This story was submitted anonymously.
“Just remember that your aunt gets a little…confused. She tells the same stories over and over again.”
Thanks to calendar illiteracy, I was set to fly back from a family Thanksgiving at 7pm on a Monday rather than 7pm on a Sunday like I had planned. This opened up a window of opportunity to visit my great aunt, who lived nearby but had spent turkey day proper with her granddaughter. I remembered the little suburban split-level she inhabited very well; it had been the site of my great aunt’s annual Christmas white elephant gift exchange for many years. At the last such exchange, around 2000 or so, I had contributed a gift and (in my 17-year-old eyes) irrevocably established my status as an adult.
“I wonder if you could help me with this picture; it came down off the wall.”
My dad was always happy to help with chores, having not two weeks previously done a thorough round of maintenance on his mother’s house down south. The two sisters, only 18 months apart, were the last survivors of a large family at 95 and 97 respectively. My great aunt was the baby of the family, and despite their great physical distance her big sister called her nearly every night.
“Who is this a picture of?” I said. It was a painting of a handsome young woman with prominent cheekbones, piercing eyes, and short wavy hair.
“Why, that’s me,” my great aunt said, delighted. “One of my husband’s bandmates painted that.”
This was a story my parents had heard many times before, but they humored her. I sat patiently on the couch–immaculately maintained for one in a house occupied solely by a 95-year-old–while my great aunt excitedly brought out an old photo album.
“That’s him right there,” she said, pointing out a young man in a circle of young men, together in what looked like a country jug band. “He painted the picture. That’s your great uncle right there next to him.”
My great aunt’s husband had died many years before, in 1992, a bad year for the family overall. Her sister’s husband, my grandfather, had died that same year. Looking at him as a young man was astonishing; the thought of the handsome fellow next to him painting my stooped and grail great aunt as a vibrant young woman was more astonishing still. The part of my brain that instinctively puts together narratives wondered if there hadn’t been something between the two of them long ago, the best friend and the best friend’s wife, a distant dalliance now immortalized as an unfaded square on the wallpaper.
Or perhaps it was just a beautiful painting. If I live to 95, which seems unlikely given that none of my great uncles lived to see 71, I’ll be lucky to have anything half as nice, or half as flattering, on my wall.
We took my great aunt to lunch at her favorite restaurant, the type of mom-and-pop sit-down joint that is often full of seniors on weekday afternoons. She asked after my younger brother, and I related the story of a recent trip we had taken together to France. “Oh, I went to France once, with your uncle,” my great aunt said excitedly. “I took French lessons, you know. My old tutor is still alive, she even came to visit me the other day. Lives just down the street.
“My parents smiled and nodded supportively, but I can tell they’ve heard this story many a time. But it was new to me; I hadn’t seen my great aunt in the flesh for years. The thought of her abroad with her husband in the 1950s, when she would have been in her 30s and the same age I am, was captivating. I could tell that the thought of Paris and the French appealed deeply to her, as did the fond memories of French lessons back when it was a fashionable thing for young women to do.
“Your uncle and I stopped by Glasgow, in Scotland, on that same trip,” she continued. “Do you know, I was able to find the house where your grandmother and I were born! The nice lady there invited us up for tea.”
I knew the story of how the children had been born in Glasgow to a soldier father while the Great War still raged, how they had left for Canada and eventually the United States when both girls were young. But to someone as sentimental as I am, the idea of returning to a nostalgic place like that was deeply appealing.
“Was your son with you?” I asked. As a tot, my own parents had taken me all over the world; the thought of my dad’s cousin undergoing the same experience was another interesting notion to entertain.
That may have just the segue my great aunt was looking for, since it was an opportunity to talk about her only son, her only child, her pride and joy. “I still remember,” she said. “He went into the Air Force during the war, and do you know, he got the highest scores that had ever been recorded? They were so good that he was put into intelligence.”
I thought that might have been a bit of a stretch–it was more likely that my cousin, who was a smart guy, had gotten the highest possible score on a test meant to sort the meatheads from the masterminds. My dad had often told of how his own high score on that test allowed him to serve out Vietnam as an electrician rather than as an infantryman. But she was so proud, her voice swelling with motherly joy, that I simply agree. It is remarkable.
My cousin, and her only child, had been dead for about a year. A heavy smoker and inveterate energy drinker, he had collapsed in their shared kitchen from either a heart attack or a stroke the previous summer, never regaining consciousness. There were signs of his presence all throughout the house, from the phone lines carefully stapled to the wall between the jack and the computer he had used to the piles of magazines that could only have interested a man in his 60s. It had clearly left his mother at loose ends; on the drive down, my dad had reflected on how jealous he had once been of his cousin, who had received everything that my dad had to split with six other siblings.
