GPSolo Magazine - July/August 2006
T hree years ago, a nonagenarian recluse great aunt I’d never met called and asked for a favor. Could I stop over at her house and help her with a form? She reached out to me because my father, who used to help her out, had died only a few months before. I had no choice. As lawyers, we are all trained to be helpful, so that first response turned into something I’ve done twice a week ever since.
I had heard stories and anticipated the worst. Shades of Miss Havisham from Great Expectations kept running through my head. She had never invited my father beyond the kitchen, and he told me that a Christmas tree stood all year long, covered in dry-cleaning plastic, in the living room.
What no one told me was that she was nearly blind, set in her ways, and needed help, even though she was very independent.
You would want to think that she is a sweet old lady with a kind and gentle heart, but she is not. She ultimately got me not only to help her with the form, but also to take her grocery shopping (one of her great passions in life—the other being raking leaves). As they say, the rest is history. Even though the Christmas tree reigns over the living room, the house was a beautiful, modern stone ranch instead of the old, run-down Victorian I’d imagined. She is a saver, archiving and curating containers of old coffee grounds (enough to berm the property), TV dinner trays, and used medicine containers.
Widowed since she was 58, she retired at 70 years of age and lost half of her vision a few years later. Cataracts and macular degeneration threatened her remaining eye. Childless and outliving her friends and close relatives, she became my relative du jour.
Aunt Ethel, as I’ll call her, has only one way of doing things: her way. There is one way to hang toilet paper, there is one way to position the toilet seat, and there is only one way to plant 48 tomato plants. Even grocery shopping has its own rules. But to have survived to this ripe age of 94, she must be doing something right.
Early on, she asked me get her some special cheese—Manchega. She even named several stores that carried this cheese. At least they did in the past. I soon discovered that all those stores were now out of business, and none of the other stores carried her special cheese. Like any good lawyer who can’t admit to failure, I searched the Internet to find sources for this cheese throughout the world, finally locating it at a specialty store in Milwaukee. For several weeks, Aunt Ethel was satisfied, asking me to buy more cheese, and I obeyed. One day, when she stopped asking for the special cheese, I inquired why she no longer wanted it. She said the cheese clogged her up so badly that I’d nearly killed her.
Through the years, I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but none warranted being fired. I know now that the key to my tenure is not leaving the toilet seat up. One major mistake I made was telling her that I was going out of town for an ABA meeting. As soon as I’d checked into my hotel room, she’d gone and checked herself into a hospital. My absence stressed her into having an “attack.” I’ve learned never to tell her I’m going out of town; instead, I check in on a daily basis by telephone. You may have seen me sitting on a curb at a remote resort, talking late into the night at the only place I could get decent cell phone reception.
She’s remarkably improved. When, recently, she returned home from having surgery that restored vision to one eye, she immediately cleaned the entire house, took the Christmas tree down, and dyed her hair brown—she had been appalled to discover that her hair had gone white, and no one told her! She also went back to raking leaves and shoveling snow. If she could, she’d start up the 1981 Malibu which sits, insured and currently registered, in the garage, to run her errands.
We still go grocery shopping together. Old people can have strange habits at the grocery store. I’m not much of a shopper, but Ethel has it down to a science. Her blindness didn’t stop her from racing to push the meat counter button to interrogate the butcher. (I’d never even noticed that button before.) Everything has to be just so or she refuses to buy it. The price, the ripeness, the color, even the flavor and amount of jelly in jelly doughnuts. If something’s not to her liking, she’ll issue one of her favorite pronouncements: “Too much, they can keep it.”
Because she drinks very little milk, she is extremely fussy about its expiration date. It has to be at least two weeks out or “they can keep it.” I did not know that you can ask the milk person to check for fresher milk in the back. Now every milk person working in the store scurries to the back room when they see us coming.
Nothing quite matches the experience of accompanying a nearly blind person in the produce department, especially when she inspects each cucumber to find the perfect one. Now I know that a perfect cucumber should be long and thin, unbruised and unblemished, because that means it will have fewer seeds and last longer.
Twice a week I try to leave the office early. She reminds me that I’m almost always late reaching her house. When I ask myself why I do this, I remind myself that I’m doing it for my dad. If he were alive, he’d tend to Aunt Ethel. He bequeathed the responsibility and the honor to me. I do it for myself because some day I may be in her place. And I do it because she needs help.
Aunt Ethel was not on my to-do list. She simply appeared when I least expected it. Helping her hasn’t been easy for her or for me. She had to give up part of her independence, and I had to give up part of my free time. But it has been a learning experience, and it has been an opportunity to step up to the plate and do what needs to be done. Everything takes on a new perspective when dealing with a person who’s done it her way for almost a century.
It’s just a matter of time before your Aunt Ethel calls you to ask for help filling out a form. Take that call, and appreciate the opportunity to give. And to learn. You’ll find it rewarding.
John P. Macy is a partner in the firm of Arenz Molter Macy & Riffle SC in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and is Chair-Elect of the ABA General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division. He can be reached at email@example.com.