Friday, October 9, 2009

Birthday Tribute

Today would have been my aunt's 89th birthday. She passed away last spring after years of suffering from dementia. As sad as I was at her passing, I was relieved to know that her tremendous ordeal had come to and end and so I did not grieve, per se, I rejoiced instead in having had her in my life.
As a child I was full of admiration for my pretty and petite aunt.  I, too, wanted to grow up to become what I considered to be a glamorous, happily married, fun mother. Always perfectly coiffed and well dressed, my aunt exuded a joie de vivre other members of my immediate family seemed to lack. She would speak her mind, hold her ground in an argument and shrug her shoulders with good humour when she lost a round. That would change over time as depression, disappointments and regrets began to cloud her horizon. But as a young woman, my aunt was simply fabulous with a laugh that always made me feel good.
She had a very quick step that I would recognize instantly whenever she came down the walkway to our house. Usually in heels (for a little bit of height) and often in a suit or form-fitting slacks, my aunt was every bit as glamorous as the movie stars of her era that she so admired. Even when she was housecleaning or doing laundry, which in those days was an all-day affair of wringing and twisting, hanging and stretching, it was done with style, a turban on her head to keep the hairdo fresh and a huge apron to protect her clothes.
My aunt was quite adept in the kitchen, the one place where I think she felt she had supreme power. She and only she, could create those mouth-watering meals that my uncle, who bellowed for his food the moment he stepped through the door every evening, would eat with gusto while she watched and listened to how good or miserable his day had been. She would spend hours sifting through magazines to find new recipes, adding her own interpretations, making them uniquely hers, and, strangely enough, eating very little herself.
She was also an incredible seamstress, making many of her own clothes and turning old skirts or fabric remnants into little dresses for me.
As a young girl she had apparently wanted to become a window dresser, fashion  always having been a huge interest, but world events and subsequent immigration put a damper on her dreams. In order to help her family she had to settle for sewing for a living instead. She was good enough that she might have made a career out of her talent but women in those days, the early 1950's, married and then stayed home to raise their family. In my aunt's case, she was expected to stay home and raise my cousin as much as she was expected to serve a warm meal  when my uncle got home. She accepted those expectations and somehow, in carrying them out to the best of her ability  year in and year out, she stopped having any expectations of her own.
Around the time I was a teen she and my uncle moved to the country. Never having learned to drive, my aunt spent the next decade in a beautiful but very isolated spot where I think what was left of her self-confidence  eroded away completely. She was reduced to making marmelade and talking to her dogs during long days of waiting for my uncle to return from work and my cousin from school.Television and magazines, books and occasional visits filled the void but never completely. She and I once went to town to see a film sometime in the late 1960's and I remember that she was as giddy as a schoolgirl to be out and about. We went to see "Prudence and The Pill" with Deborah Kerr and David Niven, a film about confusion and mayhem in a British household that appealed greatly to her sense of humour. I can still see her little nose wrinkling whenever she laughed as she enthusiastically recounted the plot of the film to my uncle.
The last time I saw my aunt she still had splendidly coiffed hair and a brooch on her lapel. She seemed shorter and was walking with a cane. Her once-sprightly step was unsure and her eye make-up was smudged. She was pessimistic about everything, from the weather to her health, and she had no real understanding of the world beyond her immediate neighbourhood. We ate a terrible meal in an equally terrible restaurant but I knew I would likely not see her again and so I focused on her rather than on the food. My heart was full of love for this woman who had played such a pivotal role in my life; someone who had opened her home to me on countless occasions and offered me shelter when I needed it.
Now that she is gone, I can see, in hindsight, that my aunt inadvertantly taught me a valuable lesson. Which is that if you don't evolve with the times, if you don't expand your horizons, if you simply stay in your groove without questioning, you will have no inner resources to draw on when bad times come. Her subsequent illness and her descent into dementia were hellish for her and her depression, crippling. She was a victim of her time, my aunt, and her own worst enemy, for she never believed she mattered enough to initiate any kind of change. Taking a step into the unknown was just too scary for her.  I know that letting time slip by out of fear of change, should never have been her only option. For so many from that era, it was.
Luckily for me, we live in easier times. On what would have been her birthday, I declare that every time I reach for a higher goal, I do it for her as much as for myself.

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