Saturday, April 16, 2016

So Close, So Far Away

Aunt Kathleen ~ c.1940
Her name was Kathleen, and she was beautiful. She was my aunt and my godmother. Today she died at the honorable age of 94.

Born in 1921, eighteen months after my mother, Kathleen was the second of five children. Of all the siblings, now only Mom remains.

Most of my memories of my aunt are from childhood. Soon after my birth, she married and proceeded to have five sons and two daughters, in that order. In my early years, she lived in the New York suburbs. Our families visited regularly, and I often spent a week at my aunt’s house during summer vacation. Looking back, I’m amazed she didn’t mind having another mouth to feed.

My memories are old but vivid. In my mind’s eye, I see identical tee shirts in several different sizes fluttering from her clothesline, turned inside out in case the sun faded the fabric. I recall a large plastic tablecloth spread on her garage floor, a tall step-up chair, and the hum of a barber’s clippers while each of my cousins sat in turn as she gave them buzz haircuts. I remember huge plastic pitchers of powdered milk, one plain and one chocolate, that my aunt vigorously mixed and placed in the refrigerator the night before “so the flavor sets,” she once explained to me.

I also remember being made to feel quite special on certain occasions. On my sixth birthday I received a gold birthstone ring from Aunt Kathleen and Uncle Bob. She would present me with a small gift as a reward for a good report card. These kind surprises occurred as her own family was growing so quickly. I marvel that she found the time.

When I was twelve years old, my aunt and her family moved from New York to Florida after my uncle took a job there. This was a seismic family event. Visits, by practical necessity, would become increasingly rare over the decades. My own relocation to California further restricted our physical contact. She telephoned me the day after Pete died, overcome with emotion. I remember being so glad to hear from her. But it’s well over twenty years since I last saw my aunt.

The first year after she moved to Florida, she and I exchanged letters. Aunt Kathleen’s letters, two or three pages long, were written in crisp, clear script on loose leaf paper (no doubt lifted from a three-ring school binder). I would devour her words, often reading paragraphs aloud to my curious mother, then quickly write back. Sure as sunrise, within two weeks, Aunt Kathleen’s answering letter would arrive.

My aunt never drove a car, and my uncle was often away from home for his job. Yet she raised and cared for seven children, kept a spotless house, walked to and from daily Mass--and wrote letters to her niece a thousand miles away. Remarkable.

I kept my aunt’s letters tied in a ribbon and tucked in a drawer in my childhood bedroom. Over many years and several moves, the letters have been lost. Today, remembering good days long gone, I dearly wish I could read them again.