One afternoon when I was 15 years old, I sat on the window seat of my bedroom with my cousin, Sylvia, who was about 30 years my senior. I was upset because I didn’t have a date to a school dance, and she consoled me with the story of her first love, Bob. He was a handsome doctor from California and he had come to Louisiana to visit her. The Planche clan was having their annual summer picnic at Mill Bank Farms. While the family was frolicing along the sandy banks of the Bogue Falaya, Bob and Sylvia were busy up the hill in the empty farmhouse…if you catch my drift.
As we sat together, she giddily recounted her sexual escapades with the good doctor,as if she were the teenaged girl instead of me. Later that night when I was eating supper with my parents, I asked my mom, “what is a blow job?” After she fainted and my dad did a better spit-take than Danny Thomas’, she told me to never listen to Sylvia again. My Daddy stormed out of the kitchen throwing a comment behind him, ” If your niece had a brain she’d take out and play with it!” Throughout our life with Sylvia the usual sentiment was “poor Sylvia” or as we say down south “bless her heart”.
Sylvia Marie Planche Hatfield passed away on August 25, 2012. Of course I spoke to her again and during her many visits to our farm, I willingly listened to most of her sordid tales. We were her caretakers, in a way, before one of my siblings literally became her legal guardian. Sylvia loved to tell me her September 16th birthday made her a Virgo, which meant absolutely nothing to me. She’d grin and say “you know Virgo, the virgin.” She was the first grandchild in our Planche line and I was the caboose. Sylvia was only two years younger than my mom, who had been born late in my grandparents’ life. She and my mama played together as children more like siblings than aunt and niece. Mama said she’d tell Sylvia what to do and tell her that she’d better listen “because I AM YOUR AUNT.” I imagined my rough and tumble Mama, who loved to ride horses, forcing her prissy and frail niece, to live way outside of her comfort zone. Virgos, I later learned, like things to be neat and tidy.
Apparently one of the other Virgo traits is to have things match because Sylvia always wore a head-to-toe corresponding ensemble. Like an Old Master Painter, she went through her color periods. The longest reigning color scheme was white which began in the 70’s and lasted well into the eighties.
When I look at photos of Sylvia I see this absolutely stunning woman with Liz Taylor’s blue eyes, dark thick hair — angelic looking. Since she was model thin and tall with movie-star looks she did become a model for a time. Eventually while she was still young, Sylvia finally moved to California employed by American Airlines as a “stewardess”.
She studied to be a nurse but told me that she hated all of that. “Oh needles are horrible. And I don’t want to have clean some old man’s…you know…thingie.”
I imagine that her kind demeanor and beautiful looks made her the perfect flight attendant. Her flight attendant and modeling careers waned after she married a USC football star and they had their only child, Steve. I guess that was her peak because a few years later it was all downhill. She divorced her husband, Harold, because of his infidelity when Steve was about ten or so. Later, she moved back to Covington to care for her mom who was dying of lung cancer. She got a job as a nurse at a nursing home because my mom suggested she should finally use her RN degree. She also helped care for our dying grandmother, who by then was bedridden with round-the-clock caretakers. Sylvia ended her graveyard shift at the old folks home in Lacombe by driving about 20 miles to the farm to help with Nannie. Often times she went AWOL and we’d find out the next day that she had stop by the post office and fallen asleep in her car, exhausted from eight hours at her overnight shift.
Sylvia loved to give gifts and her childlike way spread joy. Although we would all sometimes cringe at the crazy things she would give us, I can only think of the annoying dancing Santa that I still drag out every Christmas. Overall, I think she was misunderstood much of her life as a pretty girl who wasn’t very bright. Honestly I think Sylvia was a beautiful vessel filled with an insatiable hunger for love. Somewhere along the way she got stuck.
The last time I saw my dear cousin was three weeks ago when I received a message from her guardian that she was dying. I brought a priest from the Abbey to pray with me at her bedside. We stayed for only a short time after Father blessed her with a final prayer. I kissed her forehead and I told her that it was okay to go. I said “Think of the fun and peace you are going to have.” I told her thank you and that she was a true gift in my life.
The last thing I said was “I love you.” I hope that she heard me.