Auntie Vern was my mother’s younger sister. She was born 9 March 1918, in Greensboro, Guilford County, North Carolina. My mother said she remembered the day her sister was born. My mother had been sent across the street to stay with neighbors, the Dudley’s who had a taxi business. My mother had been hoping for a baby brother. When they came to get her to take her home and she heard that it was a baby sister, not a brother, she started crying and insisted they send the baby back and get a boy! My mother adjusted to having a sister and eventually became very protective of her baby sister. They remained close throughout their lives.
Vern’s first months of life were not easy. She had pneumonia, according to my mother and exhibited signs of “failure to thrive.” While still a baby, only about nine months of age, their mother. Elinora Phillips Lee, died. She died on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918 from complications of the Spanish Flu. According to my mother, their mother, my grandmother, insisted on hanging the laundry to dry, but it was a cold and blustery day. Her mother, my great grandmother, tried to get her to come in but she was insistent. Within two days she was clearly sicker, now with pneumonia on top of the flu. The next day she supposedly got out of bed, put on a new suit she had recently made, picked up her baby, Auntie Vern, got back in bed and died shortly thereafter.
Their grandmother, my great grandmother, Mary Louise Smitherman Phillips Floyd (later Ingram), affectionately known as “Big Mama,” became their guardian, known now simply as “Mama.” Indeed, for Auntie Vern their grandmother was the only “Mama” she would ever know. My grandmother had four other siblings, all living in the New York-New Jersey area. Some of those in Jersey suggested Louise bring the children, my mother and Vern, to New Jersey where they could help her care for my mother and her baby sister, Vern. They weren’t in New Jersey long when they had to return to North Carolina, Asheboro, where the family originated because Louise’s mother, Ellen Dunson Mayo, had had a stroke and Louise was needed to help care for her. A few weeks after getting to Asheboro, Grandma Ellen died. They stayed in North Carolina about three years before Louise decided to return to New Jersey. I believe she was persuaded to do so because the public-school education in New Jersey was superior to that of Asheboro’s and my mother was by this time school age. So, they returned to Elizabeth, New Jersey where Louise, Vern, and my mother lived with their uncle Percy, and aunt Moselle.
By the time Vern was ready for high school Louise was sick, having problems with high blood pressure. Moselle was married and lived with her husband elsewhere in Elizabeth. From things I was told, Moselle was not the maternal sort; she was not helpful when it came to “parenting.” According to Vern, Moselle was something of a party girl. She “loved to have a good time.” My mother was living with a family in Corona, Queens, New York where she worked as a seamstress for the wife, Mrs. Charlotte Dietz who had a dress business. With no other options Vern was sent to live with another aunt, Maude, and her daughter “Maudie” in Flushing, New York.
Although she was in Flushing, she attended Newtown High School in Elmhurst, where she studied business subjects, including typing, shorthand, and bookkeeping, along with traditional academic subjects. She was athletic and ran track. However, she wasn’t getting along with either Aunt Maude or Maudie. By her senior year my mother was married. Aggravated with the way Aunt Maude treated Vern, my mother moved Vern to the Bronx to live with her and her new husband, my father, Herbert R. Williams. Louise was dead by then, so there was no viable option to return to Elizabeth. Besides, Vern liked New York far better than Elizabeth. I’m not sure why she didn’t like Elizabeth, she never seemed to have a reason other than to say she thought life in New York was more interesting.
Vern finished high school and eventually went to work for a local movie theater in the ticket booth. As she explained later, they needed her to be eighteen, she wouldn’t be eighteen for almost another year, but she told them she was eighteen. She doctored some papers and presto change, she had the job. Around this time, she met and married Paul Oden. However, the marriage didn’t last very long. Having separated from Paul she took advantage of the opportunity to move to Washington DC to work in the war (WWII) effort. She found work quickly and lived in a home for single young women. She missed home, however, and was known to show up on any given weekend, having ridden the train from DC, often having to stand much of the way because of crowded train cars. One of those trips was made because I had been born. My mother said that after seeing me she said. “Now we are three.”
Vern’s visits were always met with great anticipation and excitement. My mother was very fashionable, but somehow Vern seemed glamorous. She had short hair, that she spent time on curling and waving and pinning. She wore make-up all the time, and the ultimate cool factor for those days, she smoked. I was certain she had a grand life in Washington. After all, she worked in a big office. That had to be grand. When it was Christmas, or my birthday, or Easter, she always brought or sent beautiful gifts.
