Soldiers, 2012, by Elizabeth Leader, collage with found objects
It was Miss Anna, our dear family friend, who taught me to eat the lemon peel. I had already learned to enjoy the pulp, but when I realized that she ate the whole thing, I had to follow suit. A saint and the bees-knees, she had blue-blue eyes and blonde-blonde hair. She never missed a birthday, her cards illuminated with the most elegant handwriting I had ever seen. Plus, she baked chocolate chip cookies twice the size of those we made at home.
Miss Anna was born in 1950 in Kewaunee, Wisconsin. She spoke often of the farm-life, though with no desire to return. At some point she had made her way up to the Northeast to a new home in Osterville, Massachusetts and a new job in Providence, Rhode Island. Working at The Miriam Hospital, she met her husband, Alfred. He worked with my father, and as both Miss Anna and my mother were nurses, not more than a few years apart in age, friendship inevitably ensued. Thus Miss Anna entered my life before I had ever been conceived.
Summer was the perfect time to visit her. My father usually working, the expeditions evolved naturally into a female-centric tradition. My mother, my two sisters, and I drove to Cape Cod for the day. Miss Anna had an in-ground pool that she cleaned meticulously, despite her own fear of swimming. We jumped in and eagerly awaited her at the bottom of the waterslide, our arms outstretched with every flotation toy from her shed. Most days she opted to ease her way in via the shallow end steps. Lunch followed. Caesar salad featuring cucumbers and tomatoes from her garden, topped with salmon and freshly grated parmesan. Lemon slices, if you so desired. Bread or chips on the side. Cranberry juice or root beer or chocolate milk; Miss Anna offered whatever she had. Her freezer stored two or three ice cream options for dessert, but the locally beloved “lemon-crisp”—always with blueberries—tended to prevail. A bit more banter, and perhaps a final return to the pool, and then, sometime before sundown, we would hug hug hug and head home. The turquoise-indigo hydrangeas at the edge of the driveway smiled as brightly as Miss Anna, bidding us farewell.
Come Christmas and Easter, Miss Anna visited us in Rhode Island. Without fail, she arrived bearing gifts. Peef the Christmas Bear, and his accompanying picture book; a sea-glass necklace; a hand-painted Christmas tree ornament; a family of rag doll rabbits. Both my parents were estranged from their siblings, and Miss Anna had no children of her own. So as we sat around the carpet, Miss Anna assumed the role of aunt. But we never called her “Aunt.” She was and could only be, “Miss Anna.” The name had a melody that matched her noble posture and our merry reverence of her being. We were always glad to hear that Miss Anna was coming and sad to hear that Miss Anna was going. The twinkle that danced between her eyes and laughter led us to physically barricade the door, begging her to stay the night.
Towards the end of August 2010, shortly before my senior year of high school began, Miss Anna was diagnosed with cancer. In a telephone call to my mother, she revealed that she had a brain tumor. I had recently finished reading a novel for my English class about a woman with a brain tumor; there must be some strange order to the universe, I thought. My little sister and I took photographs of ourselves—our feet in the shape of a star, grand leaps across the grass, our ponytails transformed into mustaches. We sent the prints to Miss Anna and she hung them on her refrigerator with the other photographs of our family she had gathered over the years.
When we next saw her, she did not complain of a single thing. She told us of the first time she realized something was not quite right and had only kind words for the police officer who pulled her aside to inquire as to why her driving was off kilter. She hadn’t begun chemotherapy yet, but she would soon. Miss Anna was ill, but the terminal part of her terminal illness seemed distant, avoidable. Miss Anna was still Miss Anna.
A few months later, we met up with her for a belated birthday / belated holiday celebration. Her new wig replicated her former blonde bob well. She had always been slim, and she was now puffy—but, if anything, the softening of the angles of her face made her seem even more gentle and loving. Though the change did not surprise me, I wondered if I would remember her as she appeared post-chemotherapy or as she had appeared for all the years prior. We drove to a restaurant nearby, and she explained that she had been alternating between having no appetite and ravenously snacking in the middle of the night. She ordered a small meal, but tasted some of my mother’s food upon my mother’s insistence. Afterwards, back at her home, Miss Anna opened our gift, a scarf, and was awfully pleased—“How did you know that I have been chilled to the bone lately?” She talked about her current set of obstacles as though they were nothing extraordinary. It was a splendid idea to have a dry erase board in her hospital room; the reminders written on it were so helpful when she couldn’t remember where she had left her socks, and shouldn’t they put the boards in all the rooms? And she had this appointment or that appointment coming up, but really, the important thing was that so and so had dropped off those lovely flowers in the vase on the coffee table.
A few months down the line, our father heard through the hospital grapevine that Miss Anna passed away on May 17, 2011, after deciding privately to end treatment. It had not been one year from her initial diagnosis. He called our mother who then relayed the news to my little sister and me after school. My sister burst into tears. I bit my lip to keep myself from laughing nervously. Scuttling up to my room, I retrieved all the stuffed animals Miss Anna had given me. I slept with them for several weeks. I did not think; I simply held onto them—onto her—as tightly as possible.
On May 28th we attended a small white Congregational church near Miss Anna’s home for the memorial service. A box with a bow at the front of the altar held her ashes (or so I presumed). Her best friend discussed how Miss Anna overcame early obstacles to become the full, authentic version of herself whom we all loved. I don’t know what those obstacles were, and my mother, though so close to her, never knew either. But her spark invented words like “tince” (used in place of, for example, a “pinch” of pepper), and that was what mattered most. The pastor, new to the parish, had only recently met Miss Anna, but he had heard the most beautiful things about her. Her husband Alfred described her as an angel who entered his life at his time of greatest need.
I cracked upon the singing of “On Eagle’s Wings.” I wasn’t sure why. I hadn’t cried for Miss Anna at all over the previous weeks, and suddenly there I was, in the middle of so many people, sobbing. Maybe it was something about being one of but a few younger people in the room combined with the fact that I knew the hymn from school. Whatever the case, I was loud, and that bothered me, because this day should have been solely about Miss Anna, and I didn’t want any attention. The woman sitting behind me passed me tissues. Finally the tears diminished, dissolving into hiccups by the time the service was over. I splashed cold water on my face then joined the others at the reception, half expecting Miss Anna to be there.
As I observed the community she had built around her, I realized which Miss Anna I would remember—and it had nothing to do with the altered shape of her face. The two of us were in the car together once, pondering my future, she explaining that her career options as a woman had been limited to secretary, teacher, or nurse. I do not know how I replied, but I do know how she listened, as though each word I uttered were the crown jewel. She wore a hearing aid; perhaps that is why she listened so closely. But she also delivered her tales with the voice of a butterfly. She felt no need to shout, and thus neither did I. My Miss Anna was the woman whose quiet speech and graceful leadership established a foundation of peace.
She really did eat lemons with the peel included. She did so before she was sick, sitting on the deck in the shade of the umbrella. And she did so while she was sick. She didn’t need to make lemonade. She just ate the lemons and decided they were flawless.
Nicole Sadaniantz is a native of Providence, Rhode Island. Currently a junior a the University of Pennsylvania, she is studying Theatre and English. This is her first published work.
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