What the world needs now is Aunt Barbara

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“How can the clouds hold this much rain?” I demanded, swerving the car to avoid a deep puddle. “We’ve driven hundreds of miles, and we still can’t outrun this rotten weather.”

My fellow travelers looked at me but said nothing. One stared listlessly out the window, another rummaged in her purse for candy and a third tapped his cell phone screen in annoyance, trying to download Google Maps whenever the faint signal permitted.

All four of us were tense, tired and utterly lost somewhere in central Pennsylvania. Farmhouses and barns, quaint when we’d first exited the turnpike, had become monotonous. Gas stations, stores and even passersby were elusive. The country roads seemed to wind to nowhere; the cows, gazing silently from the sodden fields, unnerved us.

And to make matters worse, our destination was a sorrowful one: a family plot in a mountainside graveyard, where we would lay a friend’s recently deceased father to rest — literally, because the cemetery manager refused to provide a backhoe for cremation urns.

“Coffins only,” she’d told the incredulous funeral director in Philadelphia over the telephone. “Otherwise, the family has to dig the grave themselves.”

Stunned but undeterred, a handful of loved ones met at the cemetery for the unconventional burial. Our group was the last to arrive, bumping uncertainly along the final stretch of the nameless gravel road that ended, fittingly, at the graveyard gates.

Standing among the mourners was a slight, elderly woman with a halo of silver curls. She stood to the side as the men gathered their shovels and marked the grass, patient and self-possessed despite the raw wind and cold drizzle. Seeing the widow whose husband we were burying, the woman opened her arms, enfolding the weary figure in a surprisingly firm embrace.

“Your poor thing,” she murmured, her voice at once ragged and soft, like a worn but comforting blanket.

Aunt Barbara, as everyone called her, had traveled from a town four counties over to attend the service. Given her age, she could have easily sent her regards and stayed home, but she’d dabbed on a bit of makeup, donned an all-weather jacket, and hopped into her son-in-law’s truck for the two-hour trip.

As the men dug into the mountain soil, their shovels clanging against shale fragments, Aunt Barbara chatted with everyone, recounting family stories, asking after relatives, sometimes just gazing across the valley below with a faint smile. She didn’t complain when the task and the time dragged on; she even laughed when goats from the farm next door began bleating in a kind of countryside chorus. “That’s our choir,” she joked.

Aunt Barbara herself had come close to death just two years earlier. After a horrific car accident, she had been airlifted to a hospital; only after she was released did the doctor confide that he hadn’t expected her to live. “I was blessed,” she shrugged, gratitude sparkling in her eyes.

When at last we stood in mute reverence over the new mound of earth, Aunt Barbara laid a humble bouquet on the grave and bowed her head in prayer, a quiet confidence radiating from her. As we exchanged goodbyes, she invited us to her house for supper before our journey home.

“My cooking is better than anything you’ll get at a turnpike rest stop,” she winked.

Seated around her dining room table, hands cupping coffee, 10 of us basked that evening in the glow of Aunt Barbara’s simple, authentic love. A devout Catholic, she’d hung several pictures of Christ throughout her house, yet she didn’t judge those whose beliefs and lifestyles differed radically from hers. Well aware that several at her table disagreed with church teaching on a number of issues, she served all with the same grace, the same concern and the same abundance — as our containers of leftovers, which she insisted we take, attested.

Aunt Barbara preached with pie and evangelized with second helpings, keeping the greatest of God’s commands: to love others, no matter who they were, as she loved the Lord. Her kindness was indeed known to all, a perfect example of St. Paul’s often-quoted exhortation in Philippians 4:5.

As we reluctantly pulled away from Aunt Barbara’s house and headed for the turnpike, my friend Brendan, seated in the back, looked intently at me in the rearview mirror.

“We have to protect that woman at all costs,” he said. “She is pure love.”

I nodded and turned onto the highway, wondering what the church — what the world — would be like with even just a few more Aunt Barbaras.

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