The first of many Easter vacation trips to Washington to see Auntie Vern began when I was five. My mother and I took our first plane trip, leaving from LaGuardia Airport which was across the street from where we lived in Queens. When the pilot mentioned how high we were flying, I announced I was certain we were on a jet. We weren’t of course. Auntie made sure to take us sightseeing to the monuments and shopping. I remember riding on the trolley. Auntie was indulgent, even letting me roller skate around her apartment. Like my mother she was a good cook and I loved eating her pound cakes.
It was later that year or the next year that Auntie gave up her single status for the second time. This time she married a young dentist, originally from Louisiana, Craig R. Means. They married at our house in New York. I got to be the flower girl. True to form my mother had everything organized. I felt very grand in my dress with my basket of rose petals. It was an elegant wedding.
Vern and Craig lived in Washington for several years. About the time I was around 10 years of age, Craig had the opportunity to buy a dental practice in Salisbury, Maryland, on the Eastern Shore. Thus, began our trips across the Chesapeake, often at Thanksgiving or Easter to spend the holidays with them. Christmas was always spent “at home” in New York. In those days, Salisbury was a small southern town. It had a downtown area but was in many ways very country. Neighbors had chickens and a rooster that managed to crow every morning about sunrise, true to form. My aunt knew several families with children, so I was able to have fun with kids my own age, instead of spending all my time with the adults.
When I was about 12 or 13, Vern and Craig moved to Camden, New Jersey. They lived in a large townhouse, with front and back stairs. There were three full floors. It was on a main street, Broadway, next to a bar. A Roma gypsy family lived upstairs from the bar. They had a psychic reading business. Visits to Camden were much more solitary. There were no kids my age to play with and neither my parents nor my aunt thought the area safe, so I didn’t play outside. I spent most of my time reading, waiting for her to come home from work so that we could talk.
After a few years, Craig developed problems with rheumatoid arthritis and could no longer practice dentistry. He went to graduate school in Ohio to specialize in periodontics with hopes of teaching at Howard, his alma mater. Vern moved back to Washington and returned to working for the federal government. Craig visited on weekends. Apparently, he visited less and less as time went on. Then one day the divorce papers were delivered. The marriage was over. I was a senior in high school. Auntie was single for the last time. She never married again.
As I got older, Vern and I grew closer, more like sisters. After finishing graduate school in New York, I moved to Washington to pursue additional studies. I moved in with her. We lived near the waterfront. When our building was sold and became a condominium, we chose not to buy. We found a new apartment home in Silver Spring, Maryland. It was a bigger apartment. It would be her last move. She would live there for nearly 20 years. I, on the other hand, would move in and out as my life went through a variety of life changes.
One of those changes was marriage and the birth of my daughter in 1992. Since my mother lived in New York, it was Vern who would take the part of the grandmother, although we continued to call her “Auntie.” We had dinner with her every Friday night, and usually spent Sunday afternoons with her as well. During the week, once I returned to work, she was the primary caregiver. On the few rare occasions that my then husband and I went out, Vern was our babysitter. As it turned out, my daughter’s birthday was only a few days before Vern’s. Naturally, we celebrated both, often-times on the same day, which my daughter loved. They were kindred spirits after all. They were both Pisces. My husband and I often remarked that if our daughter was to choose between us and Vern, it would be Vern, hands down. They were inseparable. However, the love affair that my daughter had with Vern and my relationship with Vern was soon overshadowed by something that had begun before my daughter was born, but it would come to define our last years with Vern. Vern had Crohn’s Disease. She’d developed the symptoms around 1987. Now, about ten years later, she took a turn for the worse.
