Friday, November 9, 2007

Strange Eulogy for Aunt Louise

It has been a long time since I wrote, and much has happened. I have a new-to-me car, which I bought with great trepidation, a line of credit on my house and every red penny I could squeeze from everywhere, including my poor parents who (at 84 and 82) were in the middle of an excruciating move into senior housing.
But I now have a 2004 pearlized gray Honda Accord with only 35,000 miles on it. I expect it to last another 200,000 miles-well through my next road trip! If, of course, I can avoid totaling it, too. (This is a joke. I've totaled my car for this lifetime, and managed to walk away physically unharmed!
I have a lot more to write about the trip, and my struggles since I got back, but I have a more somber story to write about today. My Aunt Louise died yesterday. It was well past time, she was 84, nearly 85, and really never took good care of her health. She was the epitome of a spinster aunt, my mother's older sister. My grandparents, who kept her at home in their long lifetimes, referred to her as slow. My mother called her marginally retarded, and today we would probably say (being PC) that she was somewhat developmentally disabled.
What this has always meant to me is that she really had no life of her own, even after my grandparents died. She then moved into a small apartment complex near my parents, where my mother kept an eye on her, and my father took over her finances (a subject she resented for the next 40 years). Once a year she vacationed alone at the Jersey Shore in some boarding house, where she made her only real friend -Priscilla who lived there on a good deal of money. They wrote letters back and forth, and visited once a year.
Two years after my parents moved from the Main Line of Philadelphia to Denver, she admitted that she could not live completely alone, and my parents moved her out to near-but not too near- them. At some point she converted to Mormonism-something my mother could not tolerate-so she did have "visitors" once a month-volunteers who brought pamphlets to the elderly and "sheltered" and stayed for a strict half an hour.
And my poor mother struggled all her life with guilt around her sister. My grandmother pushed Louise off on mom as much as possible, then compared mom badly to the neurotically neat Louise at every opportunity. Mom grew up massively conflicted and guilty about her sister, a situation that lasted over 80 years. They met for lunch regularly, she spent holidays with them.
Every time I visited, I made time to visit her for an everlasting "tea." Each time, I admired her extensive stuffed animal collecting, her small but spotless apartment, and listened gently to her repeat herself over and over, talking about her endless sicknesses, colds, the flu, high BP, ER visits (usually timed when my mother was away, so my brother Luke and his wife Mary would have to cope) and most though most hospital visits ended up with testing which showed nothing much really wrong with her, she share her worries with great lengths, And, boy, did she worry about her health, and shared that worry with anyone she saw, especially my poor mother. I would gently remind my mother that she had little else in her life besides her hypochondria, but it was difficult to listen to, time after time. 
And her timing was a family joke; when my mother was diagnosed with bowel cancer, and Louise went to the ER with stomach cramps, which she was sure was cancer. Thousands of dollars of tests later, which she had to pay out of her very small trust fund, she was diagnosed with indigestion. But her letters to my mother (stuck in the Poconos with surgery, chemo and radiation) never acknowledged mom's illness, just went on endlessly about her own health.
Poor woman, she was lonely, completely self absorbed, and though I adored her as a small child, by the age of twelve, I had outgrown  her. Today she would live happily in a group home, and enjoy a job as a file clerk. She was unlucky enough to be born in a time and social strata which kept handicapped family members at home, though , luckily, my grandparents did not try to keep her hidden away. Just home, and not very busy.
I do have good memories of her, though, that keep me crying on and off. Her enjoyment of her one glass of sherry at daily cocktail time at my grandparents. And her sly pleasure of drinking a glass occasionally even after she had converted to Mormonism. She even offered me some at my last visit for tea in April, and we indulger in a thimbleful each, along with our Earl Gray.
I also remember her pleasure of piano playing-competent at best, but good enough for Sunday School children in the local Mormon church. (And the Mormons were much better to her than the Episcopalians ever were). She loved her season tickets to the Philadelphia Orchestra, and once, when my grandmother was talking about how shockingly shaggy the conductor's hair was, she confided in me, sotto voice, that she loved Leonard Bernstein's long hair, especially when it flopped into his eyes and he jerked his head to move it away. It was sort of sexy, wasn't it? I grinned and nodded, a moment in time shared secretly between aunt and niece.
It was the only time I ever heard "sexy" pass her lips, for she was the old fashioned epitome of a spinster aunt. Never dated, never had a man interested in her, live alone, both with my grandparents, and for the 40 years after they died. She enjoyed her TV programs, her neat apartments, her stuffed animals, and her food, as she grew stouter and stouter as the years progressed, happily going out to lunch with anyone who asked, who would pick her up and take her.
She also loved her sicknesses, her hospitalizations, because of the attention they brought her-sad but real-and, in her own limited way, my mother and her two nieces and her nephew. And we loved her, too, more at sometimes, less at others, each of us in our own way, for our own reasons. I am glad she died quickly, with my parents and Luke and Mary by her side, and I hope that where ever she goes now, she will have a happier, less lonely and more fulfilled life.
Good bye, Aunt Louise, I will miss the forbidden thimbleful of sherry at tea with you.
Blessings, Margo