Auntie M., Auntie M. And I'm Not Talking The Wizard of Oz
She lived nearly a full century. She was born in 1900 and died in 1999, missing centenarian status by just a few months, and of course, her picture in the local newspaper. She lived through two world wars and the Korean War. She witnessed the advent of the airplane, radio, color photography, motion picture, vacuum cleaner, washing machine, velcro, scotch tape, Kellogg Corn Flakes, teabags, and, one of THE most important inventions - the Teddy Bear! But of the hundreds of inventions, she'd argue the teabag was the greatest. And you don't argue with a 99 year old - they've earned the right to win an argument. In fact, they've earned the right to do anything they want.
She and her beloved husband, Joe, lived in a small apartment in the modest city of Pawtucket, RI. They had a loving marriage, mutual adoration for each other, and they honored and cherished each other. But when the love of her life died suddenly in his 40's at the breakfast table, she was devastated and vowed never to marry again. I remember this being one of the first things I learned about her. She would always say, "Nobody can ever take the place of my Joe." And no one ever did. She lived the next half century of her life alone.
She - was my great Aunt Marion. My Dad, also named Joe, but whom she called "Buddy," was her nephew. She raised him, in part, because his mother passed away when he was young and she never had any children of her own. She adored my Dad and apparently he could do no wrong - even when he did. And he was no choir boy. As an extension of my father, my sister and I, her "great" nieces, could also do no wrong - even when we did. And we were no choir girls. Apples usually never fall far from the trees, right? Although, by no means were my sister and I bad apples, perhaps just a little bruised.
Aunt Marion was intelligent, independent, kind, poised, opinionated, and always positive - one of the most positive influences in my life. Perhaps my memory is foggy, but I do not remember her as being a cranky complainer. I think she thought there was no point. She did get frustrated, however, when she couldn't walk as well over the yeas, and needed the assistance of cane and then a walker. When her eyesight declined due to cataracts, she bravely had surgery in her mid eighties to correct it.
She always encouraged me to look on the bright side and think positively. She lifted my spirits. She loved my big sister and me unconditionally, the Red Sox, her Irish heritage, and a good strong manhattan every now and again. You could say that she spoiled my sister and me when we were kids. I don't mean spoiled by today's standards. There were no silver spoons in our family, they were more like plastic. I mean spoiled, as in she very generously gave us freedom, priceless freedom to simply be curious kids and act without restraint - within reason, of course.
For example, she allowed us to buy an unlimited supply of penny candy, "penny" candy that in today's world is "dollar" candy. When she would babysit us, we'd typically walk a block to the neighborhood corner store to load up. Yes, there really used to be many independently owned "corner stores." It was a small, white, aluminum-sided, somewhat dilapidated building that stood like a beacon of sugar. It had short, cluttered, narrow aisles and a tall rack filled with dusty, faded greeting cards that welcomed you when you walked through the door. Spin it, and you'd sneeze. The shopkeeper's name was Roy. I don't think we ever realized he had a last name. We simply referred to the place as "Roy's store."
We would beeline it to the glass case filled with rows and rows of candy, and point. Roy would fill our small, brown paper bags to the brim, with our requested quantities, of root beer barrels, Atomic Fireballs, Goetz caramel creams, Bit-O-Honey, Mary Janes, Sugar Daddy pops, Hot Tamales, Boston Baked Beans (my fave) and candy buttons. Oh, those wonderful colorful buttons that were stuck to paper that we bit off one by one, swallowing wood pulp in the process, convinced trees would grow in our bellies. And then there were the oh-so-absurd candy cigarettes! What the hell WERE those candy makers thinking, putting fake cigarettes into the hands of young and impressionable seven year-olds?! Oh, wait. of course I know what they were thinking. Brilliant marketers they were, back in the 70's setting millions up for addiction to the real carcinogenic "sticks," as they were renamed, following controversy.
Not only was Aunt Marion our supplier of an endless stream of sugar, but she also let us do crazy things that other, more strict relatives, would not. One day, during my baking stage, I declared that I wanted to make cookies, and of course she gave me permission to do so. My recipe consisted of flour, sugar and water. The visibility in her small kitchen was reduced to zero, due to the white-out conditions that ensued, following my frantic spinning of the wooden spoon in the blue striped mixing bowl. I scooped white, sticky wet globs onto a cookie sheet and put them in the oven. Yes, she let me "bake" them, and yes I was supervised. Sure enough, they were disgusting. I do not recall this as a fact, but something tells me she pretended to eat one. (I'm happy to report that my baking skills have vastly improved and I make mean, sought after, Russian teacakes.)
On another occasion, when my sister was about fifteen years old, she kindly offered to trim Aunt Marion's hair. What do you think Aunt Marion said? My sister put a towel around her neck, grabbed a scissor and proceeded to "cut" her curly locks right then and there on the sofa in the living groom. Sip, snip, snip. Chop, chop, chop. Butcher, butcher, butcher. You must understand that my aunt was around 75 years old at the time. When my mother found out, she was horrified. But nope, Aunt Marion didn't care. She loved us and always encouraged us to be kids. This was her form of spoiling. She believed these sorts of silly, foolish antics didn't matter in the grand scheme of things.
