Today my sister and my mother and other sundry relatives are all converged at my grandparents’ in north central Missouri to celebrate my Aunt Sally’s birthday. She’s forty today, and everyone at the party bought matching t-shirts which say “Forty Years of Sally: Forever Young.” I am not there, I was not even a together-enough niece to send her a card, but I wish I was and I wish I had, so this will have to do.
My grandpa, the doctor, delivered six of his seven children, and when Sally, the last and the littlest, was born he was hesitant to tell my grandma that she had down’s syndrome, but I think she knew anyway. She was blessed with remarkably few complications, though she did have to have a metal rod put in her back. My grandma pulled her out of school in sixth grade and taught her herself: to read, to write, to fold the laundry, to know her Proverbs, to be good company.
She is our Sally: less than five feet tall, with tiny hands, size two feet, and her timeless silky straight hair, with its angular cut by the lady over on Highway F. Sally is stubborn, Sally is certain, my grandma’s word is gospel truth. Sometimes, if loud nieces and nephews unexpectedly decide to spend extra days in her house, she cries. Her bedroom is full of old dolls and Shirley Temple VHS’s and neat bags of miscellaneous treasures in long rows. She thinks that my dad and my Uncle Dan are the funniest and best men in the world. (She might be right.)
She packs for any trip two weeks in advance, with a duffel just for socks. When I convince her to take a walk around the lake, though I hold her hand on the hills, and pick her daisies in July, she usually announces firmly, that “this is the last time.” She wanders slowly around the house, humming, and settles herself in a comfortable chair to flip slowly through a whole book, watching, listening, planning conversations that will never happen. (I do that too.) Sometimes my bent Grandpa lowers himself on the floor in front of her and she runs her little fingers absently through his white hair.
This past summer Mary and I came back to our cabin at camp one afternoon to find a box of Cheez-Its missing. An innocent bystander told us that Sally had been seen with just such a box. I marched around for a few hours in a great furor at the injustice and the invasion, and Mary and I eventually found her in the doorway of her own little cabin. She was already crying over something, but I confronted her anyway and she said that she was sorry, but they were all gone. She’d eaten the rest. And I realized. The girl just wanted some Cheez-Its. I knew about wanting Cheez-Its. I also knew about crying, so we left it at that.
A couple summers ago their fridge broke and as I was cleaning it out Sally was getting more and more upset that I was throwing away “Grandma’s good food.” Finally, as I was headed to the garage with some breakfast sausage, she followed me, muttering, and I stopped and turned, and put my hands on her shoulders. “Listen.” I said. “This is okay. Grandma asked me to do this. I’m helping. Just trust me.” She got a funny soft expression on her face and then held out her little arms to me and my heart melted all over the floor. (That was the same summer I tried to make crêpes and cried over them, and she kept stopping by the stove to pat me on the back and tell me my crumpled monstrosities looked “pretty good.”)
Sally is a creature of as-little-change-as-possible. She dances to my grandma’s preferred polka music, and works at the consignment shop at Senate Bill 40, and still sings the solo on the fa-la-la-la-la’s in “Deck the Halls” every Christmas.
Sometimes my cousins and I think Sally requires more patience than we can give. She takes the stairs one at a time with a loud grunt for each, holding tight onto the railing. She needs help washing her hair. When she is tired and overwhelmed she complains loudly about us in our hearing to her imaginary companions, shaking her finger menacingly. And so we regard her as stuck, miles away from enlightened minds like us.
But then I remember that freedom is not in speed or perfect cleanliness or even affability and normality. Freedom might, however, be in forty years of youth and simplicity, because I’ll tell you now that I’ve never heard such true abandon as Sally lowing out an age-old hymn in the shower.