At 23, I felt pretty invincible. So, when my Aunt Lillian casually asked me if I’d like to run in a 5K race, I accepted on a whim. I should have known better than to accept an invitation for a fun run from a 65-year-old—no matter how charming her smile.
It all started because Pedro and I had come to visit my cousin Wayne—the only family that lived within a thousand miles of us. We were just a newlywed and newly relocated couple of youngsters who wanted to go on a mountain bike ride (a new sport we had decided to explore together) in some real mountains (El Centro, California’s average elevation dips below sea level, and we wanted to try our bikes on ‘real’ mountains).
My cousin Wayne lived with Lillian and her husband at the time, while he attend medical school at Loma Linda University—that’s how my mom’s family has always been—taking in stray relatives and friends who need a place to stay, for a night or for years.
And so I’d called ‘Aunt Lillian’—my mom’s cousin who I’d met a handful of times—and asked if we could spend the weekend with her. Her smile warmed me through the phone line, and I could imagine her inviting grin as she said, “We’d love to have you! If I’m not home when you arrive, the key is in its usual place.” I’d visited enough times with my mom to know that she kept a key on a rock ledge above the front door.
After a great day mountain biking with Wayne and Pedro, Lillian invited me to run in the 5K she’d helped her running club organize to raise money for a curbside recycling program. “Why not?” I agreed. “As long as Wayne has some running shoes I can borrow.”
He did, so I did. I woke up early and we walked down to the starting line where I registered and pinned on my race number. “Do you me to run with you?” Lillian asked.
“Sure,” I answered, whilst thinking that a gentle jog in the park would help loosen up my slightly sore mountain biking muscles. “But if I’m too slow, feel free to go on ahead!” I urged her, while secretly doubting that she would keep up with me. After all, ‘Aunt Lillian’ was ‘old’—how hard could jogging along with her be?
When the starting gun went off, we sprinted down the road and I quickly learned the answer to my question. Hard. I huffed and puffed and tried valiantly to keep up. Clearly, the fact that I hadn’t jogged in two years and only exercised sporadically had taken a toll on my ability to run. “You go on ahead,” I wheezed to Aunt Lillian as we neared a gentle incline.
“If you’re sure…” she looked hesitantly at me.
“Really. I may need to walk a few steps. The elevation difference must be getting to me.”
“You can do it!” she encouraged me as she shot off up the hill. “I’ll meet you at the finish line!”
When I finally crossed the finish line (four interminable kilometers later) I’d like to think that my flaming red face was due to the heat and exertion and had nothing to do with the fact that a woman 42 years my senior had smoked me.
“Good for you!” Aunt Lillian enthused as I stumbled towards the recovery table. “I think you placed for your age group!” I answered with a wan smile and downed half dozen orange slices.
Of course, Aunt Lillian won for her age group (and finished with a faster time than everyone in my age group). I had placed third (we won’t talk about how many actual entries the race had).
When we left Aunt Lillian’s later that day, I glowed with my accomplishment (or perhaps just exhaustion). Every time I sat or stood for the next week, I remembered my accomplishment. I decided that if an ‘old lady’ could run marathons and sprint past twenty-year-olds, I had better get my act together. And thus began my life-long love of running, biking, walking and keeping myself fit.
Aunt Lillian’s influence lingers to this day (I still need to run a marathon one of these days, though, and there’s no way I’ll catch up to her lifetime accomplishment of 50 marathons in the last twenty years of her life).
I also credit Aunt Lillian with piquing my interest in birds—she started birding long before birding was hip, and she’s the first person I ever heard talk about a ‘life list’ of birds. Her stories of hiking and looking for birds to add to her list made me smile. I couldn’t imagine a person traveling to different countries and out of the way places just to see a bird to add to a list.
The entire time we lived in El Centro, we knew we had a place to stay if we wanted to meet up with college friends or attend a special event. After we moved further away, Lillian and I kept in touch with annual Christmas letters and the occasional visit. Even though she owned a successful Real Estate Agency, and served as a board member for the San Bernardino Board of Realtors, she went out of her way to make me feel at home and part of her family—even if she wasn’t really my aunt.
While visiting my daughter and son-in-law over Thanksgiving, we went for a hike in the hills behind Loma Linda, and I came upon a sign that made me smile. The city of Loma Linda had named a stretch of trail for Aunt Lillian. When I decided to snap a photo of the city’s memorial to this inspiring lady who I proudly called “Aunt Lillian”, I thought it appropriate that a Black Phoebe landed. Aunt Lil would have liked that.
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