I work in a small clothing store in a small town in the middle of Alaska. Moving here was most definitely not my choice, but here I am, and itís entirely my fault for being "shiftless, jobless, career-less, and pointless", as my sister so eloquently put it.
When Great-Aunt Nelda got so sick, and started needing round-the-clock care, and Medicaid would only pay for nurses during the day, it fell on the family to find someone to take care of her the rest of the time. And they elected me. Unanimously. Without much discussion. Despite my objections to the contrary, including but not limited to the fact that I hardly knew anything about Great-Aunt Nelda except she was crazy, lived in Alaska (no idea why), didnít own a TV, and didnít have internet access.
"Jolie, stop being so dramatic and ridiculous," said my mother, ever the polished, unruffled, sophisticated, untouchable woman, ticking off the reasons why I had to do as they said. "You live in an apartment thatís smaller than my dressing room." (True.) "You work for a used clothing store." (True.) "You have no bills." (Not true.) "You have no husband, no boyfriend, no fiancť, no children." (Mostly true. I do have a boyfriend. I have just chosen not to introduce him.) "The rest of us have jobs, steady paychecks, mortgages, commitments. You have none of those." (Although true, those are not anything I want, except maybe the paychecks.) "And Great-Aunt Nelda, despite her senility and her advanced age of 102 and the fact that she lives in Alaska, is family." (Another truth.)
Mother laid a hand on my knee, and said in the tone she used when I was a kid and didnít want to eat my peas or clean my room, "You are going to live with Great-Aunt Nelda. You are going to care for her and her home. You are going to make sure she is comfortable, and you are going to call us once a week. Understand?"
I nodded, mutely. And here I am.
"Jolie?" Nelda quavers as I come in from another hard day of selling boots and flannel shirts to fishermen, and long johns and scrunchies to their wives.
"Yes, Great-Aunt Nelda?" I respond, going to her room, where she lays in bed, propped up on her hand-embroidered pillows like a tiny bird.
"How was your day at the shop?"
"Oh, it was fine," I say, fluffing her pillows and folding an afghan that had fallen to the floor, wondering for the billionth time why I even took the job at the store, except to get out of the house. I donít need the money; the family pays for all my expenses, and as they insist, I have no commitments.
"How was yours? The nurses treating you okay?"
"Certainly are, my dear." She shifts slightly, her long grey hair fanning around her head like a halo. Another mystery: she never cut it like every other elderly woman I had ever known. "Now how long have you lived here with me?"
"Not very long, Great-Aunt Nelda," I reply. "About six months now, I guess." Guess, my foot. Iíve been here five months, three weeks, two days, and ten hours. But thereís no point in being exact, and if I say it aloud, it sounds like I resent being there. Which I do, but only a little. And only because I miss my boyfriend. "Can I help you with something?"
"Why, yes, dear, will you go in the hallway closet and get a box for me? Itís on the very top shelf, probably in the back, wooden, doesnít look like much."
I place the afghan on the bed where she can reach it if she gets cold and head to the hallway. Iíd never even noticed that closet, and Iím surprised when the opened door reveals a veritable treasure-trove ofÖstuff. Beautiful vintage coats, a neatly-stacked pile of table linens, boxes of gamesÖ I sift through everything to find the wooden box, which is indeed very plain and unfinished.
"Great-Aunt Nelda, Iíve got the box," I say as I re-enter her room. She appears to be sleeping, so I set the box down on the floor next to her dresser, and cross the room to her bed. I reach to brush her hair from her forehead, and sheís absolutely still and quiet. Even when sleeping, she usually makes small noises and small movements - her eyelids fluttering, her breath like a gentle breeze.
I canít move for what seems like hours, until I notice sheís holding a piece of paper, "Jolie" written on it in strong letters. With a shaking hand, I remove it from her fingers and read:
Dearest Great-Niece Jolie,
Thank you immeasurably for your help these last five months, three weeks, two days, and twelve hours. Despite your reluctance to come here, you did so anyway, and have done an admirable job of caring for me and my home.
I know you have many questions about me, and Iím sorry I have passed on and cannot answer them. Instead, I give you the next best thing: all that I have is now yours. And in that box I asked you to fetch is the story of my life, my loves, my all.
With love, and best wishes for your new life here,
Nelda Jolene Curtis Schaefenburg Riley.
I grab the box, sit down on the bed next to Great-Aunt Neldaís lifeless form, and begin spreading its contents around: photos, letters, journals, newspaper clippings. And then I laugh: because Great-Aunt Nelda, the respectable grande dame of the respectable family, the family where I do not fit: Great-Aunt Nelda had been just like me.