The final straw, however, was when we decided that the three of us should take a field trip and walk to the local department store that was about a mile from our house. My sister and our friends would make the trek all the time, making a pit stop in the woods to experiment with cigarettes, not those candy sticks, but the real McCoy that required a match and tasted foul, even though we pretended they didn't. One day, we thought a walk would be a fun afternoon adventure and so the decision was made to head out with Auntie M. "She's a healthy, adventurous soul," we thought. "What can go wrong?" Problem is, the journey required a bit of a dangerous crossing of railroad tracks, and we neglected to tell her that. We thought it would be no big deal, because as teens, we had done it all the time.
Well, of course, Murphy and his Law made an unexpected appearance so anything that could go wrong, did. While walking the tracks, we suddenly heard the piercing whistle of a hazy train in the distance. There we were, the three of us running across the tracks, trying to beat the train and climbing the embankment to safety, my sister and I on either side of our panicked aunt with our arms locked in hers. We made it across safely but not without the terror of my sister and I knowing what the short term future would bring - trouble. Apparently, even my aunt had her limits, and they were reached. To this day, when I think of that memory, I can still hear Aunt Marion repeating over and over, "Jesus, Mary and Joseph. God Bless us and Save us." God did save us, but I think he was pissed. And when Mom found out, she was even more pissed, and it was she who nearly went off the rails. The risky escapades came to a screeching halt.
Aunt Marion loved hats, and boxes of them were stacked on the top shelf in her bedroom closet. She took great pride in her appearance, and was always impeccably appareled, adorned with earrings, pearls and lipstick, even until the end. (She did own a mink stole in her youth, as you can see, but please do not judge. That was light years ago, so leave her alone, she was born in 1900!)
She also had several old, worn, yellow song books tucked away next to those hat boxes. During those visits when we needed to keep boredom at bay, my sister and I would pull out a book, and hum a few bars of those "old-fashioned" songs. I vividly recall singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic and America the Beautiful. What ten year old sings those songs for fun?! Pity, Frozen wasn't yet on the scene. A horrible duo we were, but of course, she thought we sang like beautiful song birds. In her younger days, before our time, she owned and played the piano so sometimes when we sang, she would accompany us on the air piano. I can see her now, head tilted, lost in thought trying to remember the notes, her long fingers tickling the imaginary ivories.
My aunt was a devout Catholic; a very faithful, god-fearing woman. She prayed her rosary daily and had multiple prayer books by her bedside. When I was in college, she would write me letters - real letters, on white lined paper, neatly trifolded and placed in small, white envelopes, with a twenty cent postage stamp carefully pasted in the corner - and mail them to my dorm. Occasionally, included in the envelope, would be a page that she had torn from one of those prayer books, a poem or some other inspirational writing she had found, and a five or ten dollar bill. More often than not, I might add, there was no bill included. Damn. Those were the weeks I didn't eat. But I always felt full after reading her kind, caring, loving letters - and much healthier than if I had eaten Ramen noodles. By no means was this fine woman perfect, but I know in my heat that she loved us dearly and only wanted the very best for us. She would always remind me in her letters and when we spoke, to keep the faith, be positive, and most of all, be patient. She knew impatience could be an Achilles heel. I still have a few of those wonderful letters, written in her signature squiggly hand writing, stored away in my box marked "special things."
Tea. And then there was the tea. Salada. The teapot, old and weary from overuse, always on the stove, stood at the ready. Her daily intake of caffeine far exceeded the recommended daily allowance. I'd say she drank about ten to twelve cups a day, if not more. That'salada tea! Her china was permanently stained from the teabags, which, by the way, were invented in 1904. When we ran out of holiday or birthday gift ideas, we would default to a box or three of tea, wrapped up all nice and pretty with a bow. She always acted surprised.
After Aunt Marion fell a couple of times, it was clear she could no longer live alone, and it was necessary that she enter a nursing home. By this time, she was in her mid-nineties and assisted living was barely a blip on the radar. As to be expected, being the fiercely proud, independent, fighting Irish woman that she was, she went kicking and screaming. Wouldn't you? She had to adjust to having a roommate, not easy, understandably, having lived alone for so many years. Now was my chance to tell her to be patient, that it would get easier. We tried to make the transition smoother by smuggling in a nip now and then, or a "drop of the creature," as she called it. That always made her feel better.
We would try to visit her as often as possible, but in hindsight, it wasn't nearly enough. It didn't help that both my sister and I eventually moved out of state. Whenever we entered her antiseptic room, she would always be sitting up in her blue arm chair, dressed nicely with her fingernails painted, and of course, wearing her jewelry. One day, I had gone alone to visit her. When I walked into her room, she wasn't sitting in that blue chair in the manner in which we had all come to expect. Instead, I found her lying in her bed wearing her nightgown, looking weak and weary. "Something is wrong," I thought, "This is not like her." "I'm tired, so tired," is all she could say, sleepily.
I sat quietly by her bed and asked her what I could do for her. It is never easy knowing what to say or do in these difficult circumstances. She asked that I read to her, so I read a few prayers. She dozed, slipping in and out of light sleep and then, at one point, out of the blue, she lifted her arm and pointed to the left corner of the ceiling. She was mumbling. I looked up to see what was there. Nothing. She saw something that I could not. It was eerie. As if in a dream state, I heard her murmur, "I'm coming Joe. I'm coming to be with you soon." I let her rest, said goodbye, and walked out the door, not knowing if I would see her again.
Within the week, at 99 years old, my great Aunt Marion passed away in her sleep. She was off to be with "her Joe."