Aunt Sadie’s Wake
Every family has its favorite aunt. In our family it was Aunt Sadie. She was the family historian, philosopher, psychologist, sounding board, gourmet chef, innkeeper, clown, and champion joke teller. If circumstances had been different, she would have been my favorite aunt also. But I was the luckiest one in the family. I called her Mom!
My parents, Cleben “Crip” and Sadie Trahan, lived on a ten acre farm in West Orange, Texas. The farm was small but it was surrounded by open land when I was growing up. There were several hundred acres available for us to roam, ride horses, camp out, hunt and explore. It was an ideal place for youngsters to play and run free, and it became the unofficial Summer Camp for the kids in our family, and the favorite hangout for the kids in our neighborhood.
I was an only child but you would not know it by the traffic going in and out of our house. My parents loved having kids around, so they would invite several of my cousins to stay with us each summer. Mother spoiled them rotten. I believe all of my cousins got to spend at least one week with their Uncle Crip and Aunt Sadie when they were growing up. I know they never forgot the wonderful times they had at that little farm with us. They remind me of it every time I see them. Dad passed away in 1978, but mother continued the tradition of hospitality the two of them started. The guest room was always available and often used.
Mother meant different things to different people, and as a result she had several interesting nicknames. Her relatives in Louisiana used her funny Cajun nickname “ShookToo.” Our children, Theresa, Jim, and Jerry, and our granddaughter Jordan, called her “Lolly.” My cousin Ken Blanchard, who could not pronounce the letter S when he was little, called her “Fadie.” When Ken was a toddler his Aunt Sadie was the only one who could give him a bath without his crying. Because, as he explained, “Fadie don’t use no foap!” Mom was the team mother for our Little League Baseball team. My cousin Dennis Prouse (center fielder) caller her “Sadie Babe!” And to my cousin Richard Blanchard, whom mother babysat from infancy to age six, she was “Tee.” At mom’s insistence, my friends just called her “Sadie”, but they always said it with great respect. My favorite nickname for her was “Madame Cliché.”
I called her that because mom had an encouraging word for every situation and it usually came out as some tired old cliché. If something bad happened to us she would say, “Into each life a little rain must fall” and “When God closes a door, He always leaves a window open for you. It may be a small window so you have to look for it.” No matter what happened to her, she always said, “This too shall pass.” Our mistakes brought the admonition, “Don’t cry over spilled milk.” or “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.” We would groan and shrug our shoulders, but her words always put things in perspective and made us feel better. Her clichés rang true because we knew she sincerely believed them, and because she lived her life that way. Mother had a deep and abiding faith in God and she was the most positive and optimistic person I ever met.
Aunt Sadie was the unofficial family historian. She knew all of the children of her brothers and sisters, and their children, and their children’s children. She knew their legal names, and if applicable, their Cajun nicknames. She could still recite our family tree from memory when she was eighty years old. Family members often called her when they were researching our family history.
Mother had many great talents, but I believe this one overshadows them all – she was a wonderful listener. If you wanted or needed her attention, you had it. When you were with Mom you became the only person in her universe. She had a way of making you feel that no matter what you or anyone else did, she would understand and not be judgmental. You felt you could tell her anything and most of us did. A lot of people unloaded their problems at Aunt Sadie’s feet. Her solution for our problems was simple and she would always end the conversation by saying, “I’ll make a Novena for you. You just have faith that everything will get better and I promise you it will. This too shall pass. You know…into each life a little rain…!” Mom made thousands of Novenas, and all of them were for other people. I don’t know if her prayers were answered to everyone’s satisfaction, but I do know that I never saw anyone leave her presence without feeling better about themselves and their situation.
One day we were talking on the phone and I said, “So Mom, what’s new with you?” She replied, in a calm voice, “Well, Son, I went to the doctor the other day. A couple of weeks ago I coughed up some blood and wanted to get that checked out. The doctor ordered some x-rays and it turns out that I have a tumor about the size of a golf ball in my left lung. It is malignant and has metastasized to other parts of my body. The doctor said it was inoperable and terminal!”
Mom said all that in such a matter-of-fact way I almost didn’t grasp the gravity of her words. When I fully realized what she just said I replied, “My God Mother, I am so sorry.” Then Madame Cliché appeared and she said, “Son, when you dance you have to pay the piper, and I danced a long time.” Mom was referring to her fifty years as a pack-a-day cigarette smoker. She quit smoking eight years before the tumor appeared, but the damage had already been done. She continued, “Mike, I am eighty years old and I have lived a full and happy life. I have seen what chemotherapy and radiation treatments can do to people and I do not want that.” I told her, “Mom, I understand your feelings about that. We will do this any way you want it done.”
Mother lived another year and a half. During that time she was completely pain free. For some reason the cancer did not cause her any discomfort. She was a little tired and weak, but her spirits never faltered. Never once did she complain about or fear what was happening to her. Her unwavering faith and courage was an inspiration to us all.
When mother’s family and friends learned about her illness, they were devastated. She spent the remainder of her life consoling people and convincing them that she was at peace with her situation. They came to the house with such sad faces, and always left laughing at something mother had said.
Our family, on both sides, is predominately Louisiana Cajun. We Cajuns are a fun loving people with good humor being a major part of our culture. We also tend to do things that might be considered a little unusual by some folks. All occasions, even funerals, are seen as an opportunity for fun and laughter. We view a person’s death as a happy event. Of course we mourn for and miss the person who died, but we also celebrate their life and their passage into Heaven. Jokes abound at Cajun funerals and nobody could tell them better than Aunt Sadie. I must admit that some of her jokes were just a little on the raw side. But Mom always told them with such an innocent heart they didn’t sound dirty or crude at all. They just came out very funny. If I tried to tell those same jokes in mixed company – I would get arrested!
My cousin Ronnie Plessala came up with a great idea. Only a Cajun would think of something this offbeat. He was visiting Mom and he said, “Aunt Sadie, you are the champion joke teller in the family. We are not going to let you get away with just lying there silently at your funeral while we try to think of something funny to say. We want to hear your stories and jokes, the way only you can tell them, just one more time. So, we are going to have your funeral BEFORE you die!” She was delighted with the idea.
Ronnie called the other cousins and together they made arrangements for a party they called, “Aunt Sadie’s Wake.” It would be held on Mother’s eighty-first birthday in March 1994. They invited all the family members and many of my parent’s lifelong friends. The party was held at a recreation center in Orange. Over two hundred people were there.
One of the attendees was my cousin Bryan Plessala. Bryan flew in from Los Angeles just for the occasion. When he came to see Mother before the party I could tell this was really hitting him hard. She was waiting at the top of the steps, and as Bryan walked toward her we could see tears forming in his eyes. She walked down the steps, held out her arms, and said with a chuckle in her voice, “Aw Bryan, Mon Cherie’, you came all the way from California to see me. Come give your poor old dying Aunt Sadie a kiss!’ Bryan broke up in laughter just like she knew he would. You just did not get much of a chance to cry over Aunt Sadie. She made sure of that.
For the party Ronnie made a giant pot of chicken gumbo and there were plenty of other treats and adult beverages to go around. The party started at noon and ended at ten thirty that night. There were still seventy-five people there at seven that evening. I was talking with mom and some of her friends when I noticed a crowd gathering around us. In no time the jokes were flowing. We spent the next three hours sharing the most hilarious jokes and stories in the family archives, with mom telling most of them. We laughed until we cried. At the end of the evening mom said, “Thank you all for this wonderful party. This has been the happiest day of my life. If I had known you were going to make such a big fuss over me I would have gotten terminal cancer sooner!”
To be continued next week….
Special To The Record