April 26, 2010
This has been a sad week for me. My Aunt Lil, my father’s younger sister, died yesterday afternoon. She had a good long life—she was 93. But still she fought until the bitter end, when her body finally gave out.
She was the last of my blood relatives in my parents’ generation, so an important part of my connection to the past has been lost.
I never sat down to record her memories the way I did with my mother’s sister, my Aunt Sarah (memories I turned into my novel Glass Hearts). I fully intended to. The time just slipped away. So I may never be able to preserve a part of her history in the same way I was able to preserve Sarah’s. That makes the loss all the more painful.
Here’s what I know about Lil. She was unfailingly kind to me. We laughed a lot together, especially when we talked about her childhood. She spoke her mind clearly and plainly. If you ever asked her about sports or politics or people who might have slighted her, you always got an earful. I loved that about her.
I think the defining event in her life was the death of her father during the 1918 influenza outbreak. He was buried in Cleveland, and every year, for as long as she was able, she visited his grave. I imagined that she sat in front of his headstone with tears in her eyes, wondering what he was like and how her life might have been different if he had lived. So while my grandfather’s death turned my father, who himself survived the flu, into the man of the house at the tender age of four, it left a big hole in my aunt’s heart.
She spent the rest of her life missing her father.
In her mind, she painted an idealized picture of him. She treasured the few photographs she had of him, including the one that was on his headstone. He was little more than a teenager, and he wore a sailor’s uniform. In the only wedding picture I ever saw, he and my grandmother, though dressed in fancy clothes, look like they are about fifteen.
My grandmother rarely talked about him. I don’t know why. Maybe I didn’t ask loudly or often enough.
It seems oddly appropriate that so much of what I’ve just written about my aunt has to do with her father. If she were still here, she’d probably appreciate that. I’m not a terribly religious person, but I hope that, wherever she is, she has met up with him and that they are having a high old time finally getting to know one another.