I have heard it said that the “second death” is the death of everyone who ever knew you, and in a sense, that it is sadder than the first because then the person will no longer be in anyone’s memories. It is with this in mind that I write this blog because I don’t want to forget.
My last remaining aunt died this past week. Aunt Connie was my mother’s sister. Her given name was Constance Marie, but she hated her first name and always went by Connie (and briefly Marie, but I digress). She was ninety-two, and I could always remember her birthday because it was two days after mine. I imagine that is why she always remembered mine too, but in my heart I know this wasn’t true because she didn’t forget my sisters’ birthdays either. That is, up until several years ago when I received a card signed “Grandma,” which she had scratched out, and then replaced with “Aunt Connie.” I guess that is when I should have known that she was in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s, but it wasn’t until almost a year later that a diagnosis was made.
In fact, by then she was living with her one of her sons and his wife. By the time my father died in 2010, she was well into losing her short-term memory. I wasn’t sure she would even recognize me at his funeral, but she did. She greeted me as she always had: a big smile, her signature greeting of “You’re my doll baby,” a hand on either cheek, and a kiss and hug, making me feel as if I were the most important person in the world. Throughout the day, though, I saw her deteriorate as if she was worn out by all the commotion (of the family) at the house.
A year or so later, my cousin’s wife was talking to my older sister and asked if she would send my aunt a card every so often. By this time, Aunt Connie’s mail consisted mainly of bills, and not many at that. So, from that time forward, Sally and I made a conscious effort to send cards. Personally, I made it a monthly event to find and send cards for holidays or just because. The last one was sent a few weeks ago for the New Year. According to my cousin, it really made a difference to her, and she would look at them all the time.
By her ninetieth birthday, Aunt Connie could hardly remember why she was celebrating. Unfortunately, I missed the party, but I saw her a few months later at her daughter-in-law’s funeral. Again, she immediately recognized me, but then just as quickly didn’t know who I was or even where she was. That’s the day I felt like I lost two important people in my life.
Despite this, she had memories from long ago. Memories that made her laugh, stories she would tell over and over again. Some of these memories I heard from my mother over the years. For example, when they lived in Reading, Pennsylvania, both she and my mom worked driving cranes around a factory.
One of Mom’s favorite stories had to do with weekly cleaning of the house. She told me that she got conned week after week with the great deal of cleaning only the bathroom and kitchen while Aunt Connie agreed magnanimously to clean the rest of the house (the living room, parlor, and all the bedrooms). What seemed like a deal on the surface was not. Her sister was done by noon, but the kitchen would be cleaned up after breakfast, which would be followed by lunch. The kitchen would then need cleaning again, which would be followed by dinner, and so on. The same was true for the bathroom. Repeated cleaning of the bathroom was always necessary. I am always reminded of this when I clean up the kitchen only to find it is dirty again.
Another favorite story had to do with sneaking out of the house to get ice cream. Apparently, if the inside of the ice cream bar had a pink center, the person got an extra bar and a chance to win another. As Mom told it, her sister always was lucky and won an extra ice cream. One night with their nickel, Aunt Connie managed to win more than they really could eat without getting sick. Every bar had a pink center and every spin of the wheel landed on a free ice cream so that eventually she returned home with arms full of ice cream. Yet, their parents never knew about their nighttime foray although, surprisingly enough, they didn’t want any ice cream for a long time after that.
The last of Mom’s stories that I will mention has to do with her name. As mentioned earlier, my aunt didn’t like being called Constance; rather she preferred the less formal name of Connie. At one point, she decided she would go by her middle name of Marie at school. She never mentioned it at home apparently. One day, one schoolmate asked my mom if she was Marie’s sister, and of course, Mom replied in the negative, that she only had one sister. A few minutes later, she realized the student was talking about her sister Connie.
I have my own favorite memories of my aunt, too. My sisters and I stayed with my aunt and uncle a few times. I particularly remember vacationing with them during the summer one year. I was all of about five at the time, and it was during the time of the Democratic National Convention. My Uncle Bob was rooting for John Kennedy to win the nomination. At this time, I still didn’t know how to tie my shoes, but the only way he would tie my shoes is if I said I was for Kennedy, too. Finally, almost in tears, I said I was just to get my shoes tied that night.
Growing up, we spent most holidays (Thanksgiving, Easter, and Christmas) with my mother’s extended family (my grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousins). Always fun, except for the long drives (or what seemed like long drives), Christmas was our first experiences with gift-giving. One particular year during the VietNam conflict, my cousin Denny was away. He was serving in the Navy on a destroyer. I remember my aunt breaking down when she saw the shirt that her other son bought for Denny. It was a dark plaid cotton shirt, nothing particularly special. I didn’t understand it then, but I do now. Having a son away on deployments, particularly at Christmas, I know the fears she had for his safety, how much she missed him.
I will miss you, Aunt Connie, but I won’t forget you. Nor will your grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Rest in peace.