After a wonderful 3-week visit, my Aunt Annie went back to her home in North Carolina on Sunday. We will definitely miss her and I know my mom will too. She was a breathe of fresh air and a good reminder of what a truly simple life really is.
Angie and I like to say that we live very simply, and in most respects, we do. We don’t own a lot of stuff and have chosen not to own a home at this time in our life. We have no consumer debt. We prepare 95% of our own meals, take responsibility for our own health, and try our best to fix most things that get broken. We find enjoyment in nature, in growing things, in spending the day with a good book. And while I do work to pay our modest bills, we’ve always valued our time over money.
For us, these things equate to a simple life. Yet, simplicity is still something we actively strive toward – something that gets buried from time to time in own own busyness and effort. But for my aunt, simplicity is life.
My aunt has never had a driver’s license and never held a public job. She has also never had a house payment or rent. Yet, she has always had a place to live, a way to get where she wanted, and a way to get the things she needed.
When I was younger, I never gave much thought to how Aunt Annie lived. I never considered that she was a single mom raising two kids. It never crossed my mind that she didn’t go to work or drive a car. All I knew was that every single day she helped my grandma in the garden and in the kitchen. She hung clothes on the line in the backyard. She walked to church. She hand-rolled the dough on Sundays for chicken and dumplings. She snapped bushels of peas and canned green beans. And she was always there when anyone needed her.
For most of her life, my aunt lived in a small single-wide trailer on my grandparent’s property. I’m not sure how the trailer got there, who paid for it, or how…I just know that’s where she lived, until a few years ago when it burned down. My aunt raised her two children there, along with about half of her nieces and nephews. You see, my aunt “made her living” doing what other people didn’t have time to do. She was the nanny, the cook, the nursemaid, and the housekeeper for her siblings and later, even their children. For forty years, nearly every day, someone would drop off a child for my aunt to watch. As those children grew up and their parents began to age, my aunt would sit with them too. She even lived with two of her sisters to provide full-time care for them in the months preceding their deaths.
There are a lot of folks who are professional nannies or caregivers and I know there’s money to be made in that line of work but here’s the kicker to this story…my aunt never once asked to be paid. She didn’t have a set rate for her time, a client list, or a calendar or appointments. Whether she made $5 or $50 for the day, she made it work. And with that money, she did two things faithfully – she tithed to the church and paid her taxes. Yes, this resourceful lady had the forethought to have her business-minded brother help her file taxes so she would qualify for social security one day. At 72, she receives a modest amount of social security benefits, which is “more than enough”, according to her.
My aunt has also never had debt. Some folks in our family like to make a big deal out of this, as if debt is a status symbol and not having it means you never grew up. I’ve watched those same folks talk around my aunt as if she was “simple-minded” and incapable of understanding what it’s like to “pay bills”. After spending time with her, I can tell you there’s nothing simple-minded about my aunt. She devours books like some people devour cake. She read 6 books in 3 weeks! She can talk about any topic, though she really lights up in conversations about cooking. (Speaking of which, a few years ago, she spearheaded the creation of a cookbook for her church. The book sold for $15 and with the proceeds, she and several other senior ladies went on a mission trip to rural Appalachia, where they set up a free store.)
My aunt sees money in the way I’ve been striving to see it for many years now – as just another means of trade. The folks at the Dept. of Electricity may prefer to be paid in dollars and cents, but not everyone does, and my aunt has built a life around learning to barter and trade. Last summer, she helped my cousin prep vegetables for the Farmer’s Market and in return, he shared part of the harvest with her, and even part of the pig he butchered. She has also found (like we have) that people throw away good stuff all the time. Though her dumpster diving days are over now, my aunt still benefits from other people’s discards. She said that most of her wardrobe and the books she reads are hand-me-downs from friends and fellow church members. “Why buy something when you don’t have to?” she says.
We had the most fun with my aunt going thrift shopping. None of us spent more than $5 but it was fun to look at stuff with someone who appreciates the “game of thrifting”. It was also nice to be with someone who enjoys the smallest of things – like getting a country ham and biscuit at the church bazaar or getting lost in the boonies following signs for a garage sale. No matter what we did with her, my aunt had a great time. Her enthusiasm and happiness were contagious so we couldn’t help but have a good time too. We even found ourselves enjoying things that we would never have done if Annie wasn’t with us – like eating a fast-food sandwich. Like us, my aunt eats at home all the time, making all of her meals from scratch, so it was a treat for her to have something different. And for a moment, I was transported back to my childhood – back to the days before we worried about non-GMO, organic, pasture-raised purity – back when stopping for a chicken sandwich was the treat at the end of a fun morning of yard sale adventures with my Granny and Grandpa.
My aunt also has purity of mind, something so rare, I was in absolute awe of her. She doesn’t gossip. She doesn’t lie. If you tell her something, you don’t even have to say “don’t tell anyone” because you can rest assured that she will never say a word – even when that subject comes up in a conversation later on and you tell on your own self, she will never say that she knew anything about it. She doesn’t watch the news, though she does read the local newspaper when she can. She doesn’t spend hours online, though much to my mom’s dismay, she did tell us many times to take a picture of something and put it on Facebook. She reads histories, biographies, Southern literature, and even Amish romances but never a murder mystery. In fact, when my mom was watching a true-crime show on TV, Annie covered her eyes just before the murder occurred. She doesn’t want those images in her mind, and as someone who still has flashbacks of scenes from Sons of Anarchy, I can completely appreciate that.
I never sat down with my aunt to do a real interview but I didn’t really have to. Her philosophy on life isn’t something she she needed to put into words for me. It was clearly evident in everything that she said or did: Be kind, be grateful, have faith, enjoy each day that you are given, do the best you can with what you have, and don’t sweat the small stuff – or the large stuff either.