My great aunt La Donna called me last week to let me know she was coming into town from Palm Desert to attend my grandma's 90th birthday party. "They've asked me to speak at this thing," she told me. "I think I'll start by saying 'my baby sister was born a spoiled brat and she never grew out of it.'"
La Donna laughed herself into a coughing fit as Skylar and I told her that probably wouldn't be the best way to go about this.
"Listen—I'm calling for a reason," she said, changing the subject. "I'm going through my things—that's what you have to do when you become a dinosaur. I'll be 94 this summer. Anyway, I have a box of old books and sheet music from my mother. Some of it is 100 years old. If you want it, I'll bring it up in a box with me next week."
I told La Donna that obviously I wanted all of it.
This isn't my first rodeo with elderly family members trying to give me their stuff. There's always a bit of a dark undertone to the conversation—one that I'm trying not to acknowledge until they, ever blunt, acknowledge it for me.
"Who knows if I'll be around a year from now," La Donna said.
"Don't say that!" This is my common response in these conversations. As if it's unacceptable to admit that people don't live forever.
"Honey. How many 94-year-olds do you see out wandering the streets."
A few days later we gathered at a Mormon church building with all 34 first cousins on my dad's side, my many aunts and uncles, and dozens of children whose names I don't know because I'm not Ancestry.com. My grandma sat on a large comfortable chair at the front of the room, her throne, wearing a tiara, and greeting her subjects.
La Donna took the microphone during the program portion of the event, opting away from her proposed sarcasm and instead delivering a beautiful and truly touching tribute to her sister. Imagine knowing someone for 90 years.
Two days later we met La Donna and her stepson Alan for dinner. La Donna had called me again and asked if we could meet up separately. "It will be too chaotic and loud at the party," she told me. "Let's find some time to catch up."
I wasn't any closer to La Donna growing up than any of my other cousins. She lived in southern California and we'd go visit her every few years. She was an exotic cool aunt living an exotic cool life near Hollywood. She worked for and was close friends with Frank Sinatra. She seemed to know, or had at least met, every celebrity in America. Her home is still covered in framed photos of her with actors, musicians, politicians—icons, throughout the decades.
Then, a few years ago, I sent La Donna a message. I hadn't seen her in a while, but wondered if she would be willing to share a story on Strangerville about caring for her adult son for 11 years after he had been hit by a drunk driver and became quadriplegic. I had so many memories as a child visiting John. He couldn't speak but he could blink "yes" or "no" to our questions. He died when I was 9.
La Donna got on the phone with me and we recorded her incredible story—it's probably my most memorable recording experience I've had in the six years we've been doing Strangerville.
La Donna emailed me shortly after we released her episode.
"I listened to my story that you so masterfully put together and the tears rolled down my face as the memories came rushing in, erasing the countless days between then and now, bringing those long ago years clearly into focus. I am hard put to find words to express what this experience with you has done for me but it has been wonderful. Most importantly, I feel very close to you, you extraordinary young man, with whom I have shared some of my deepest feelings about John's accident and the years that followed. Feelings that I have not knowingly expressed to anyone before and, as a result, I feel a loving bond between us as though we have known each other for a very long time. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity of getting to know you better during the time we spent doing this interview."
Strangerville totally changed my relationship with La Donna. So many wonderful friends and experiences have come out of doing this stupid podcast, but this was easily the most important one.
We had a lovely dinner with La Donna last week, talking, laughing, gossiping. Then we walked her out to her car. Just before she climbed into it, she pulled me into a tight hug.
"I love you and everything you are. I love you because of who you are."
Please enjoy this week's Strangerville:
It's our 200th episode! And this time in Strangerville, Eli is betrayed by Quilt, Meg got "food poisoning," and Shelby Hintze takes the Strangerville Live stage to tell family secrets.
Family Secret, by Shelby Hintze
Production by Eli McCann & Meg Walter
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~It Just Gets Stranger