Reaching out, I found the heart of compassion

When I called Aunt Genevieve for directions to her apartment, she told me not to come. "No, no, it's too much trouble for you," she said. "I can't tell you how to get here. It's OK, don't bother, hon." I couldn't see her face, but I could picture her. Big dark eyes, tight gray curls, a perfectly round head on a fireplug body. Polyester pants and blouse, her small feet in brown lace-up shoes.

"I want to come see you," I said. "I'll find your place."

"OK, hon, I'm in the first door near the parking lot. I'll open the door when you get here."

That wasn't so hard, I thought. She does want to see me. It had been 30 years since I'd moved away from my family in upstate New York. I hadn't visited my elderly aunt since she'd moved from her house to an apartment.

I pulled out my cellphone and dialed my sister's number. Earlier that afternoon, I had been in her backyard, enjoying a bridal shower.

"You can't stay here," my sister had said when she'd invited me. "All my kids will be home, but you can stay at the Super 8. After the shower, we'll hang out together."

That morning, I'd happily driven the 200 miles to her house. She and I had never been close, so I was glad she wanted to "hang out" with me.

We played games at the outdoor party and ate cake at umbrella-shaded tables. It was a friendly group of women, but I missed my mother and Aunt Genevieve. Mom was in a nursing home. Her sister, Genevieve, rarely ventured out of her apartment.

The hugs and goodbyes at the shower's end warmed my heart. These were my people, and they loved me. But they had to leave, and I was dumbfounded when my sister told me she was going to a concert with her girlfriend that evening.

"Should be fun!" she said, smiling.

My chest hurt. I retreated to the bathroom and sat on the edge of the tub. What had happened to "hanging out together"? I gathered my things and left with a smile.

I wasn't ready for an empty motel room, so I drove to the mall and treated myself to a nice dinner. In the restaurant, I remembered that Aunt Genevieve was likely to be home alone. I called my sister and got directions.

A few minutes later, I was inside my aunt's building. When the elevator opened on her floor, she was standing in the hall.

"Come on in," she said, nodding toward her open door. Inside, she offered me a soda. "The glasses are over the sink."

I gave her my party favor from the shower, a small basket of bath products.

"This one is yours," I said. "Everyone missed you today."

"I can't go out much anymore," she sighed. Her face was tight and tense.

I asked her to tell me what my mother was like as a girl, and her words surprised me.

"Your mommy was quiet," she said.

I remember Mom yelling a lot. Aunt Genevieve told me of the hours they had spent reading together, and I realized that Mom may have been a quiet person who occasionally blew up at her kids. I could relate to that.

My aunt slowly rose from her chair and went to the coffee table. From its shallow drawer, she pulled out a framed picture of her mother as a girl. I looked into the face of my grandmother, a teenager standing behind her seated parents, all of them dressed in the dark formal clothes of the 19th century. I had never seen my great-grandparents and never known what they looked like. I couldn't stop staring.

"Are you sure you want me to have this?" I asked.

"Yes, yes, take it, hon," my aunt said. "Nobody wants it. They're not interested."

Aunt Genevieve stood up again and motioned me to her bedroom. At her dresser, she opened a box, took out a gold filigree heart on a long chain, and looped it over my head and neck.

"See? It has a real pearl inside," she said.

I stared down at the little gold heart on my chest. I wanted it. I wanted whatever my aunt had to give me. But it belongs to her, I thought. To take this would be too much.

"Maybe you'd better keep it," I said.

"That's OK, hon," she said, smiling. "I don't go anywhere to wear it now."

She echoed her mother and sister, who often gave away the "fancy" things they had "no place to wear." Grandma cut the flowers off her hats. Mom wrapped her mink stole in a plastic bag and hung it in the attic. They didn't want to be showing off with too much finery.

I belonged to this tribe of selfless females. But on this day, I needed something. It was being offered to me in a shape I could hold, by someone other than those I had come so far to see.

"I love it. It's beautiful," I said.

When I was ready to leave, Aunt Genevieve shuffled along with me, pushing her walker. In the elevator, I thanked her again for the necklace.

"It has a real pearl inside," she said again.

We hugged at the door. "I love you," she said softly. I told her I loved her, too, as I walked through the parking lot, the leafy trees fluttering high above the rooftops and her golden heart resting gently on mine.

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