The dearest compliment I could ever pay you -
When I looked in your eyes
I saw Jesus staring back at me...
She never drove a car, never owned a home, never married, although she had one son. She stuttered when she spoke and seemed to be afraid of shadows somewhere lurking that I could not see. She was a young woman when I was a little girl, but to me, she seemed to be the oldest person I knew. She was one of my father’s four sisters who were still living. His favorite sister, Margaret, had died before I ever met her of diabetes, coupled with out of control drinking.
This sister of my father, baptized with the name Eleanor, was the only one of his sisters that I ever even came close to knowing. This is what I remember about this little jewel who touched my life briefly and then disappeared for some mysterious reason not known to me.
Auntie NoNo, as my father affectionately nicknamed her, and I, had an instant bond. I loved her kind and gentle ways, her humility and her generosity. Eleanor worked as a cleaning lady to rich people in downtown Chicago, a very common job for the daughters of Irish immigrants at that time. She traveled everywhere on public transportation and knew the city like the palm of her hand. She would come to our house on her day off with her son, my cousin Tommy. She wanted me to join them for an adventure in the city – usually some movie for kids that she thought Tommy and I would love. She hardly spoke at all really. When she did, her head would shake with tremors as she tried to utter the words that stuck in her mouth, unwilling to form the sentence she was trying desperately to speak. I am sure I stared at her, embarrassed for her, not understanding what the problem was.
Eleanor was the daughter of Irish immigrants who had not assimilated well into their new home in America. Her father, my grandfather, was also an alcoholic and, I am sure, was not the parent she needed him to be. My grandmother never spoke that I knew of – at least I never heard her, if she did. She bore the telltale markings of a woman in an abusive marriage – very withdrawn and isolated. To me, as I look back, I am amazed that my dear Aunt Eleanor was able to overcome all of this and make a life for herself and for her son.
At the time in my childhood that all of this was happening, I was probably about 5 or 6 years old, maybe a little younger. I had one sister, two years older than me, and four brothers, a twin and 3 that were younger. None of my siblings went along with Eleanor. I don’t know why she singled me out for this, but, oh, how much it meant to me. To my Auntie Eleanor, I was special. And she was special to me and always will be.
I don’t remember too much about where we went or what we did. But, I remember her coming for me, picking me up at my house to go with her on the bus or the train to “downtown”! I remember being amazed at how well she knew how to get where she was going without a car. This little lady – to me an “old woman” was in reality quite young, struggling to overcome the odds in her life that she would never make it, never be someone important, never amount to anything. Yet, she had a fierce determination to make a life for herself and for her much loved son. And, for some reason, she brought me into the circle of their love. How could I ever forget that?
Looking back, I realize now that Eleanor was one of those miracles that God used along the way to encourage me to wonder at the love that He poured out on me, through the gentle kindness of this little Godly woman who the world, for the most part, ignored and rejected. Although there were others who touched my life as a child, Eleanor was and is, one of my favorites. She was there for me. She must have known that I needed that affection from her, and so, she got on the bus, traveled across the miles to our house, spent her hard earned money on me and, very simply, without any fanfare, loved me as a mother loves her little girl. I remember feeling very safe with this dear, humble, down to earth, servant of God. Because of her, I believe that some of the dearest to God must be His servants clothed in rags, with broken speech, and shaking hands disguising a heart that overflows with His love and kindness.
Eleanor taught me that it doesn’t take a lot to make a difference in a child’s life. She taught me that, even in poverty, we can pour love out extravagantly, as a mama bird feeds her little birds in the nest, from her own mouth. She taught me that poverty doesn’t define us. Love does. She had more of that than most people many times her superior in the riches of this world.
The magical trips on the train to downtown Chicago, safe in the care of an Aunt that loved me, ended almost as quickly as they began. My mother was not fond of any of my father’s siblings and didn’t like Eleanor coming over. So, just as suddenly as her visits began, they ended. I looked for her, as children do, wondering where she had gone. It was quite a while before I realized she wasn’t coming back. It was only for a brief and lovely season. But, it was long enough to cement my love for her in my heart for a lifetime…
I will always treasure the memory of this brief episode in my childhood, touched by the beauty and the grace of God through the unlikely person of my shy and struggling Auntie NoNo. Thank you, Father, for sending me your love through Eleanor. You were all over her, Jesus. Disguised as a beggar, a cast away, a reject. I saw You. When I looked in her eyes smiling down on me, I saw You. And I have never forgotten...