By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published May 15, 2014
Madeline, my mom’s best friend, is shown sprinting barefooted across the lawn wearing a skirted bathing suit. She looks to be in her 30s and is laughing mischievously at the camera.
She was 10 years older than my mom and was 45 when I was born. She and her husband, August, had no children, and they became honorary aunt and uncle to my sister and me.
I loved her as dearly as my flesh-and-blood aunts and made no distinction in my heart. And as the years passed, she brought home to me the deepest truth of the communion of saints. You see, she prayed for me when I was growing up—and although she has been gone many years, I still pray for her today.
Orchids crowd my earliest memories of her. Whenever we visited her home in Ft. Lauderdale, she’d show off the latest “babies” in her hothouse. I still see their shy, lovely faces emerging from the foliage and the delight in her voice as she introduced them.
She and Uncle August were outdoorsy folks who counted their riches in the kumquat, mango and orange trees flourishing in their yard. On sweltering summer days, they kept the windows open to catch what they called a cross breeze from the ocean, a mile away.
My parents died when I was 29, and Uncle August followed a few years later. After that, I grew even closer to my mom’s best friend and was thrilled to introduce her to my husband on one of our trips to Florida.
Aunt Madeline praised him because he was good at repairing things (“He’s so handy!”) and also because he loved to cook. The three of us enjoyed sitting outside on her porch sipping his homemade wine, munching on fried calamari and listening to the choir of crickets and cicadas.
One summer evening she told us about her first sweetheart, Charlie, to whom she’d been engaged as a teenager. In the days before antibiotics existed, he had contracted strep throat and died, almost overnight. Despite the passage of years, it was clear she still loved him.
Charlie had told her that heaven had to exist because the world as we know it is so flawed. His theory was that God would have prepared a perfect place for us, which we would discover after our deaths.
That was the first time she had ever talked about Charlie, and certainly her first mention of death—and I felt a slight shiver of fear when I realized my beloved aunt would not be around forever.
Aunt Madeline celebrated her 90th birthday at our home during a family reunion. She ventured down the rather crooked path in our yard to select a fragrant basil leaf from our garden, and tucked it into her bodice. She confided later that there was no better perfume.
Before long, old age caught up with her, and she made the heart-rending decision to leave behind the cozy porch and the big fruit trees, and move into a senior-living facility.
The last time we saw her we were attending the bar mitzvah of my cousin’s son. At the reception my aunt was all decked out in a festive dress and headed out to join the young folks on the dance floor. Later that night, though, she told me this would be her last outing as it had tired her out quite a bit.
A few months later, her friend called to tell us Aunt Madeline had suffered a stroke and died shortly after.
In my memories, I see the shelves in her kitchen lined with dishes decorated with colorful roosters, and the proverb on the wall: “We get too soon oldt and too late schmart.” Somehow it seems that we are all three still sitting on her porch, sipping wine and listening to the cicadas.
Charlie was surely right about God creating a perfect place for us. I envision that realm as a breathtaking array of mango, orange and kumquat trees heavy with fruit. Birds of every hue swim through an aqua sky, and flowers peek through the greenery.
In this place I picture Madeline, young again. I see her dashing down a path on her way to greet a new crop of baby orchids. And I imagine someone shouting at her and laughing: “Run, Maddy, run!”
Artwork by Jef Murray. The Murrays are parishioners at St. Thomas More Church in Decatur. Readers may email them at email@example.com.