Monday, May 04, 2009

The Last of the Dominoes


On Sunday, my extended family gave a birthday party for my Aunt May. She’s ninety-seven. Amongst the family members attending were her three surviving siblings, who range in age from my own soon-to-be ninety-two-year-old mother (on the right, in the yellow top and skirt), to the baby of the family, Uncle Jiggs, now eighty-five. My Uncle Al is turning ninety.

My grandparents, Elizabeth and Peter Paul Wegmann, married relatively late in life but still managed to have nine children. My grandmother used to tell the story of how she brought all of her little ones through the flu epidemic of 1919 by lining them up every night and giving each a hot toddy of honey, lemon, and whiskey. All four of her sons went off to fight in World War II, and by some miracle not only survived but all came home, one after the other, on the same day. Of good German stock, my grandmother lived to be ninety. My grandfather died at ninety-two. As they aged, their nine children all seemed to share the same somewhat bizarre conviction that they, in turn, would live to be ninety or ninety-two. Then they would start keeling over, one by one, in order of their birth. Like dominoes. It became such a family joke that we started calling them the Dominoes.

When I moved to New Orleans a few years ago, all nine were still alive. But then, inevitably, the Dominoes started falling. The first to go was my Aunt Helen, the second oldest, who died at the age of ninety. It was quite a shock. She wasn’t supposed to be the first to go. Then came 2005, a horrible year for us, when we buried four in less than 12 months. The eldest, Aunt Henrietta, was 95. But one of the brothers was “only” in his late eighties. My Aunt Clair died, at the age of 93, in the aftermath of Katrina. Since the cemeteries in the city were still under water, we had to bury her in a small town up the river. It was, to say the least, traumatic.

Now there are only four Dominoes. Uncle Al still lives at home, alone since the death of his wife last year, although his sons are trying to talk him into moving into an assisted living complex. He says, “Heck, I don’t need that! I still mow my own lawn.” Uncle Jiggs had a stroke a few years ago, but is well cared for by his wife, who is 25 years his junior. My mother had a stroke after Katrina and now lives with me, although she’s still going strong. Aunt May still works every day in her garden, although she admits she now needs to get her great-grandsons to dig the holes for her. She told me a few years ago that she’s decided she’s going to live to be one hundred.

I suspect she’s going to make it.

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