Early morning phone calls seldom bring good news.
In about a week's time, I've gotten two before 7 a.m. Monday's came as I was getting ready for work.
My cousin Nancy was calling. Our Aunt Nellie Rose Lassiter was very sick, and her daughter, Cathy, wanted us to know.
Aunt Nellie Rose has been very sick before, many more times than anyone should have to endure. But she was a fighter. The smallest, but toughest, fighter in the family. I gave my children the news, and Anna grew teary eyed, recalling a missed chance to see her great aunt just the week before.
Aunt Nellie Rose was on my mind as I drove to work and while I sat at my desk. I kept thinking back to my favorite memories of her. When the cousins were all young, elementary school-age, we'd gather at Granddaddy's Rock Ridge farm on the weekends. I loved playing with my rough and tumble Lassiter cousins, although it came with a little danger. Those three girls could get in all sorts of trouble, and Aunt Nellie Rose could sense it. I was a little scared of her, especially when she started calling out her girls' full names. I swear, 40 years later I can close my eyes and take myself back to the dirt driveway or the area around the two-seater outhouse, where the mischief usually occurred. Shivers still run down my neck and across my arms when I recall her shrill cry: "Debbie Jo!" "Cathy Rose!" "Betsy Jean!" I don't know what she did to them when she caught them because I'd run the other way before she called "Lisa Helen!"
Those thoughts were fresh in my mind when Cathy called just before 9 Monday morning; I wasn't expecting to hear that my beloved aunt was gone. She always bounced back, but not this time. After collecting myself and making a few calls I stopped to gather my thoughts and to remember a much happier time.
Several years ago, Daddy had to have several heart procedures at Wake Med. Aunt Nellie Rose lived in Raleigh, so she called and volunteered to sit with me during one of them. I declined, saying I'd rather spend the time alone. I didn't want to make small talk; sometimes it's just too much effort to make small talk. She came anyway. At first, I was a little annoyed, but within a few minutes, I was so happy to have the company. It was the only time the two of us have ever spent time alone. When you're part of a big family, there's seldom time for one-on-one visits. We did make small talk at first, but then she started talking about my Daddy, who's 15 years her senior. Aunt Nellie Rose knew stories about my daddy that no one had ever shared. She gave me an insight to his life just before he was shipped overseas during World War II and the wife and child he came home to several years later. She didn't hesitate to share stories about his first marriage — stories that others had probably thought taboo to tell. She waited around with me to see her big brother after the procedure was over. She sort of filled in for my mother, who has Alzheimer's and was not up to sitting with me all day at the hospital. I was very grateful for the fill-in mom, which is how I view all of my aunts.
We haven't seen the Lassiters much in recent years. Each family has had its own sicknesses to contend with. But Cathy brought Aunt Nellie Rose and Uncle Jimmy to see Daddy and Mama when she could. This spring, they came to Wilson soon after Daddy's rapid mental decline began. I wasn't sure if he'd even know them. During the visit, I looked for clues to see if Daddy really understood this was his sister sitting in the wheelchair in front of him. I wasn't convinced he knew, until it came time for her to leave. Aunt Nellie Rose scooted over to where Daddy was sitting, reached out and held his hands and told him goodbye. He looked her straight in the eyes and said, "I've loved you since the day you were born." My heart skipped a beat. It was one of those moments when time stops; I'll never forget it.
When the Lassiters came back just over a week ago, more than six months had passed. Daddy has grown increasingly worse both physically and mentally. The morning they were supposed to come, I called Aunt Nellie Rose. I wanted to prepare her for what she would see. Daddy was hallucinating that day, a side effect from an antibiotic to treat recurring pneumonia, and it's not pretty to see. She said they wouldn't come if I didn't want them to. "No, no," I told her. "I want you to come; it's important that you come."
So all of the siblings gathered at my parents' house a week ago Saturday. I think we all sensed it would be the last time they'd all be together, but it was my daddy who was the sickest, and the one everyone assumed would be next to go. We talked, laughed and told stories. It was almost like old times. Someone suggested we take a photo of all of them, but we didn't because Daddy looked so sick. It's not how we wanted to remember him.
Whenever the siblings gathered, we always took photos. We have photos from birthday parties, Christmas parties and anniversaries. But my favorites are from the pig-pickings we had when the cousins were teenagers.
The whole crowd would gather at Granddaddy's farm for one weekend in October. It was a homecoming for the siblings who had lived there and the grandchildren who had played in the fields. I find it very fitting that Aunt Nellie Rose died in October, the month for homecomings.