garden, put food on the table and look after her siblings. And then at the tender age of eleven, her mother died leaving her to become a mother to her own siblings.
What I will remember about Aunt Shirley is that like my mother, she had impossibly blue eyes and an easy smile. She was a small person with a slight build, but had a gentle sort of authority about her — the kind of authority that tames small horses and wild children, that no doubt came from running the farmhouse and helping her father raise her siblings. Her face was beautifully etched with the years and weather-worn from a life spent working outdoors. She always spoke at a startling decibel, perhaps from years of shouting over the wind and acres and her voice was baritone and gravelly from living on a steady diet of black coffee, cigarettes and little else for 60 years.
She wasn’t overly affectionate, but she was friendly and always made you feel welcome in her home. And, as my mother likes to say, she could outwork seven men. She didn’t know how to sit down and rest and it was a blessing that she didn’t have to until the very end, because to sit and be waited on, to her, would have been life’s ultimate cruelty.
She wasn’t one for going to church, but she had a heart to serve and the gift of hospitality. No matter that you might have shown up unannounced, she would magically put together a meal fit for a king. Which was not good news for the chickens. She loved everyone she knew with eggs from her chickens and with the bounty from her garden. She always had something fabulous growing somewhere — apples, cantaloupe, tomatoes — and would insist that you “Go pick ya some, they’ll just rot if you don’t.” And then if you didn’t pick what she thought was an ample supply, she would march you back out to the garden and load you up.
In her 79 years of life, she seldom ventured beyond the bounds of the county and as far as I know, she never really cared to. She had her farm, her garden, her chickens and her horses to tend to and that was all she needed. She had four children, six grandchildren and a multitude of nieces and nephews who were all crazy about her. And she was smart enough to know that beyond the blue skies and cornfields upon which she gazed from her kitchen window for more than 50 years, there wasn’t anything, anywhere, better than that.
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Photos: Aunt Shirley and Sean on the steps of the farmhouse and above, the never changing view from Aunt Shirley’s kitchen window.