It was a weekday and I had been calling her all day to confirm that she could watch our daughter while we attended a PTA meeting. I figured she had been out with friends for lunch. Finally, after we had finished our dinner and it was time to leave I said we should stop by her lobby level apartment to see if she was home before heading to the meeting, and if necessary taking our daughter with us. We pulled up in the circular drive. I jumped out with my daughter and ran in turning the corner in the hallway to her door. I knew instantly something was dreadfully wrong. The newspapers were still in front. She had not left the apartment all day. I sent my daughter to the front desk to stay with the staff whom we knew well. I ran out to the van to my husband to tell him to park quickly and come in, I didn’t want to enter alone. We entered the apartment, still shrouded in closed curtains and shades from the night before. As we started down the hall we saw her, lying on the floor, barely conscious. I ran back to the front desk to tell them to call 911. I would learn that she had been on the floor from about 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, through the day until we arrived. Her answering machine it turned out had not only my calls but those of another friend who was calling hoping to have lunch with her. This would start a three-year odyssey of hospital stays, bedside watches in ICU, 14 hours of infusions daily, and the final realization that she would never come home again. We tried every permutation we could devise. I tried to find an assisted living facility, but they wouldn’t take her because of the infusions, they said that she required skilled nursing assistance. I tried to acquire home visiting nurse care, but they said it was beyond their scope as well; she should be in a skilled care facility. I learned to do the infusions so that I could take care of her. However, she began to be angry about everything, making it impossible for me to control the situation. It was understandable. She had been the one in charge. She had been fiercely independent. She had taken care of all of us. She was finally realizing she would probably never be in charge of anything again, and she was stressed. We tried to make her room at the nursing facility comfortable. We took meals there with her when we could. She appreciated it, but she was angry. She blamed me for not getting her out of the nursing home, not taking her home, taking away her independence.
In late June of 2000, things began to unravel. She was admitted to Holy Cross Hospital, in Silver Spring, with what appeared to be an infection. My phone rang one afternoon, it was the doctor. He said there was nothing more he could do. She had an abdominal aneurysm that was most likely going to rupture in the next few days and she would die. I really don’t remember my response. I did manage to thank him for the call. When I visited her that day she was distant, uncommunicative, but not hostile. I wanted to tell her it was okay, but I really couldn’t find the words. I couldn’t even figure out how to start the conversation. I said I loved her and would see her the next day. I called my mother to come from New York, explaining that she needed to come as quickly as possible. I think she was having a hard time absorbing this news. She said she would be there on Sunday. I reiterated that she needed to come as quickly as possible.
My husband, daughter, and I spent all of Saturday with Vern. I think he and I took turns overnight, but I don’t really remember, oddly enough. I do know we all came to hospital early Sunday morning. I had contacted some of her close friends who began stopping in to spend a few minutes with her. Our priest stopped by after Sunday services were over. He said the prayers for the sick and dying. She nodded and thanked him. My mother and step-father finally made it. My mother was clearly in a kind of emotional denial. Here was her baby sister, dying. The nurses came in and out making sure she wasn’t in pain. At one point they tried to adjust her oxygen, but she told them to take it away. I said it would make breathing easier. She snapped that she knew that; she wasn’t an idiot. We let it go.
As the evening wore on, my mother, who was herself in her late 80s was tired and I felt it was time for our daughter to go home and get something to eat. It didn’t really look as though anything would happen that night. They could all come back in the morning. Her friends bid adieu, and my mother said she was going to get something to eat and get some rest after the road trip. She said she would be back. My daughter kissed her “Auntie” and said goodnight. My husband said a few words to her quietly. She seemed to be sleeping. Everyone left the room and I pulled my chair up to her bedside and took her hand. I said, “Well, it’s just you and me now.”
I’m certain the others had not reached the elevator when I realized her breathing suddenly changed. She never spoke again of course. I held her hand and told her I loved her as I realized her breaths were farther and farther apart. Then she didn’t take a breath. I kept telling her I loved her. I had seen people die before, but I was never holding their hand. I was stunned how quickly her skin cooled. I rang the nurse’s bell. When they responded I told them she had just died; I doubt the others had even made it to their cars. The nurses came and fixed her body, removing the IVs. I called the house and told my husband they needed to come back. To my surprise my mother did not come back, only my husband and daughter. The nurses called for the chaplain on duty to come and say prayers with us; she was a very sweet nun. We thanked her. The nurse then suggested that she would give us an envelope and we could clip a piece of her hair and her fingernails. My daughter liked that idea. We gathered what personal items were in the room along with our envelope of clippings. We kissed her one last time and walked out into the July evening air. Our hearts were broken. We didn’t like that she had suffered so much in the past years, but we were devastated to lose her. I doubt my daughter will ever get over losing her. Neither will I.