Spending almost an hour on the phone talking and laughing with my 90-year-old Great Aunt Hattie this week is the highlight of my new year so far.
I was unable to travel to Virginia in 2020 to celebrate her 90th birthday celebration in-person because of initial travel restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Family members in the Virginia area organized a special drive-by parade with community friends. The fire department and sheriff’s department also took part in the parade in honor of her milestone birthday. “It was lovely,” she said. ‘I’m just blessed.” She enjoyed seeing all of the people in vehicles passing by honking, waving, and wishing her a happy birthday.
During our special phone call this week, my Aunt Hattie also shared stories about her beloved older brother, Walter, who I never met. He was 19 years older than my Aunt Hattie. He never attended school. Walter was born on December 29, 1911. “He was three months old when he was stricken with infantile paralysis.”
“Today, we know it as Polio,” Aunt Hattie said. He didn’t learn to walk until he was 5 years old. “He was deformed with a hump in his back and bent knees,” she said. “He had beautiful hair and a pretty complexion.”
Most of all, “Walter had a lot of love.” My Aunt Hattie and her sisters all took turns caring for Walter when they were growing up. They all helped him get dressed and made sure that someone stayed home with him. “We felt such a responsibility toward Walter. It just was natural. It’s not something mama made us do.”
Although Walter was unable to grasp the concept of correctly counting numbers or learning his ABCs, he had an amazing memory when it came to people. “He never forgot people. Walter knew everybody’s name,” she said, adding that he knew the names of everyone in their immediate and extended family as well as all of the neighbors’ names.
He also enjoyed playing pranks on people. “Walter was quite a character,” Aunt Hattie said. Whenever anyone asked him how old he was, he would always answer and say, “I’m 17.” She remembers that he usually had a hard time counting past 17. “He always got hung up on 17.” Maybe that’s why he said that he was 17. Every Christmas, he always wanted a harmonica and a red wagon. Walter lived with my great-grandmother until he passed away at 67.
Hearing the stories about my Great Uncle Walter this week makes me think even deeper about the blessing and the mission of the STAR Center: “To help any person with any disability realize their potential.”
From this day forward, I have a renewed sense of responsibility and resolve in 2021 to honor the lessons of my Great Uncle Walter by carrying on a family legacy of advocacy, love, and inclusion as I follow my calling to serve clients with disabilities at the STAR Center.