When I was 17 my great aunt Alabama Honchell, called Bama for short, asked me to come over to her house. She was 99 years old at the time. She knew I wanted to be a writer, so she made me promise to write a story about her life and call it “99 Years.”
The day after I made the promise I returned to her house and she started telling me about her life. She told me how she got sick when she was very young, maybe five or six or seven, and had to stay in bed, and even though she recovered she couldn’t remember anything from before the sickness, and so she lost the first five or six or seven years of her life. That was strange to me, that at 99 years old it bothered her that she couldn’t remember her first seven years. But she kept her mind all the way up until the end. Her memory was better than most people’s, even at 99.
Aunt Bama graduated from High School in a time when that was certainly not a given and went on to earn her teaching certificate. There were three levels of teaching certificates. Hers was grade 1, the highest. She taught for several years until she got married and moved to Ohio, though she later returned to Kentucky.
For years Aunt Bama and Uncle Bob lived on a farm. When I was a kid they sold the farm and moved into a house not too far from ours. Aunt Bama would live in that house for ten years, but Uncle Bob would only live there for three.
My Aunt Bama was good at cooking, and an expert seamstress, and great with plants; she was good at doing almost anything with her hands, at creating or growing or building. She was very intelligent and even the last Sunday of her life she knew what day it was. It was not until the very end, lying there in the hospital bed the last week after the last Sunday, that she could no longer recognize us.
I was a pall-bearer at her funeral. It was way far out, in Rough Creek cemetery a million miles away from town, down a winding country road. When they lowered her into the ground all I could think about was how when I was really little out on the farm she taught me how to play baseball, how to steal bases when the other guy wasn’t looking. And I thought about how when I was little my parents told me, trying to prepare me and soften the blow, that Aunt Bama probably wouldn’t be around much longer, and how pleased I was that they were wrong.
She was 99 years old when she called me over to tell me her life story, and she told me she was worried that she was going to die soon. You would think someone at that age would be worn out and ready to go, but not her; she still had too much to do.