Before I realized that I was going to embark on a journey as a Personal History Consultant and start my own business, I would interview my great-aunt Gert to learn about our family history. When she passed away, I offered to give a eulogy at her funeral. My only regret was that I did not write this before she passed and read it to her. I believe the things she taught me are so important that I'm sharing them as part of my Reason Season Lifetime project. Aunt Gert fits into the category of Lifetime friend, aunt, and surrogate grandmother. So, here are the top 10 rules to live by that I learned from Aunt Gert. Please substitute your own happy memories as you listen.
#10: Life doesn’t always go the way that you planned or the way that you want, but you make the best of it and you realize there is a reason for your unanswered prayers.
I was in my 20s when Aunt Gert moved into Fox Hill. I remember from the day that she moved in that she had one wish. She wished that she would never be forced to live in Clark House and lose her independence. Aunt Gert took care of herself and was hardly ever sick. And, as we know, she spent her last few months in Clark House anyway. While there, she was appreciative of her visitors and she forced herself to get up and go to the dining room for dinner. She met new friends and she was a real trooper during her 103rd birthday party.
I don’t know if Aunt Gert realized why God made her wait a little longer than she planned or than she wanted. But, I think that, although Aunt Gert didn’t get what SHE wanted or planned, her sacrifice of staying on this earth a little longer than she wanted, gave all of us, especially my mom and Marianne, the appropriate amount of time to really say, ‘goodbye’. So, although God doesn’t always answer your prayers according to your schedule, He usually has a reason for it.
#9 Manners are still important – learn and practice them.
When we were kids, my parents would bring us to visit Aunt Gert and Uncle Chet. We always wore our Sunday best. We spoke when we were spoken to, said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, and sat quietly while the adults talked. As we got older and went to see Aunt Gert at Fox Hill, we still wore our Sunday best to the dining room and, following her lead, we said ‘good morning’ and ‘good afternoon’ to everyone we met in the hallway. When Aunt Gert came for dinner or a tea party at our house, she always told us how much she appreciated the meal, the ride, and the company. Aunt Gert taught us how to be respectful and how to make everyone feel special just by practicing our manners. Etiquette matters.
#8 Don’t be afraid to try new things – but not new things that violate rule #9.
I was amazed 5 or 6 years ago when Aunt Gert took me to the Fox Hill computer room. She was learning to use a personal computer and a mouse and wanted to show me how successful she was. As an aside, I even tried to get her to use email, but that was a bit of a stretch. Despite the fact that she was willing to take a class and learn about computers while in her 90s, Aunt Gert never tried new television shows or music that she thought were improper. So, you’re never too old to try new things – just make sure they are the “right” new things.
#7 Cultivate at least one hobby that you love – have a passion for something.
Even up until two weeks ago, Aunt Gert was fretting about the NFL negotiations and the fact that we wouldn’t be able to watch Patriots games in the fall. And, she was disgusted with the Red Sox losing streak. She always loved to play bridge, and when she couldn’t play anymore, she helped teach new players. She loved her plants and took time everyday to care for them. Her passion for these hobbies and interests kept her going – they gave her something to live for.
#6 Know what you want and only take what you need.
Aunt Gert liked a little coffee with a lot of water or just warm water plain. She liked ginger ale (or as she called it two weeks ago – the spicy water), lobster, grilled hamburgers, lots of ketchup, and molten chocolate lava cake. She liked these items so much that if she was eating them, she’d surprise you and eat a full portion. If she was eating at Fox Hill’s five-star dining room, however, she’d often order a half portion of her meal. She knew what she liked and she knew what she didn’t. She knew how much she needed and she only took what she needed. I hope that I follow her lead and learn what I really want and what I really need before I’m 103.
#5 Keep your social calendar full.
For a long time, I lived out-of-state. I’d try to write to Aunt Gert as much as possible and she’d write me back. When I moved back to Massachusetts, I would try to go to visit and I’d feel guilty that I didn’t make the drive more often. I remember one time when I had more than one reason to be in the area, so I called to schedule a visit. To my surprise, she couldn’t fit me in her schedule! She had plans every night and on some nights, multiple plans. Aunt Gert taught me that you have to stay engaged – being with other people keeps you “alive”.
