I once drove through a neighborhood and spotted an obviously abandoned house whose walls were literally covered with a sprawling bougainvillea plant that had grown out of control. The blooms were a magnificent deep wine color and they were winding around the crumbling wooden structure in profusion. What should have been a dreary scene of a long neglected property was instead a glorious feast for the eyes. I’ve often thought about that lovely image and seen it as a kind of metaphor for life’s difficulties. It seems that the more stressed a bougainvillea vine becomes the more beautiful and hardy are its flowers. The bougainvillea is a determined survivor often flourishing in the harshest of environments.
The image of that lovely vine often reminds me of one of my aunts who turned ninety two this weekend. In a congratulatory birthday announcement her daughter-in-law joked that she wanted to be just like this remarkable women. I countered that I too have always wanted to emulate my Aunt “Speedy” for she is no ordinary woman. In fact, hers is a story worthy of Hollywood. Her life is a page turner.
Wilma Elizabeth Ulrich was born on a hot August day in nineteen twenty three. As far as I know my grandmother simply lay on the wooden floor of her home when the labor pains began and with the assistance of a local midwife birthed the pretty little girl and her twin sister, Pauline. I doubt that Grandma had any idea that she had been carrying twins and she certainly didn’t know that they would be girls. It must have been quite a surprise when they came into the world, numbers six and seven of my grandmother’s brood.
My own mother would not arrive in the world until the twins were three but she adored her older sisters, especially Wilma who would later call herself Claudia and bear the nickname, “Speedy.” Mama often told me that my Aunt Speedy was sick more often than the rest of her siblings. She appeared to be a delicate soul and my grandmother sometimes wore a worried expression as she nursed her little girl back to health again and again. Always Aunt Speedy was a bright and charming child with locks of curly golden blonde hair and blue eyes like my grandmother’s.
By the time that I came along in this world Aunt Speedy was a magnificently beautiful woman with an electrifying smile, twinkling eyes, and a sultry voice. She was the kind of person who turned heads whenever she entered a room and I was as taken with her as anyone. I thought that she was the most incredible person that I had ever known. What was even more remarkable was that she was married to my father’s best friend, Bob, an adventurous and athletic man who had already done amazing things while still in his twenties.
I vividly recall one occasion when Aunt Speedy and Uncle Bob came to visit us. They drove up in a white Studebaker coupe that was more like a sports car than the family vehicles that dotted the street where I lived. I was already anxious to see them but as I watched them emerge from their car I was in awe. The sun caught the sheen of Aunt Speedy’s hair with an almost heavenly aura. She wore a form fitting white dress and high heels. To me she appeared to be as stunning as a movie star and Uncle Bob with his casual, sporty air was her leading man. It seemed to me that Aunt Speedy was enjoying a charmed life and I adored everything about her.
I was wrong of course in thinking that she was somehow above the vagaries of ordinary lives. Reality has a way of putting its tentacles into even the most seemingly perfect hearts. My Aunt Speedy would endure a series of tragedies beginning with the death of my Uncle Bob when he was still a very young man. It was as though he had been a Greek god struck down by the fates and she was his grieving young widow left to raise their first child alone.
Although adults rarely spoke of such horrors in front of children back then I heard their whispers and understood that my sweet and incredible aunt was enduring unthinkable challenges. As she would over and over again she bore her burdens with grace and dignity and great strength. The once sickly child showed no evidence of weakness. She carried on in spite of her broken heart and devoted herself to her little daughter.
Before long, like the seemingly barren branches of a bougainvillea, my aunt found a way to smile again and to light up the spaces where she walked. She met a kindly man named Bill who fell for her charm and her genuine character and they were wed. He was a good husband and a loving father to Aunt Speedy’s child. Together the three of them formed a family and Aunt Speedy flourished. She even received the surprise blessing of having another little baby, a boy who looked just like his father, to complete the circle of love between her and Uncle Bill. It seemed that the hard times were history for my aunt but her destiny was not to be spared so easily.
When Aunt Speedy’s eldest daughter was only sixteen years old the bubbly teenager was diagnosed with cancer. In rapid succession the once vibrant girl faded quickly and died within only weeks. My aunt was devastated. At the funeral she threw her body over my cousin’s casket and wailed as though she was railing at the heavens. For a time I thought that this new insult would break Aunt Speedy forever but I was wrong. Somehow she rallied once again. Perhaps it was the reality that she had another child for whom to care or maybe it was the support that Uncle Bill always seemed to provide her.
Once again Aunt Speedy somehow rocked along, still beautiful and interesting. I felt a stronger connection to her than ever and loved nothing more than to just sit beside her at family gatherings hoping that her courage and her wisdom would somehow be transferred to me by osmosis and wanting to believe that her brushes with tragedy were ended for a very long time.
Aunt Speedy would once again have to face loss when her beloved husband, Bill, died from heart trouble. She rose to the occasion with her usual splendor but in the back of her eyes there was a profound sadness that sometimes stole away the twinkling. She doted on her son and he became the center of her universe. Happily he married a fine woman and provided Aunt Speedy with exceptional grandchildren. Her world became smaller and quieter but it was filled with new joy. It seemed to be the happy ending that she had always deserved.
My Aunt Speedy was not going to be let off of the hook quite that easily. She learned that she was afflicted with a severe case of osteoporosis when she experienced her first broken bone. Over time her body fractured here and there and became more and more frail. On one occasion the break in her hip was so severe that doctors told her that she would likely have to spend the rest of her life in a nursing home because she would no longer be able to walk or to care for herself. With her natural fighting spirit she proved them wrong. After surgery she worked out with abandon until she was once again walking, albeit with the aid of a cane. Today even at the age of ninety two she is as lovely and feisty as ever. Her smile is still her trademark and she is an incomparable beauty.
So much of Aunt Speedy’s life has been hard, from the illnesses of her childhood to the loss of those that she loved. Now she moves slowly but with deliberation. She is frail but as strong as ever. She is a magnificent flower blooming in a desert and I would be so content if I were able to be just like her. She is a rockstar, a leading lady, my very special ninety two year old aunt.