The final turnstile: Tribute to a fallen matriarch

"Sooner or later you come back for that which (is) stored away, and sometimes it isn't there."  

~ Off Ramp, Hank Stuever...Adventures and heartache in the American elsewhere.

I received a saddening call from cousin Claudia in Ohio this week. “Hey Mark. Just wanted to let you know that Mom died last night…”
After 88 serviceable years, Aunt Rhodie’s heart fell silent. She was ready…told me as much when I last saw her just this spring. Though mind and memory were wholly intact, her body was failing, and her usual rambunctious spirit sagged under the effort of getting around. Nurtured by her loving daughter, Claudia, surrounded by grandchildren and great grandchildren, she counted herself blessed. In the hierarchy of relatives, Aunt Rhodie was among my favorites. I will miss her boisterous laugh (Haaaa!), her bottomless knowledge of our family’s genealogy and her pragmatic wit and wisdom.
It got me to thinking how families differ. If I had to put a label on my parents, it would read, “leavers.” To them, leaving was a viable and popular option, often the only one that offered hope that they would somehow, eventually, stumble upon “God’s will.”  I suppose some of those genes trickled down to me, always ready to gamble my near “perfect world” on the off chance that something better waits down the road. Cousin Claudia and Aunt Rhodie, on the other hand, were “stayers,” deep-rooted Ohioans that didn’t run when the pendulum of life swung negative.
Aunt Rhodie’s passing inspired nightmarish memories of trips back east to reconnect with “stayers.” Every couple years we’d load up our Oldsmobile du jour, hop Route 66 and make a 2,000-mile odyssey from Arizona to Ohio. Mom and Dad called it “vacation.” To me it was a boring roundtrip sentence to solitary confinement in the back seat.
I’m sure there are readers of this “dishwater” column old enough to remember the arduous nature of “olden days” cross-country trips—driving narrow two-lane highways and staying in flea-bitten neon motels sandwiched between the highway and railroad tracks. Interstates that now bypass stop-and-go Main Streets in every Podunk town and sprawling city didn’t exist then. Nor did “fast-food.” We’d lose an hour per meal in smoky truck-stop cafés. “The more semis parked out back, the better the food,” Mom would always say.
Perhaps the most debilitating aspect of olden-day cross-county road trips was no air conditioning, at least not in our car. Imagine the mood after three sweltering July days on the road in mid-western sauna states, hot and sticky enough to fuse bare skin to vinyl seats. Top it off with three mind-numbing, 700-mile days of playing ABC and license plate games, till your frazzled, bleary-eyed Dad screamed “Enough!” Suddenly, there’s nothing to distract you from endless miles of Hell…the scratchy AM Country “Twang” and wretched misery of life-threatening constipation.
It’s easier today. Kids are content with their “devices,” which, in retrospect, single handedly redefined “recreation” and “play” into sedentary acts of sloth. Necessity being the “mother of evolution,” I fully expect us to evolve a handy little palm-pouch for our cell phones.
Memories of our Ohio “vacations” are shored by faded "Brownie" snapshots and grainy 8 mm home movies taken by my Spielberg Dad—timeworn Rockwellian images of Buckeye cousins raiding granddad’s prized strawberry patch, playing badminton and licking Ice Cream Factory cones down by the lake. Such were summers in “Millersport,” or should I say, “Mayberry?” a place in time when we assumed simplicity and innocence were everlasting. “Change” in those days amounted to the new size and shape of “fins” on new model Cadillac cars.
Aunt Rhodie was my dad’s younger sister, one of two girls out of nine Johnson children. She chose to stay “home,” to raise her two children in the rolling hills near Millersport. Cousin Claudia became the highlight of trips back east when I developed a teenage “kissing cousin” crush on her.
This past spring, Bobbie and I flew to Toledo to visit my brother Dan, nephew Darin and their families. Dan suggested we take a day trip to see Cousin Claudia and "Aunt Rhodie." He called to see if they were up for a short "visit." Aunt Rhodie said, “Come on down.” Then, almost as an afterthought, added that she had had a heart attack the day before so we best not dilly-dally.
Aunt Rhodie brushed that heart attack aside like a nuisance fly. It came as no surprise when I learned she refused hospital efforts to put her on a “bunch of pills.” In fact, she gave the doctors hell for trying to keep her and other elderly patients like her alive beyond design. "Doc!” she said. “At some point you gotta start let'in a few of us go."
Doctors don’t listen, of course, so Aunt Rhodie took matters into her own hands. She brushed aside advice and “pills” like a nuisance fly and eased on through the “final turnstile.”

Mark Johnson is a restless soul who lives in Ouray, Colorado with his wife, Bobbie. He is happiest when explor- ing the West's nooks and crannies, hiking, climbing and mountain biking. He authors a "wanderlust" based bloog: