Virginia (Jenny) Powell is my 93-year old-aunt. She never had children. She quit school in 1940 while in the ninth grade to help raise her nine siblings, one of those being my father. Aunt Jenny was the first woman I knew who actually had a job- it was not common for women to work outside of the home when I was born in the early 1960s, but Aunt Jenny had a job.
And it was by no means her first job. She had left home to work as a boarder in Lucasville in 1940. She stayed with her employer throughout the week since traveling from Lucasville to Otway was impractical at that time. She had to stay away even longer when she found jobs in Portsmouth, working as a waitress in the coffee shop at the local Woolworths and later, at the Shelby and Williams Shoe Factories. In fact, one of her best stories comes from when she worked at Williams in 1950 and got snowed in during the Thanksgiving snow.
Aunt Jenny was stuck in Portsmouth with no way of getting in touch with her family since telephones were scarce everywhere and non-existent in the rural Otway area. According to the Dayton Daily News, “The Great Appalachian Storm” impacted 22 states, killed 353 people, and created, in 1950 dollars, almost $67 million in damage. Nearly the entire state of Ohio was covered in a foot of snow- the Portsmouth area had drifts of five feet.”
Yes, Aunt Jenny survived the Great Depression, saw her brother go to and thankfully return from World War 2, suffered the isolation of living and working alone in 1950 and other times, began driving in 1957 and drove to and from Portsmouth daily while returning home to take care of her aging parents at night. She cared for her father until his death in 1971 and also her mother, whom she lost in 1983.
But she quietly did something else.
In the early 1980s, going to college was not a given for anyone. No one on the Powell side of my family had gone to college. I wanted to and was determined to get through, but the Reagan administration made drastic cuts to student aid. I didn’t see how I was going to make it working at grocery stores, pizza shops, and fast food in between classes. I needed a book that cost $ 70 for one of my classes (adjusted for inflation, that’s $202 in today’s money). I still don’t know how Aunt Jenny found out I needed it, but one day when I walked out of her house she shared with my grandmother, she slipped 250 dollars in my pocket, that’s over $700 in today’s money. And that wasn’t the only time she did it. I’m sure that I’m not the only person she has helped.
So why am I writing about this now?
Well, you see Aunt Jenny can no longer take care of herself. She has Alzheimer’s Disease and hasn’t been completely incoherent for the past four years.
The only people she recognizes by sight are one of my aunts and her husband- and me. She knows I have a son, and even though she has seen him, she thinks he’s a little boy (he’s 28).
I am forever grateful to the staff at Minford Retirement Center, who take great care of her. I used to go to see her weekly, but the visits became difficult since there was little that I could talk to her about. She often believes my father, as well as her own parents, are still alive. I had never let a month go by that I didn’t visit at least once until March when I was no longer allowed to visit her.
And I understand. If I had COVID-19 and walked into the retirement center, I could wipe out the population of the center. I completely understand that. But it’s still not a perfect answer.
The last time I spoke to her by phone (the only way I can), I am not sure she really knew it was me or even who I am. It’s hard. But how much harder is it for her than me? Does she think I abandoned her- does she even remember me? Truthfully, I may never know the answer to these questions, but Aunt Jenny, I remember you and know that you are the one who got me to the places I have gone and gave me the opportunities I have had.
The state has no plans for people to be able to visit their loved ones in retirement and nursing homes. I understand the plan completely, and I couldn’t make a more perfect one, but best-laid plans aren’t perfect.
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