Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Aunt Clara's Wheelchair

        Aunt Clara flies. Seriously, in the old shoe shop, Aunt Clara flies around in her wheelchair.
        That same wheelchair which is on display in my shop. The chair she sat in, on this Earth, for sixty-six years, from eighteen ninety-nine, until one morning after a bowl of Cornflakes, a small glass of milk, and a cup of coffee, she sat right there beside her dining-room table and died, in nineteen sixty-five.
       She was born in Texas in eighteen eighty-eight. In Dallas, I think. Her father took her from there to Point Pleasant, West Virginia, in eighteen ninety-four. I'm pretty sure that's about the time she got sick. She got the Scarlet Fever. Of course, they didn't have anti-biotics back then and it was a fever so they just put her to bed. They should've kept her up and exercised her legs, but instead, they put her to bed. Well, her right leg crossed over her left leg just below her knees and they stayed that way until, like I said, she left here when she was seventy-seven.
       Sometime in the nineteen nineties my mother gave me Aunt Clara's wheelchair. It was out in the little aluminum building in mom's backyard. I took it out of there and put it back together again. It is not your normal wheelchair.
       Originally, the maker of the wheelchair, I believe his name was Lucerne, had cut the legs off of a nice office chair of the day. He attached three bicycle wheels to the chair. Two large wheels in the front and one, off of a "Penny Farthing" bycycle, in the center behind the chair. This wheel is much smaller than the other two and it swivels. Attached to hubs of the large wheels are sprockets. Then there are two more smaller sprockets, one on each side of the chair, combined with two common pump handles of the day. Two bicycle chains, one on each side, connect the two sprockets and, by turning the handles, one on each side, she could propel the chair in whatever direction she chose.
       It is not an easy task, but she became an expert at operating this complicated and elegant contraption.
       I was ten when she died, almost the same age she was when her father, Henry, had that wheelchair commissioned to be made for her, as a little girl. 
       She loved me very much and I still love her and she has always been an important part of my life.
       Far from being "handicapped" she was, and is, dynamic.
       In nineteen seventeen when she was twenty-nine, the town fathers installed a telephone switchboard in Aunt Clara's living room. She became our hometown's telephone operator until the dial system came in, in nineteen sixty-two. That is forty-five years! No one hired "handicaps" in nineteen seventeen, but she went to work and did a bangup job of it. 
       That is the reason I collect telephones. I've got one of the old wooden crank phones that you would mount on your wall. I've also got one that is like the one on the Andy Griffith show. You pick it up, jiggle the "cradle" and Aunt Clara's voice would say, "May I help you?" Then you give a 3 digit number, or maybe the person's name you were wanting to talk to, and Aunt Clara would connect you. Of course, she was long gone by the time cell phones came along, but I collect those too, just because I think she would've liked them. She loved phones. She invested in Bell Telephone and made a lot of money.
       But that was then and this is now. Not long ago, in the middle of the night, I had to go to back to my shoe shop because I'd forgotten something. I unlocked the back door and shuffled around in the dark, trying to find the lightswitch. Just then, I heard a voice. I had not heard Aunt Clara's voice since I was a kid, but I knew right away that it was hers. I heard, "Orville, how in the world are you, and how is Wilbur? Oh, good, yes, yes, I'm fine." There was a long pause, then she said, "My goodness, you wouldn't believe it, but this chair is as good as ever. Yes, oh yes, very smooth. I just sail right along and I've become quite adept at manuevering the sharp turns. Yes, the space in the shop is limited, but I like it. They keep it changing all the time. No, I never get bored..... oh, you wouldn't believe it, Davey is in his fifties now and sporting a go-tee, it looks rather nice I think. Oh, I wish I could've known Yvonne, Davey's daughter, when I was on Earth. She is so cute. And smart, very smart. She's really the one who keeps the shoe shop interesting. How old is she? Let me think. Twenty-two. Yes, she's twenty-two. You would love her for sure. Alright Orville, I'll let you go now, but you keep in touch, okay? Happy flying to you too, Orville, and don't forget to give my love to Wilbur. Alright, oh yes, the reception is much better nowadays, isn't it?! Okay, bye-bye, love you much."
       Then there was near silence. Silence... except for a whispy, smooth, wooshing sound. I stepped, carefully, a few more feet and looked around the corner and out into the main room. The "showroom". It is 65 feet long and 20 feet wide and bedecked with all kinds of stuff. Mostly antiques. Toys from when I was a kid, Great Grandma's dresser. Aunt Clara's wheelchair. Only now, as I looked on in utter disbelief, Aunt Clara's wheelchair was hovering and gently sailing all around the old shoe shop. It was one of the most beautiful sights my eyes have ever seen. Aunt Clara's face was serene and radiant as she glided gracefully around the room. Then, just as I was about to fully turn the corner and make my presence known, Aunt Clara, in her wheelchair, hovered for a moment beside my collection of telephones and settled gently to the floor, exactly to the spot where the wheelchair remains on display today. I glanced around the room for just a second and when I looked towards the wheelchair again, there it sat. Just as always. Just the wheelchair. The chair that her daddy had had commissioned to be made for his little girl in eighteen ninety-nine. 
       Lucerne, the master wheelchair maker and his good friends, Orville and Wilbur, builders of bicycles and, oh my God, a flying machine. 
       My Great Aunt Clara, my hero, could not walk.....but she can fly. 

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