Aunt Rose got spinal meningitis at age 4, and struggled to walk by age 6. Her brothers carried her to the school yard, then set her down so she could walk the rest of the way. She didn't want the other kids to see her being carried. Rose's wheelchair made it easier to get around. In 1923, at age 25, she poses with two nieces. Photo/research courtesy John R. Houseal
Discovering a Rose
by Phil Houseal
I was thinking about my Aunt Rose this week. She was 250 years old.
At least she seemed to be that age in my childish worldview. She was actually born in 1898, the ninth of 10 children, and sister to my Grandma Annie.
As parents do with all old relatives, my dad forced us to visit her. I and my brothers and sisters were reluctant guests.
Because Rose’s body was shriveled from the ravages of contracting spinal meningitis when she was 4 years old. Her limbs and fingers were all drawn up, so it appeared she had claws rather than hands. Her face and body were gaunt from 60 years of being confined to a wheelchair. Her skin was so translucent you could trace her blue veins beneath. I felt if you touched her, the skin would tear.
But a funny thing happened when I was about 11 years old. It was after a typical Sunday dinner–fried chicken with homemade noodles on mashed p’tatas–at Grandma’s house. I happened to be sitting next to Aunt Rose, reading the Sunday funnies (there are at least three things in those sentences that my own children will never experience). I did something I’d never done before–I talked with her.
She noticed my engrossment in the funnies and made a comment on the humor of Li’l Abner. I stopped and looked at her. For the first time this immature lad realized Rose was more than a potted plant. I know that sounds horribly insensitive, but remember this is coming from the experience of an 11-year-old boy. Sitting around 250-year-old aunts is actually painful. Seven minutes is like seven years in kid time.
But I recall on the way home telling my parents how much I enjoyed visiting with Aunt Rose. I was amazed to discover a real person inside that delicate vessel, one with sensitivity, strength, and great intelligence.
It started a relationship that continued the rest of her life, with two abiding memories.
The first was when my cousin Matt and I were spending a weekend at Grandma’s. We were probably around 12. We got the idea to go visit Aunt Rose, who was staying in a nursing home several blocks from Grandma’s. We decided to take her something, so we bought a box of chocolate covered cherries.
Well, for two 12-year-old boys to hold a whole box of chocolate covered cherries was an unfair portion of temptation, even for two Catholic 12-year-old boys. It was like carrying the One Ring. We decided to sample just one chocolate each. Aunt Rose surely wouldn’t mind. She couldn’t possibly eat them all herself, and would want to share with us anyway, we pathetically told each other.
It was a mighty long way to her house. A block later, we decided it would be fine to sample just one more piece of candy each. By the time we reached our destination, we had rationalized our way down to four pieces. But we proudly marched in and presented the ravaged box to her with great fanfare.
To her credit, she graciously thanked us as if it were normal for male suitors to bring her mostly eaten boxes of candy. We felt no shame, and only as adults did we learn how much she chuckled as she retold that tale to the family.
About 10 years later, one of my visits happened while I was traveling as a musician. I told her of playing at clubs and shows around the country, which to someone who had been confined to a wheelchair in one town for half a century must have sounded as fantastical as King Arthur’s court. She asked if I would come back, dressed in my stage clothes.
By golly, I did. I showed up in the Shady Elm Nursing Home in Washington, Iowa, decked out in all my cheesy 70s glory–blue crushed velvet tuxedo, platform shoes, long, pointy collar on a ruffled shirt, bow tie, and Greg Brady hair. She paraded me up and down the halls, showing me off to all the women as if I were her prom date.
That was the last time I remember seeing Aunt Rose. I went back on the road, and didn’t hear she died until weeks after it happened.
I wish I would have been able to spend more time with her. Yet I am immensely grateful I was able to know her as much as I did with the time given.
Would that someone, someday, could say as much about us.