My father’s sister passed away last weekend, and since then, a seemingly endless reel of already sepia-toning memories flickers in my periphery; I try to catch individual images and chase down the narratives, sometimes successfully, but I don’t suppose the congruency that can seem so suddenly urgent really matters.
Most of my early memories are set at her home in Middlebury, CT, where she lived for the better part of my life, her standard-sized two-story house laid out in an unusually high number of small, cozy rooms, where she somehow created a portal to another dimension in which regular carton-ed orange juice tasted like hotel freshly-squeezed, amazing home-cooked brociole and oxymoronically appealing vegetables emerged from a tiny stove, and raisin-foraging in the cereal box was not only permitted, but encouraged. During summer visits, she’d drive us for the better part of an hour to get the best ice cream within a fifty-mile radius, and on one such drive I learned an invaluable lesson regarding the impropriety of a child who offers its elder unsolicited advice on lifestyle choices and habits. I recalled that drive the weekend before last while visiting Aunt Linda with my brother, C, who shared a similar anecdote. Even at the time as a child, I appreciated the logic of her stance as well as the cheerful way she conveyed that the subject was closed. I thanked her for it, we shared a chuckle, and then lit up a couple of cigarettes.
Evenings during sleepovers were spent hunkered down in her big, soft, fluffy bed. Her room was fully equipped with A/C and TV/VCR (in the early 1980’s this was pretty big to a kid) and we’d settle in for the night with snacks and movies. My brother and I were around 5 and 10 years old when the three of us watched Airplane! for the main attraction, and even as she lamented over what our parents would say, she was doubled over laughing at Barbara Billingsley’s jive and the iv-ripping guitar-playing nun.
Aunt Linda eventually retired and moved to another town, and as an adult, the setting of her memory shifts to my parents’ house, specifically the kitchen, otherwise known as the smoking room. She talked about that with my brother and me last weekend, the warmth and connection fostered by the “stage” of the round kitchen table. We’d stay up late when she visited, talking, laughing, smoking, drinking, competitive cross-wording, playing the annual game of dictionary. As the evenings drew on, sleep would pick us off one by one, usually my mother first, followed by C, me, (and eventually Mr. P), until the waning roars of her and my father’s laughter and the grinding coughs of the ice-dispenser finally died off completely around 3 AM.
That table’s also where I broke down late at night on Billy’s first Christmas, having forgotten to pack enough formula, and subsequently losing it over my general incompetence as a mother. She and my brother listened and hugged me and then with absolute concern and authority, she looked into my eyes and told me the one thing I needed to hear: “you’ve got to take it easier on yourself.” I’m sure that everyone I knew had told me the same thing a hundred times, but she got it right. She always got it right.
We all have people without whom nothing will be the same, not that we won’t recover from the loss, but that the world simply cannot be viewed through the same lens knowing they’re no longer in it. She was one of these people for me, and already my world is different without her. But it should be. I’m smoking a memorial More as I finish this, one that I found last weekend in an open pack she left at my parents’ house during what we didn’t realize was her final visit. It may just be all it represents, but it tastes pretty good, and it smells like she’s sitting next to me, quietly doing a crossword.