Columns 2012

A goodbye to my Aunt Toni

My family has now lost the one aunt left of my parents’ generation. In many ways, Alzheimer’s had caused her to leave us already in spirit. Only her physical being was still bound to the limits of our mortal world. Now she’s rejoined her family in where ever it is that we go when our spirit breathes it’s last earthly breath.

And now my generation of cousins goes to the top of something I call the death chain. Until she died, there was still one person above my generation in that hierarchy. When she passed, I suddenly felt very alone and vulnerable. My cousins and I have officially take the place of our parents’ generation in the eyes of the next generation.

I mourn my aunt for many reasons but especially because she’s always been someone special in my life. During the many difficult years of my adolescence and young adulthood, when my mother and I existed on different planetary systems, she was my rock. She supported and encouraged me. She made me feel valuable and helped me put my differences with my mother into perspective so that I never lost contact. That was more important than I ever realized until I lost my mother. Then it dawned on me that thanks to my Aunt Toni, I had no regrets, no empty years of estranged silence with mom. I’m not sure that would have happened without Aunt Toni.

The other reason I was so close to her was because she was a frustrated writer who had great talent but was born into a culture and time that said she would marry, have children, and be her husband’s helpmate. Like almost every other female in my extended family, she worked side by side with her husband in their various stores. Talk of her writing ambitions were met with smiles and then the subject was changed.  The men all but patted her lovingly on the head in a gesture of condescension that would have made any woman of my generation karate chop them where they live. I know these men did not deliberately do this out of condescension. It was just the way the world they inherited worked.

My Aunt Toni wrote a letter to Mussolini for her mom when she was a little girl. Her mother’s sister was in Italy and could not get a visa to emigrate. War was coming and doors were shutting. There was no family left for her in the Old Country. Her family in America wanted her here. Believe it or not, my aunt’s letter got a response from Il Duce himself. And Zizi joined us on this side of the Atlantic, one step ahead of WW II.

That was Aunt Toni’s greatest writing triumph. After that, she went back to the business of growing up, getting married, having kids – doing all the things housewives of the fifties were expected to do. And when she had time she wrote letters – letters to family, letters to friends, Christmas letters, and letters to the editor. Even when she was already dealing with Alzheimer’s, she still wrote and got something published in a local paper.

Maybe you have to be a writer to understand how compelling the urge is to put pen to paper, or keyboard to word document. It’s not an urge easily dismissed or ignored.  You find yourself composing in your head while cleaning the house. You have scraps of paper from one end of your home to the other with notes jotted down. You have pens available in every room in case a thought strikes as you’re walking through. It’s an impulse you deny at great risk of one day having your head explode.

I know this because I have felt that way all my life. But I grew up in a time when women successfully fought for infinitely more choices than my Aunt Toni ever had about the way her life would be lived. Women of my generation know how hard it was to be heard, to be respected as professionals, to be allowed the choices my aunt never had. Now that her life is over, I can only hope she knows how sorely this one writer, who she inspired with her refusal to give up on her dream, will miss her.