Yes, Lessons from Momma.

I met Aetna Dowst because her address label got stuck to my horticulture magazine. As I had just opened my tiny herb nursery in Peekskill, (1992) I wrote her a note inviting her to come visit as she MUST be a plant person.

A few weeks later this woman appears in the doorway, stands there and announces “Hah, Ahm Aetna Dowst” in that soft accent that so many of us would come to know and love. And there began a long, rich and wonderful friendship. Who knew?

Over all the years since then, Aetna and I gardened together (I will never forget the year she decided she wanted a paisley-shaped bed RIGHT in the middle of the front lawn FILLED with sunflowers. She’d stand by the window getting SUCH a kick out of the cars slowing down to admire it as they went by). She hauled me off to Constitution Island where she went every Wednesday to help them with the wonderful perennial gardens there.

Gardening for Aetna was more of a play date than anything. She’d tell endless stories of all that the yard and house had seen over the many years she lived there. This is where the kids went sledding, that tree was so tiny when they first planted it.

She talked a lot about her late husband, Somerby and more than once told the story of how she was at his side when he passed, coaching “Go for the LIGHT, Somerby! Go for the LIGHT!” The thought that they are together again in that light now warms my heart, it really does.

But I think the part of Aetna I’ve admired the most is her cheerful fearlessness. Aetna suffered from mean celiac disease. The tiniest bit of gluten could set her off and yet, in spite of some hair-raising tales of something ‘setting her off’ at MOST inopportune times, she kept going out to eat. She’d carefully scrape the filling out of the pie with me having heart failure across the table. One of the funniest meals we ever had was at her favorite Mexican restaurant with me unable to eat corn and her unable to eat wheat, we drove the poor waiter quite out of his mind. And laughed through the whole thing.

She hauled me into NYCity one day (she was driving) to copy sheet music from a library for a CABARET workshop she was taking. When we got to the parking garage, a celiac attack hit and I got her to a ladies’ room JUST in time. I was sure I was going to have to drive us home, but no, she recovered in record time, we kept going, got all the sheet music and went out for lunch. She was just amazing.

There came a point where she became asymptomatic with the celiac. Her doctor tried to explain that that didn’t mean she no longer HAD it, but there was no talking her out of that pizza. She hounded me to bring her a pizza, with mushrooms and olives. We stuffed our faces and I got sick from the mushrooms!

Aetna ‘nested’ on her couch as she became less active. There was a worn spot on the carpet where her feet always were, and she was surrounded by catalogs and half a dozen books she was reading all at once and papers and endless copies of the NYTimes.

After years and years, our playdates became less gardening and more housekeeping once a week. Aetna didn’t ‘DO’ dishes- she stated that all the time. We’d eat tuna with apples pretty much every playday. And she felt comfortable enough to go upstairs and nap while I was there.

And then came the tough decision to move her to Drum Hill. In her fearlessness, she was ready for the next adventure, but clearing the house of 40 years of accumulated housechowder was a feat that about wore us ALL out. Talbott got the brunt of it, but we spent some days working together packing and disposing of TONS of stuff.

She came to consider me her 3 1/2th kid. Cosmic adoption. Sandy, Talbott, L’il Aetna and LadyB. I was proud to be part of the family. Really.

Once at Drum Hill she settled in, looked forward to going down to the diningroom with her friends for meals, watched basketball on her big-screen TV and trips to the hospital became more frequent as her lungs gave her more and more trouble. But that fourth of July……both her livingroom and bedroom windows overlooked the Hudson River. Aetna and Tal and I watched the fireworks right from there, with Aetna sitting closest to the window in SUCH a state of delight that every time she oooooh’d and ahhhhh’d, Talbott and I just cracked up. It was a WONDERFUL evening.

She loved it when I would bring videos over, especially ones of my bellydancing classes and performances. She’d sit on the couch dancing along WITH HER TOES.

Aetna had a very broad sense of spirituality, even though she was a professed Presbyterian. She got the biggest kick out of my notion that George Burns AND Gracie Allen were actually running the Universe. I’ll never forget the day she said to me, in all sincerity “Well, George and Gracie BLESS you!”

It was VERY hard to say goodbye to her when I moved to Oregon, but Aetna coached that I GO and be with my babies. We emailed quite a bit early on, and I sent photos of the grandkids when I could. But then, as her health weakened, she stopped using the computer and correspondence had to go through Tal or li’l Aetna.

I was able to catch her on the phone a couple of times and still she was just DELIGHTED to hear from me. We laughed and talked and there were many choruses of “Oh, I DO love you so!”

I think Aetna said that phrase easier and more sincerely than anyone I’ve ever met.

With a message that Momma was ‘weakening’, I was given the opportunity to write her a real letter, remembering the best parts of our long friendship and to thank her and to assure her that BECAUSE she was so generous and sincere with her “I do love you so”, she brought me to where I could say it too.

She died this past Christmas Eve, while I was fighting for my life in ICU from multiple surgeries, colon cancer and a life-threatening infection. I’m eternally grateful that I wasn’t told of her passing then, there’s no way I could have taken it. But in hindsight, I KNOW she was right there with me, helping me fight my way back. And I am indeed coming back.

So dear, darling Aetna, my life is so much richer for your address label getting stuck to mine. If I can cultivate a fraction of your cheerful fearlessness, I’ll be just fine and yes…… I DO love you so.