One of my earliest memories of my aunt was when I was three or four years old. She would tell me stories about a fairy named Matilda that lived in a thimble under her bed. She would talk in a high childlike voice as she explained that she would feed Matilda strawberries and cream every morning and they would drink tea from little tiny teacups and have all kinds of adventures.
I believed these stories and thought they were wonderful. Every night before I went to bed I began to imagine stories about Matilda and later my own stories about a fairy kingdom that I, along with Mr. Dog, my beloved stuffed animal, ruled over. My own imaginary world, which helped me to fall asleep every night as a child, began with my aunt’s Matilda stories.
Whenever mom and dad would travel, my grandmother and aunt, who lived together, would stay over at our house. I have vivid memories of gram cooking, putting us to bed, reprimanding us, taking care of us, but I do not have the same memories of my aunt. She was there with gram, but she was not the caretaker. She was more like a guest or an older child. I remember at a certain age deciding to call her by her first name rather than, aunt. Partly it seemed terribly adult to call her by her first name and partly it was a bit of a tease, as she preferred the title, aunt. She would place her hand on her chest and feign mock insult to be called by her first name by a child. She said it was ‘horrible’ that we called her by her first name, but over time she grew used to it.
In the mid-1980’s I made the commitment to myself to call my grandmother regularly, which also meant talking to my aunt. I was tired of the complaints by gram that I never called and wanted to transform the phone calls from one of complaints about my not calling to something deeper. Once I began to call weekly my conversation with my grandmother changed dramatically and we begin to talk about all kinds of things in the world. Usually, first I would talk to gram first and then my aunt. “Come quickly,” my grandmother would yell to my aunt in the next room, “It’s our grandson on the phone.” Conversations with my aunt were never short. She could talk for hours, and it was always interesting and entertaining, but I always made sure I had time for a long call before I would call them.
When gram died, my aunt was unsure of her place with her nieces and nephews and felt we talked to her only because we wanted to talk to gram. I made the commitment to myself and to gram’s memory that I would continue my weekly calls and be there for my aunt when she needed me. For the next ten years, my aunt and I had regular phone conversations about everything from the latest news of my son to the state of the world. I always marveled at her knowledge of art, how she seemed to know intimate details of the lives of rich and famous people, and her desire to keep current about what was happening in the world. It was always interesting to talk to her.
She would regularly ask me, “Are you still a democrat?” “Yes,” I would reply. “Why do you always ask me?” “I just wanted to make sure that you haven’t become a republican like your father and brothers.”
Another question, that was almost always part of our conversations, was: “Tell me something wonderful!” “Well,” I would begin, and I would find something interesting or exciting to tell her that I had done or seen.
As teenagers my sister and I had many discussions about why my aunt was the way she was: she never married; never learned to drive; had her quirks and peculiarities; was afraid of everything, and was a hoarder. But in the end, as we grew older, it did not really matter. We loved her with all her peculiarities and quirks. She was a link back to gram and was an important part of our lives.
Watching my aunt grow old after grams death was hard to take. I knew for a long time the difficulty she was having walking but did not realize how bad it had gotten until she told me that she was crawling from her bedroom to the kitchen in her apartment. It had become too painful for her to walk. We learned from a doctor was that her hip had collapsed in the socket and she was in desperate need of a hip replacement. How she managed in those years to walk down the three flights of stairs, (because she did not take elevators), to the lobby of her apartment building to go food shopping is still a mystery to me.
I remember taking her for her pre-surgery lab work for her hip replacement operation. We had to take an elevator from the main floor to the cardiologist’s office. I told her there was no option but to take the elevator and that I would be there with her. She closed her eyes, held my hand, and kept asking, “Are we were there? Are we were there?” for the short trip to the third floor.
My aunt’s imagining of things that did not happen began long before she moved to an assisted living facility. When she was still living independently in her own apartment it was the neighbor across the hall that was trying to get her out of the building, the ladies on the apartment’s van that gossiped about her, and the van driver who hated her and neglected to pick her up. While there was an element of truth to all these things, her solitary life, with almost no one to talk to, magnified these events into major dramas in her mind. These events were completely real to my aunt, in the way she imagined them to be. My aunt always fervently believed in the validity of her own thoughts, and you could not talk her out of what she believed to be true.
When we visited her in the assisted living facility she would come out of her stupor only to tell us some terrible thing that had happened that we knew was not real: “Did you know someone was murdered here yesterday?” “There was a woman who was raped in her room.” “A woman I know had all her things stolen.” When you asked questions to validate these claims, she never knew much more than she had already said. But she was convinced all these things were true. Interspersed with these imagined events we could also have a lovely conversation about things in the world.
One day she told me that there was a man and his family who lived in her closet and he was stealing her things to sell. When I questioned this story she looked at me with sadness, “Oh my dear, I thought you of anybody would believe me.” My aunt, who at this point did not remember if she had eaten that day, reminded me two weeks later with sadness in her voice that I had not believed her about the man in her closet.
The assisted living facility, with its monotony and sameness, surrounded day in and day out by service people, was mind-numbing for my aunt, who was already angry, distrustful, and isolated. She rarely spoke to the other residents in the facility and as she declined would spend her days sleeping in a big reclining chair in the common area of the memory unit. Towards the end of her life, she kept telling me, “I’m losing myself. I don’t know who I am anymore.” And she was losing herself day by day.
My aunt’s death, she lay down after a meal and quietly died, was a blessing. While I will truly miss her, I am happy that my aunt finally has some relief from the body that betrayed her and the life that was increasingly hard and painful for her to live.