Sunday evening, we sat on our back deck around an outdoor table and a wedding gift from Aunt Wilma and Uncle Ron 36-plus years ago, a wonky folding table. It was the first in-person gathering in 15 months of KAW Council, our bioregional community, and after a humid, muddy walk together in the wetlands, it was heavenly to to dwell in friendship and a cool breeze, sharing big salads, chocolate-covered almonds, and what we’re learning in the pandemic. When it was my turn, I talked about how much I loved and have learned from Aunt Wilma, one of many vibrant aunts I inherited when I married Ken.
“You’ll need this more than you can imagine,” Wilma and Ron told us when they gave us that folding table along with four sturdy brown metal folding chairs. At 25 years old, I didn’t understand how much we’d use the table, which we’d pull out often for special appearances at Hanukkah parties, Thanksgiving dinners, game nights with friends, graduations or Bat Mitzvah gatherings, and in the aftermaths of big deaths that brought lots of people and casseroles to our home.
It was the first of many life-changing gifts from Wilma. When our first child, Daniel, was born at the Topeka birthing center, he struggled for life and ended up in the local Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for a week. The care he received was helpful at first, then over the top as the doctors treated this 7-pound-plus baby as a premmie, not letting us hold him. In between pumping milk and freaking out, I took solace in the presence of Wilma and Ron, who were visiting at the time as they did regularly to spend weeks to help my in-laws Alice and Gene with the farm and house. We told the NICU staff that Wilma and Ron were my parents so that they could join us in taking turns putting a hand through the isolette opening to comfort Daniel. Wilma was also there in a small room with Alice while I breast-fed Daniel for the first time. The NICU staff said he was too weak and likely couldn’t do it, but Wilma just said, “Pshaw! He’ll be fine.” She was right.
Over the decades this is how it went with Wilma and Ron, who died four years ago. They showed up, they cleaned gutters and washed dishes, they jollied our babies along and read them books, and they talked up a storm with lots of accompanying photos about their latest adventures helping other family members across the country. They lived to serve, without ever employing a holier-than-thou attitude (even if Ron was a retired minister) or ever judging us. Instead, they embodied a truckload of humor, patience, fortitude, common sense, and even a bit of whimsy on occasion.
I remember Wilma leaning toward a 5-year-old Daniel to show him how to pit a cherry while singing with Alice, “Would you like to make a pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?”, a variation of the old traditional song. I see her holding one of our babies on her lap at Furr’s Cafeteria and telling me she really wasn’t hungry anyway so that I could eat unfettered. I see her pinning a corsage on Alice’s dress right before Alice and Gene’s 50th anniversary. I see her and Ron at our kids’ bar mitzvahs, laughing, crying, singing, and chanting along with us even though they’re deep dish Methodists. I hear her interrupting Ron to say she only dated him because she felt sorry for him when I asked them how they met, both of them eager to laugh and reminisce, contradict each other and laugh some more.
Through the years, Wilma modeled service with a smile, grace under pressure, and what it looks like to arrive early with lots of photos and stay late until the last floor was swept. Like any proper middle child — she was the middle sister out of five — she was a born peace-maker and exercised tolerance as an extreme sport.
She also gave us, our family, and our community a gift that will go on forever, long after her and our lives are over. Wilma did everything possible to help us save the family land, where we built our home 26 years ago. She and Ron instinctively understood and shared our dream of preserving this land (where her great-parents made a home 150 or so years ago). In her last year of life, she did all they could to support us purchasing the family farm so that we could put it in a conservation easement (preserved for perpetuity). Protecting and continuing to steward this mix of prairie and woodlands has been our lifelong dream, and Wilma made it come true.
The night we fittingly sung Wilma’s praises from the back deck, overlooking a big field leading to forest one direction and prairie we’ve replanted, was also the night Wilma died. She was pushing 97 years, and her daughter Judy tells us she went out after a day or more mouthing the words to old hymns they played her on Youtube. She modeled faith and love even while dying.
For those us still living, there’s the squeaky music of an old folding table that gives me faith. As I was putting it away, after I heard the news of Wilma’s passing, I thought about how I’m going to give my kids folding tables when they get older. After all, you never know what loving presence is going to show up in your life, and you want to make plenty of room for them at the table.