Archived Opinion

I’ll always remember Aunt Lillie’s eyes

I’ll always remember Aunt Lillie’s eyes

My Aunt Lillie fed raccoons at her house as long as I can remember, generations of them. When I was at her house a couple of months ago to visit, my brother called and I had to step outside to get a better signal. As we were talking, three raccoons appeared from around the corner of the house no more than 10 feet away and walked upright into the garage as slowly and deliberately as plump, little senators reporting to congress. Lunch time. 

Lillie was inside in the living room propped up in her easy chair in front of the television, though she couldn’t really see it and probably didn’t turn it on much. She was living out her last days after being diagnosed with terminal cancer last year. Her time was just about up and she knew it and was at peace about it. 

“It’s been a good life,” she told me. “I’m ready to go. 

Seeing her at Thanksgiving a few weeks earlier was one of the most unsettling experiences of my life. When we arrived at her sister Janie’s house — already filled with family — Lillie was sitting in a recliner near the fireplace and for a full minute, I didn’t know who she was, this woman I have known and adored my entire life. She looked gaunt, absent, the light already gone from her eyes. I knew the cancer was back and it was bad, but I never could have imagined it would transform her into someone I didn’t recognize. 

But those eyes. If we are very lucky, we have two or three things stored deep inside us like preserves in a root cellar, nourishment that we can reach for when we are lonely or discouraged. Something that feels like home. For me, one of those things is the sparkle in Lillie’s eyes every time I have ever seen her.  

Sixty years of Sunday lunches after church, holidays, reunions, birthdays, cookouts, and always that same sparkle in her eyes when I came into the house and headed straight to the kitchen to see her and her sisters, all of them laboring over steaming pots of chicken and dumplings or mashed potatoes or creamed corn. There is being seen, and then there is someone being genuinely glad to see you, glad you are home again. 

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All of my life, Lillie made me feel special. When I was a very little boy, I stayed with her and my uncle Elgin a lot. My siblings and cousins and I would roam the woods, picking blueberries or wild strawberries or chinquapins. On hot days, we’d squirt each other with a garden hose, and then go on up to the pond across the road from my grandma’s house and catch tadpoles, some tiny, some almost as big around as a golf ball.  

When I got too hot and needed to cool off, I’d come inside and watch “The Price Is Right” or “Let’s Make a Deal” with Lillie. She’d pop us some popcorn in a bowl about the size of a laundry basket, and we’d eat it with cold bottles of Dr Pepper while guessing how much for that car or which door concealed the biggest prize. Then, because the popcorn was pretty salty, she’d get us a big bowl of black cherry ice cream or some ice cream sandwiches. 

Many days, when Elgin had a break from his job as a carpenter, we’d all load up and go over the state line to Galax, Virginia, to go to Roses, which was kind of the WalMart of its day, where we’d get chili dogs and orange fountain drinks. I might buy a 45 RPM record, or a whiffle ball and bat, my sister a doll or a coloring book, my brother a cap pistol. On the way back, we’d stop at Tastee Freez and get a big vanilla cone that we had to eat within a minute or two to keep it from melting all over our hands and arms. 

I’d stay overnight quite a bit, staying up late and sneaking peeks at Lillie’s detective magazines when she wasn’t looking. If my cousin, Tim, stayed over with me, we’d stay up late thinking up pranks to play on our younger siblings the next day. When my poor mother came to take me home the next afternoon, a lot of times she’d have to peel me off of Lillie like a piece of melted cheese off a hamburger. 

If Lillie loved you, she loved you fiercely and utterly. She was the oldest of five siblings, and she doted on all of them, sometimes protecting her younger sisters from getting a spanking when they misbehaved. She spoiled my dad until the day he died, about 21 years ago, just two months before Elgin and eight months before her mother also passed. That was a rough year. Now here is another one. 

We had her service outside, no preachers, no viewing, nothing elaborate, just the way she wanted it. She hoped that some family members might say something if they wanted to, maybe share a story or whatever they felt moved to say, and several did. She wanted someone to play “Precious Memories,” and it was played. 

I’ve never been to a service quite like it, but it suited her. No pretensions, no artifice, no pomp. Just simple and plain, a circle of love formed by the people she loved and the people who loved her. Afterward, we met at Janie’s house and told more stories. We’ll go on telling them as long as we are able to gather, I am sure of it. 

On the way home, three hours away, I stopped off at Dairy Queen — the nearest thing to Tastee Freez that I could find — and got myself a big cone of vanilla ice cream as a toast to her and our wonderful lives. She would have liked that. You just have to eat it really fast.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Haywood County. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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6 comments

  • What a beautiful memory of your Aunt Lillie. I recall the same type of events growing up. We did not live near family so when we were there during the summer I was in Heaven. Memories are keepsakes of the heart ❤️. Thank you for sharing yours.

    posted by Deb Terry

    Sunday, 04/24/2022

  • Beautiful tribute to a loving woman I’m proud to have called my mom…and as you said so eloquently at the graveside service “Lillie was bigger than any room she entered.”
    Thank you ❤️

    posted by Betty Maines

    Thursday, 04/21/2022

  • Beautiful tribute to a loving woman I’m proud to have called my mom…and as you said so eloquently at the graveside service “Lillie was bigger than any room she entered.”
    Thank you ❤️

    posted by Betty Maines

    Thursday, 04/21/2022

  • Beautiful tribute to a loving woman I’m proud to have called my mom…and as you said so eloquently at the graveside service “Lillie was bigger than any room she entered.”
    Thank you ❤️

    posted by Betty Maines

    Thursday, 04/21/2022

  • Beautiful tribute to a loving woman I’m proud to have called my mom…and as you said so eloquently at the graveside service “Lillie was bigger than any room she entered.”

    posted by Betty Maines

    Thursday, 04/21/2022

  • Chris such a nice tribute to Lillie.

    posted by Margaret Witherspoon

    Thursday, 04/21/2022

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