The road back was familiar. Over the hills of northeastern Kentucky, skirting the Cincy metropolitan area to the south, passing the temptation of another visit to the monstrosity called the Creation Museum, and then on through the level fields of Indiana. Onward to Lafayette, a city I had known for my entire life. Now I was to go back there for likely the last time, for the memorial service for my Aunt, and to pay my respects to her.
At times like this, you remember snatches of the past. The barely remembered scene where there was a house in a little hamlet alongside the railroad tracks where the road bent in a curve. The baseball games with the cousins in the front of my Grandmother’s house. The house out on US 52, where I learned the mysteries of CB radio back in the late 1960’s with my cousin, before the coming of the trucker CB onslaught. The small condo community on the edge of Lafayette, where my uncle died. The vacation condominium in Destin, where over the decades we saw the town convert from the Luckiest Fishing Village, into a miniature version of Myrtle Beach, with attractions and traffic that emulated that other destination resort. And finally, the house my aunt shared with her last husband, the 60’s modernistic version of an architect’s vision of the future, with three wings set at 120° angles away from the central core. Floor to ceiling glass walls filled the central wing, with heavy doors sliding open and leading you out onto stone patios. The thing that really dated the house though, was the fully capable fallout shelter you entered from the closet next to the front door. You climbed down a metal ladder into a room that, when I saw it in the early 2000’s, was not outfitted with survival supplies, but with games and battery-operated lights for use on those occasions when it doubled as a tornado shelter.
My immediate family knew her as Joyce. It was not until her last marriage to Allen that I learned her first name was Peggy, and that is how she was known to her friends. As my wife said at her memorial service, Joyce was a good name for her, since joy is the largest part of that name. She exuded joy, and welcoming. We often used their house as a way stop either going to my parents in Lincoln, or coming back to West Virginia. Our boys loved to put nickels into the genuine antique slot machine in the office. And Allen and Peggy were always happy to see us, and show off their latest projects. For Allen, it was his unending work on the wooded hillside that he was continually working on. He was able to improve upon the wilderness that came with the property, building paths, taking down scrub trees and planting more suitable foliage, clearing the debris down in the small creek. That work occupied his leisure hours that weren’t otherwise consumed by golf or Purdue sports. For both Allen and Peggy were huge Purdue supporters, and for decades had seats behind Gene Keady and the Purdue basketball team in Mackey Arena. I would look for them whenever Purdue had a home game on TV.
Peggy was known far and wide for her cooking. Whenever we made it to their house, we always had more to eat than we needed. And it was good. Universally good. We had many wonderful memories from meals we ate in that house. But she was not just a purveyor of food for humans. She had a wide range of animals that recognized a soft touch when they came across one. Many stray cats would come for the food and water she left for them. Also sharing in the bounty were the raccoons that came at night. Of course, she did have her cats that lived inside of the house as well.
My last trip to the house was for a Nebraska – Purdue football game back in 2013. I was definitely an outsider, with my red apparel, but even then I was still made to feel welcome. Even after the game, which ended up 44-7 in favor of Nebraska. I didn’t realize at the time that it would be my last visit to the house that was always so hospitable. Soon Alzheimer’s paid a visit to Peggy, and she spent her last years in an assisted living facility. Allen soldiered on, but his heart gave out this past November. Then, on Christmas eve, Peggy joined him again.
It gives you pause to realize that you are visiting a town for the last time. The memorial services for Peggy and Allen brought the remains of my father’s family together once again. Once more, we reminisced at Arni’s Pizza, with its small square pieces. But now that my Aunt and Uncle are gone, there is no more reason to go back. I have one surviving aunt on my mother’s side. On my father’s side, my cousin John is now the patriarch, he being all of a year older than me. Nothing gives you a bigger appreciation of your own mortality than to realize that almost all of your relatives you knew growing up and through your adulthood, are now gone. Life does go faster than we can imagine when we were children playing outside, unaware of the adult concerns and problems that we too would one day share.