My dad’s sister died last month. She was 85. In 2018, after she had a few falls at home, including breaking her leg upon leaving the toilet, my dad tricked her into moving into a nursing home, about which he felt awful. He likely still does. They were never close but they were each other’s only living relatives from their family of origin. Irish Catholic guilt is real.
About 10 years ago, my dad told me I never had to talk to Aunt Patricia again. We’d had a series of bad interactions. When I was 14, not long after my mom died, Aunt Patricia took my sister and me shopping at the now-defunct Loehmann’s, famous for its godawful communal dressing rooms. She studied my nearly naked, barely pubescent, mourning body and said “You need to go on a diet. It’s okay. You’re big boned, like me.”
Aunt Patricia was at least six feet tall, with frighteningly large breasts, which she seemed to point at me disdainfully when she called me flat-chested. I was, and remain, five feet, three inches tall. My boobs are okay.
“Your sister and I have a full breast. You?” Aunt Patricia dismissed my 14-year-old bosom with a wave of her manicured hand.
Aunt Patricia’s judgement of my body, diet, career choices and home continued well into my adult life. She was kind and complimentary to both of my siblings. Given that she and my dad had been fighting their entire lives, he gave me a pass. No more Christmas cards. I didn’t invite her to my wedding or send her an announcement when my daughter was born. She’s been dead to me for years.
In the 1990s, one of my cousins asked Aunt Patricia for help with information and documents for getting an Irish passport, as our grandmother came to the States from Ireland. Aunt Patricia, the one person who could help him, who had all of the necessary paperwork in her home, refused. She gave no reason. He never spoke to her again. It wasn’t just me.
When my dad told me about her funeral, I knew I had to go to support him.
“You know I don’t care about her but I want to be there for you.”
“Thank you, daughter.”
My sister also came and we walked down various hallways and aisles on either side of Dad, who moves slowly these days. I begrudgingly did a reading at the funeral mass, my first time in a Catholic setting for a non-wedding event in more than five years. The chapel in the nursing home was bleak. While Aunt Patricia had one friend there, most of the congregation consisted of elderly folks nodding in wheelchairs. Did they know her? Did they know where they were?
My sister gave the eulogy. T is the quintessential diplomat, a great writer and speaker and easily the most thoughtful person I have ever known. I wear a mental WWTD (what would T do) bracelet in my heart and call upon it from time to time, usually when my social awkwardness gets the better of me, e.g., What open-ended question would T ask of the person across from me right now?
What I did not expect was that my sister’s words, about a woman I despised, would move me to tears. She painted a very different picture of our aunt. She recalled her style, her attention to grammar and the expectations she set forth for her nieces and nephews, including excellent manners. She always remembered birthdays and gave meaningful gifts. In a time when women were not encouraged to pursue higher education, Aunt Patricia put herself through school and earned two Masters degrees. While she never married, she traveled the world.
As I listened to my sister talk, my memory started to piece together what little I did know about our aunt.
Dad’s relationship with his older sister was complicated and while he couldn’t tolerate being in the same room with her, he was quick to provide vague, incomplete excuses.
“Our childhood wasn’t particularly pleasant.”
“What does that mean?”
I do know that Dad’s family lived in a two bedroom apartment in the Bronx back when it was mostly Irish immigrants. Dad and his older brother took one bedroom and my grandparents took the other. Aunt Patricia was left on the living room couch. For reasons Dad never explained, his father called Aunt Patricia “Mariah” and never encouraged her to pursue any education. My grandfather died when Dad was in his early 20s. Their neighborhood changed and my grandmother was mugged twice in her apartment building and still refused to leave the Bronx. Aunt Patricia took her with her to a one bedroom apartment in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. She died not long after and Aunt Patricia remained in that apartment for more than 50 years.
I lived with her for about two months when I first moved to New York City in 1999. I am grateful for that time, sleeping on her living room couch rent-free but it wasn’t ideal. She had twin beds in her bedroom but one bed was stacked to the ceiling with plastic shoe-sized boxes, full of jewelry and God knows what else. Cans of food covered her dining table, which easily could seat six. We gently pushed the mass aside to make room for our place settings when we ate together. She generally did not approve of the food I cooked for myself.
Aunt Patricia did teach me, then 22 years old, how a professional woman dresses for work and I showed up ridiculously overdressed at my entry level publishing job for a month or so. She told me that a lady should wear a camisole under a work blouse. She showed me how to keep clothes wrinkle-free without hanging them, as her closets were fully hoarded with backstock of enough toiletries for several families. She gave me a heads-up when I “put my mouth on crooked.”
If she ever dated, we never met the lucky guys or gals. I have no idea if she ever hoped for marriage or children. In the last few months of her life, she asked Dad where their parents were, having clearly lost a sense of time. She kept saying, over and over, “I want to go home.”