She sat quietly by herself at the rectangular dining room table, in the middle on one side, facing large bay windows that look out on a lush, green backyard. She was hunched over a small bowl of roast beef and potatoes, not eating, just sitting, surprisingly tiny and frail, a full head of thinning, straight, white hair combed straight back. I walked around and stood in front of her. Touched her gently on the shoulder.
"Hi, Nita," I said, softly.
She looked up and it was as if a light suddenly flashed inside her. She sat up straight and stared up at me, a look of wonder on her face as she grabbed my right hand. I bent down and hugged her and kissed her on the forehead. She smiled and stood up, leading me by the hand into the living room. About a month ago, she fell and broke a hip, but she was moving quickly, and without a hitch. She headed toward what apparently was her favorite chair and plopped down on the soft, leather-covered seat. I had no choice but to follow along and sit next to her, on the end of the couch, since my hand was still firmly clamped in hers.
We sat that way for a half-hour or so, with her holding my hand, gently squeezing and unsqueezing, stroking it over and over with her thumb, not talking much, just sitting. An NFL playoff game was on TV across the room. My dad was on the other side of the couch, with my youngest daughter in the middle. Stepmom bringing plates of strawberry shortcake, tall glasses of ice water, napkins. There was conversation about this and that. Nita clutching my hand the whole time, rubbing and squeezing. She was mostly quiet, but now and then she'd throw something out there. During an interview of the San Francisco 49ers' heavily-tattooed quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, she turned and asked me, "How many tattoos do you have?" I told her two, and she smiled and nodded. She mentioned her beloved Howard a couple of times, and dropped her head and scrunched up her face as the pain of his recent death welled up inside and threatened to wash over. Just as quickly, she regained her composure and continued to sit quietly.
At one point, she let go of my hand and stood up, walking across the room without saying anything to anybody, touching the top of the round coffee table as she passed it to steady herself, and returned a minute later carrying what turned out to be a 2014 calendar someone made for her, with photographs of Howard on every page. She plopped back down in her chair, and pulled the plastic-covered calendar out of the box it came in, dropped the box on the floor, yanked off the plastic covering, dropped that on the floor, and handed me the calendar.
She watched me admire it -- which I truly did. I savored each and every picture. My uncle Howard as a young boy. Him in his WWII military uniform (he was a crew chief on some sort of bomber, as I recall). Howard with his beautiful Ford Edsel. He also had an Indian motorcycle, I think it was. There were pictures of Aunt Nita in her younger days, posing in short-shorts -- wow, Nita! And there was a photo of the two of them, standing just outside their front porch, surrounded by a front yard full of small American flags. It was Howard's 90th birthday, and neighbor-friends had planted 90 flags in the lawn, as a surprise.
Howard and Nita were together for more than 60 years, and he died in December at age 95. Howard was a gentle man who had a massive toy collection, and loved to entertain us kids with an amazing Donald Duck imitation. Nita is lost right now without him, and probably always will be.
Their love story is an amazing one. For decades, they spent all their time together but remained unmarried, because my grandmother -- Nita's mother -- said she would never live with one of her married children. Nita was the only unmarried child, and Maa-maw could not live on her own, so Nita and Howard waited until after her death to make things official, even though all our lives it was always Nita and Howard, Howard and Nita. They never had children.
We visited quite a bit when I was a kid. When we went over to their tiny house in the West University neighborhood in central Houston, we got to eat hamburgers from Whataburger, and enchiladas from Monterrey House. It was a real treat, because our family normally never ate out. Howard and Nita were huge Dallas Cowboys fans, and I'll always remember watching the 1967 NFL Championship game in their living room, when the Cowboys played the Green Bay Packers in "The Ice Bowl," so-called due to the game-time termperature of -15 degrees in Green Bay.
We always went over there for Christmas, too, and the old man always brought his movie camera to record history. This was back in the day, remember, and the camera included a powerful light-bar mounted on top that could have been used to land jet airplanes. Most of the movies showed people squinting, shielding their eyes from the overpowering glare and waving at the camera.
I don't remember exactly the last time I saw Nita, or Howard, before this past Saturday. It must have been several years ago, at least. It could have been 50 years ago, the way she looked at me when I walked into my dad's house and touched her on the shoulder. It was a reaction I did not expect. Not at all. It's hard to describe. And then when she wouldn't let go of my hand. And the way she looked at me.
My family was never openly affectionate when I was growing up. Neither my mother's side nor my father's side. Parents or grandparents. And our home was not a very affectionate or physically loving place. Not a place full of hugs and kisses, tears and laughter, all that stuff. Not much emotion, either way. We didn't talk about things. Good things or bad things. Didn't express feelings. Talk about problems, solutions. And that was normal for us. That's how we were raised.
I've never had a family member react to seeing me the way my Aunt Nita reacted. And I'm not sure how to describe the way it made me feel. Hell, I never sat and held my own mother's hand for 30 minutes.
Actually, it was pretty nice ...