#4 Let people know that you think about them.
I started to tell you that my earliest memory of Aunt Gert was when we would go to her house for our annual Christmas visit. During that visit, she’d present me and my siblings with a small, gray bank that she received from the gas company. She’d very carefully lay out a newspaper on the carpet and give each of us a plastic sandwich bag. Then, she’d dump out the bag and instruct me to separate the coins evenly between the three of us. Before we left, she’d always give each of us a handmade Christmas tree ornament. Every week throughout the year, Aunt Gert would use coupons at the grocery store and place the money she saved into the bank for us. On Sunday as I was writing this, I realized that she probably thought about us EVERY week of EVERY year of my childhood! Even after she passed away, my memories of her are making me feel special. So, let people know that you think about them in whatever way works for you.
#3 There are many kinds of love – you just have to be open.
As a child, I can remember my parents explaining to me that Aunt Gert and Uncle Chet lived together but they weren’t married. As a kid, I didn’t really understand that relationship because I didn’t understand the concept of a roommate. As a young adult, I didn’t understand that relationship because I thought it would violate Rule #9, the manners rule. But, as I got to know Aunt Gert better, I realized how much Aunt Gert loved Uncle Chet, just not in the way that I understood love. The night Uncle Chet passed away, I was nearby visiting my boyfriend in Wellesley. We went over to sit with her and give her a little comfort. I think that was when I realized how much she really loved him.
Years later, we had many talks over dinner about relationships. We talked about her marriage to Uncle Frank and how similar or different it was to my relationship with my husband, Richard or my sister’s relationship with her husband, Jimmy. We talked about her relationship with Uncle Chet. During our family tree talks, she told me about her relationships with her parents and her siblings. She always told me about Alan and Marianne and how much she depended on them, how much she appreciated them. She knew that even though Marianne was not her blood relative, Marianne, especially, was like a daughter to her. She also knew that since my grandmother passed away, nearly 30 years ago, my mother has thought of Aunt Gert like a mother. I’m thankful that Aunt Gert was open to all relationships that helped fulfill her life.
#2 Children keep you young.
When my sister and I were in early elementary school, Aunt Gert and Uncle Chet took us to see the Ice Capades. I remember standing in our driveway with them as we said goodbye to our parents and I remember the steep steps in the Boston Garden. This was during the time of my life when I was so shy that I nearly refused to speak… So I can only imagine that they spent most of the show trying to get me to talk to them. Despite the fact that I probably was not very communicative, I always treasured that experience with two very special adults willing to spend a day with two children.
Over the past 12 years, Aunt Gert has told my parents how lucky they are that they have grandchildren. She always said that children keep you young. I think she viewed children as a blessing to her as well, even if the children were not ‘technically’ her grandchildren or great-grandchildren. For example, Last year, Aunt Gert got a kick out of watching my daughter, Grace, learn how to dive and swim in our backyard pool. Aunt Gert was so touched when she realized that Grace has asked her kindergarten class to pray for her ever since she moved into Clark House. Two weeks ago, Aunt Gert was amazed that my son, Noah, could make an origami crane right in front of her. Every quarter, Aunt Gert would sit with my niece, Mikayla, to admire her report card and talk about how proud she was of Mikayla. And, my other niece, Alyssa would keep Aunt Gert laughing as she bounced around from activity to activity usually settling into a game of ‘Go Fish’ or ‘Old Maid’ with Aunt Gert on the couch. So, spend time with children, even if they are not your own, even if you are 103 -- children can keep you young.
#1 The absolute most important and most repeated piece of advice that Aunt Gert ever gave me – Don’t wait to do what you want to do. By the time you get around to it, it might be too late.
It’s funny to me that I’ve summarized my experiences with Aunt Gert into these 10 rules, because Aunt Gert was not one to give me verbal advice even if I asked for it. She did state this one rule to me so many times in the past twenty years, that I will never ever forget it. Don’t wait to do what you want to do. So, whether it’s a trip you want to take or a house you want to build or a car you want to buy or a person you want to marry or a career you want to start or baby you want to conceive or a dog you want to adopt or a hobby you want to start, as long as what you want to do follows rules 2 through 10, then do it. Whatever it is, do it now - Before it’s too late.