The story about military aptitude scores soon shaded over into the tale of my great aunt’s late husband, who had shared the same name as their only child. “We were walking home from church one day,” my great aunt remembered, “and he said to me ‘Dear, I’m tired of paddling my own canoe. Will you marry me?'”
It probably sounded more romantic if you’d been there.
“He took me to his family home in West Virginia,” she continued, “to meet his parents. They lived on top of a little mountain, and there were no roads up there. So we had to climb the mountain together.”
“Why did he move so far from West Virginia?” I asked.
“Well, there weren’t a lot of jobs in those days, and he wanted to make something of himself.” I couldn’t help but wonder, as she said this, what his parents had thought. Their only surviving child–a sister had died young, as children often did back then–heading to a strange northern state to find his fortune and returning with a handsome young wife. I wonder what my great aunt had felt, used to the bustle of a northern city but nevertheless stomping though the West Virginia brush.
After lunch, I mentioned the last time I saw her sister, my grandmother, over Labor Day. “I’ve know her for 95 years,” my great aunt said with a laugh, “and you know, she still bosses me around!”
As she served us tea and biscuits in fine but well-worn cups, I thought about my relationship with my own younger brother. More often than not, he was the confident and bossy one; an inversion of our earlier relationship. I got the feeling that my great aunt and my grandmother had a relationship in stasis, unchanged for longer than I had been alive. “When we were in France, he was the one bossing me around,” I said. “He knows the country a lot better than I do.”
“Oh, I went to France once, with your uncle,” my great aunt said. “I wanted to try out the French I learned in lessons. Did you know my old French teacher is still alive? She even paid me a visit the other week.”
Over tea, we heard the same stories. The trip to France, the Glasgow homecoming, her son’s aptitude, her husband’s proposal, meeting the family in West Virginia, her elder sister’s bossiness. She seemed otherwise mentally rather sharp for a 95-year-old, yet the stories repeated.
Hearing them for a second time, I reflected a bit on this. My grandmother had lived a remarkable life, full of international travel. From her first trip abroad to the Holy Land just before the Yom Kippur War to her most recent visit in her 90th decade, she had been a true globetrotter. Her seven children, thirty-plus grandchildren, and thirty-plus great-grandchildren kept her busy with endless proud tales, endless family visits, and endless fodder for the novel-writing that she had taken up at age 90.
My grandmother had always been the plainer daughter who lived a life of the mind, if often a strident one, and embraced her passions for religion, reading, and Republicanism with a fire that impressed despite her age. Her younger sister had been the more conventional who lived a life of the body, very pretty and with a handsome husband and a handsome son. She had worked the same menial job for decades even as her big sister had gone back to school and graduated college as a 40-year-old.
I wondered if she wasn’t repeating the stories out of any twilight clouding of her facilities. I wondered if she was repeating them because they were the only stories she had to tell after a life devoted to supporting a husband and a son who were both now gone.
Before we left for the airport, I asked to take my great aunt’s picture. It would make a nice coda, I supposed, to a memory card otherwise full of feasting and my young niece and nephews. I had also regretted not taking pictures at other family gatherings in the past, leaving those moments to disappear forever.
She was not thrilled about having her picture taken; I suppose the portrait that my dad rehung for her was the mirror she preferred. But she acquiesced, asking only that I get her good side. I took a few snapshots with my parents and handed off the camera to be in a few shots as well. Three hours later, I was on a jet home.
Those were the last photographs ever taken of my great aunt.
I got the call a few days later. She had died peacefully in her sleep one week before Christmas, and thanks to my existing holiday travel plans, I would be present at her funeral–one of only a handful of extended family members who could make it.
I made prints of my photographs, affixed them to the memorial board, and sat among a crowd of mourners overwhelmingly dominated by the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of her sister. Part of the eulogy was given by her granddaughter, the last surviving member of my great aunt’s line. Childless herself, there was little prospect of a further generation.
As my dad offered remarks about how his aunt had helped raise him, I wondered anew at the contrast between the sisters. I may never know why my grandmother had so many children and her sister so few, but thinking about it then had only the effect of making me deeply sad. Unmarried myself, childless myself, I could easily envision another casket laid out in forty years’ time. My brothers’ children and their children, distant cousins, eulogies about how I had impacted their lives failing to gloss over the fact that my line was forever ended.
If nothing else, I decided, I would honor my great aunt’s memories by telling the stories that she had repeated so often, that were still fresh in my mind, one last time. So I rose, the last family member to do so, and told the assembled mourners of the French tutor, the trip to Paris. Tea in the little tenement in Glasgow, soaring Air Force aptitude scores. Bossy sisters and dual-paddled canoes.
I ended with this: “My great aunt told us of how she visited her husband’s family in West Virginia, how she climbed a mountain to meet with them. She has climbed another mountain, now, to be with her husband and her son once more. And they will never be apart again.”
Those stories, and many others, died with my great aunt. I am happy that I was able to tell them one last time, and to record them here.