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Auntie


There are some people who you can't remember a life without. Not necessarily figuratively, but in the true sense of the sentiment. From your earliest memories, some folks were simply just... there. For my minute existence in this universe, aunt Charlease is one such person. Now, like so many passages before hers, it is time to live in a world without her in it.

It's been less than a week since Charlease Williams died, so of course many memories have come flooding back, some of them ones I haven't thought of in years, perhaps decades. One such item is how Charlease would often love to tell me how her arrival in Champaign coincided with my own. I was born in December 1975. If memory serves correctly, Charlease moved here from Missouri in January 1976. "That's how I always know how old you are," she would say, in her sweet, raspy voice.

In the early eighties (I say 1981, mom says it was 1982), I was hospitalized for almost a week with pneumonia. Among the visitors was aunt Charlease, seeming genuinely concerned as to how I was doing. I remember being surprised and moved by the fact that she came to visit. Hospitals can be strange, sterile places, so a familiar face is always welcome.

In 1981 Charlease and I went to the Virginia Theatre and saw the Gary Coleman film On the Right Track, about a boy living underground in a railway station, scared to go up and experience the rest of the world. In the end, he faces his fear and, as we were leaving, I couldn't help but think how he reminded of the aunt who was with me. Dad had told me how Charlease, in her younger days, was certainly no stranger to living life, but the aunt Charlease that I knew seemed to pretty much keep to herself. I'm glad we saw the movie together, even if it wasn't anywhere near an Oscar contender.

Charlease's father (my father's father and my grandfather), Oscar, died over a decade before I was born. Dad never talked about him much. There were pictures of him up at my grandmother's house, but that was my only notion of him. I'd been to his grave in Mississippi once. It fell to Charlease, one day when it was just her and I on the back porch of my parents' house on Draper St., to tell me how he died. "Daddy was sitting at the dinner table," she remembered, "He was talking to us about the facts of life. Then he just slumped over, like this..." Charlease mimicked the motion, and I understood.

No one could cook like aunt Charlease. For many years we would have the family Christmastime dinners over at her small apartment in west Champaign. From her fried chicken to her corn -- my God, the corn! -- she served-up some of the best meals this side of the Mason-Dixon line. On New Years Day, she would cook-up a special meal for dad & I, which of course included black-eyed peas.

I liked visiting with Charlease. She was sweet, she was kind, and she always seemed happy to see me. What more could a nephew ask for? The last time we visited was in April of last year. By that time, she was living at the Champaign County Nursing Home, suffering from dementia. I introduced myself, she looked at me and remarked, "I don't know who you are, but you look like a Gladney!" And that family history was something she still knew. She sat there, rambling, telling me all about the family and her time growing-up until, well, until she couldn't remember anything more.

I'm glad we had that visit.


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