A balloon release for my aunt


Lavette Williams, Editor-In-Chief

This past summer, on July 1, I lost my Aunt Gussie.

Her passing came as a shock to many of us. It felt like it was only yesterday that she stood in our home, asking me for my South India “Gold Dust” plant – only yesterday that I waved goodbye to her as she finished a cigarette in the middle of the road.

It particularly shocked me, my two sisters and our two cousins. Three days before, the four of us all had packed into two cars and rode to Gulf Shores, Alabama for a little getaway, oblivious to the tragedy that was about to shake the foundation of our family.

I remember being on the beach when my older sister answered a phone call from our mom. We had been playing volleyball with a group of strangers when she ended the call and broke the news to us: Aunt Gussie had a heart attack. “What happened?” A shrug. “But, is she okay?” A head shake, tears gliding down her cheeks.

I remember huddling in the middle of the beach and crying. Usually, the sand between my toes and the warm breeze was enough to make me forget about my troubles at home, but I could not forget this.

After packing up our towels, our cooler and our bags, we went back to the hotel and contemplated going home. The only reason we decided to stay was because my mom had told us to.

“There’s nothing y’all can really do,” she said. It was a hard pill to swallow at the time, but she was right. There wasn’t. But, so desperately, I wanted to be there for my mom, who had just lost her big sister. I found myself grieving for the both of us.

We returned to Florence on July 3. My sisters and I came home to our brother from Florida. I had not seen him in almost a year. Although I was elated by his presence, I hated that it was a death in the family that brought him home.

Aunt Gussie’s death had been the first time I had seen a lot of family and family friends. Months earlier, when my Aunt Michelle said, “We have to get the family all together and celebrate life,” I do not think these were the circumstances she was speaking of. But it’s ironic that it was Aunt Gussie’s “celebration of life” that brought us closer and would continue to bring us closer.

Her funeral was on July 7, a rainy, muddy day. It felt as if the entire world was mourning the loss of her. How could they not? She was a woman who would give anyone the clothes off her back and the food off her plate, if she could. It didn’t matter if she knew them or not, she loved them anyway.

More than anything, she loved her family and she loved cooking. I think that was why it was strange when we went to the post-funeral reception and realized that this would be the first time she was not in the kitchen at a get together. Many people cried, missing not only her presence, but also her signature dishes – collard greens, chicken and dumplings, dressing, macaroni and cheese.

After her funeral, we did not forget her.

Of course we didn’t. One does not simply forget a woman of her stature, a woman who “told you like it is,” a woman who laughed not only with whole body but with her hands pinching at your sides. However, time can surely make me feel that way.

Time bears no sympathy for the bereaved.

Somehow, between the craziness of college and work, it was September, two months since Aunt Gussie’s passing. 

It was already Sept. 28 and at 6 a.m., I sat on my bed eyeing her obituary on my bookshelf. Today had been her birthday and the reason why I was up so early is because we had planned to release balloons in her memory. On this day, she would have been 61 years old.

I know to some, 61 years is considered “old,” but to someone who has parents who are up there in age, it does not seem that way. As I get older myself, I’ve noticed many people’s lives are just beginning at this age.

At 7 p.m., my family and I piled into two cars and rode to McFarland Park. It was so early that the sun was only beginning to come out, so early the air was crisp, giving us a taste of fall. My mom did a shaky prayer and we all sang happy birthday to Aunt Gussie. 

Finally, I let go of my purple balloon. We all did. It felt almost as if we were air-lifting a message. One that said: You are loved and you are missed. This was something she already knew.

The balloons lingered above the treetops, like they did not want to leave quite yet. Then, thanks to a gust of wind, who I like to think was Aunt Gussie, the balloons were swept away.