My Aunt Gert died on October 6, 19 days shy of her 95th birthday. Gert was a legend in her own time, propelled by looniness that was the fodder for endless jokes between myself and my kids, as well as various blog posts. Nobody who ever met Gert would forget her.
Being raised in a family with an emotionally abusive father and a bullying brother, it was obvious that Gert was a damaged soul. She decided at an early age that she would never be responsible for creating or raising a family of her own. And so she had no children and made sure she married a man who would hold her accountable for basically nothing. Gert was a smart, capable woman who opted out of being an adult. And her husband, with his own fears, enabled her. He was a large man, she a small woman. She delighted in telling him “Big you is afraid of little me.”
Gert was a textbook hypochondriac and suffered from lifelong depression. She believed that she was plagued with any number of life-ending maladies, and then proceeded to outlive everyone around her. In her 80s, she was diagnosed with head and neck cancer. Before treatment could even start, the cancer suddenly disappeared. In her 90s, she fell and broke her hip. After a short stay in the hospital, the hip mended and never caused any subsequent problems. At the time of her death, her sum total of ailments was osteoporosis that never caused pain, a thyroid imbalance, and macular degeneration. Nothing more.
Gert couldn’t deal with the illness or death of anyone she cared about. When her sister (my mother) died of cancer at age 60, Gert attributed the death to my mom’s second kitchen in the basement, that she used to run her catering business. When her brother died, she accused his wife of killing him by making him walk to the temple without an umbrella and serving him small portions of food. She didn’t go to either of their funerals.
Gert believed my grandfather killed my grandmother by refusing to allow her to renew her heart meds, because they were too expensive. On that item, at least, I tend to agree with Gert. But, after hearing this accusation several times, I asked her why, if she knew this, she didn’t take action and get the meds herself. She was an adult and lived in the apartment upstairs. She could have easily taken action. Gert reacted, in one of the few times she became angry with me. And, after the anger, she became pitiful, reverting to her honest belief that life was out of her control. I had wounded her deeply, and I regret my comments to this day.
When her husband died of a heart attack, she called the police and newspapers and told anyone else who would listen that his nephew killed him by telling him to use potentially dangerous drops for his mild eye condition. And then, to make matters worse, this nephew then tried to get her to give him power of attorney so that he could control his uncle’s money. Even worse than the murder, Gert was convinced that the nephew also stole the small aluminum overhang to her back door. My uncle’s “murder” became the passion of Gert’s life for many years.
Gert didn’t have friends and didn’t entertain family. Both she and my uncle were mild hoarders, and they were eccentric. After my uncle died, the hoarding got worse. The dining room table was piled with stacks of paperwork. The refrigerator was a riot of moldy food. The freezer was filled with cartons of lactose-free milk. The calendar on top of the refrigerator was from 1986. My daughter and I came to the house one day and cleaned out the refrigerator, bagged up hundreds of catalogs, and also bagged dozens of small items around the house that were broken and/or of use to no one. We placed them all outside, in the snow, intending to put them at the curb when we left. Gert, barely able to get around by that time, put her coat on, trudged out into the snow, and brought all the bags back inside.
Living room cabinets were filled with key chains, change purses, and swizzle sticks given free by the casinos to the seniors who took the special $5 bus to Atlantic City. My aunt and uncle took the bus a lot. They collected their free goods, walked on the boardwalk, then took the bus back home.
My uncle collected Playboy magazines and girlie calendars. My aunt never seemed to care. Because they always lived a few houses away, I was in their apartment a lot. I grew up looking at Playboy centerfolds and the nude pin ups on the walls all over the house. After my aunt had a hysterectomy in the 1970s, she declared that she was finished with sex. She moved permanently into another bedroom. But she spoke dramatically about her brush with death for the next 30+ years.
Even a trip to the supermarket could be an event, when Gert was around. The dozen eggs she bought were gathered individually from 12 different cartons. The bunch of bananas was fashioned one at a time from other bunches. At the deli counter, the meat and cheese had to be newly started for her. She would not buy anything that had slices already taken from it. When Gert started using the electric cart to shop, the entire supermarket became her speedway. Gert careened around the store, with the first casualty usually being the carefully-constructed pyramid of cracker boxes in the deli section. When the supermarket workers saw Gert coming, they began to mobilize.
Gert loved to shop in catalogs, even though she never went anywhere and had no use for the clothing she bought. When she left her house and moved into the assisted living facility, I filled 27 large trash bags with unworn clothing that still had tags on them. Pink, yellow and baby blue were her favorite colors. Even her clothing was more suitable for a small child than for an adult woman.
I was the daughter Gert never had, and my children were the grandchildren she never had. She was constantly sending large cartons of clothing from Sears, even after my kids were old enough to be embarrassed by such clothes. She knit sweaters whose arms were twice as long as they should have been and sent them, as well. When my daughter was in her 30s, Gert tried to give her coats that she, herself, had never worn.
At the time of her death, Gert was 4’5″ tall and weighed 56 lbs. I used to joke that eventually, we’d be able to carry her around on the palm of our hands. I also honestly believed that she would outlive all of us. Last month, my daughter brought her three sons, aged seven, five, and four moths, to the nursing home to see Gert. The seven-year-old held Gert’s hand and talked to her for a long time, until I saw that the visit was exhausting Gert. But I hadn’t seen Gert so engaged in a long time. I have never been so proud of my grandson or of my daughter, for teaching her boys what it meant to honor family.
My aunt infuriated me on numerous occasions. She could be whiny, self-absorbed, and completely oblivious to the impact her words had on others. She blamed everyone but herself on the choices that she made for her life. She faulted her husband’s family for disrespecting her, my father for not being a good husband to my mother or good brother-in-law to her. She faulted her husband for hiding his overtime pay in a security box in the bank, even though the money was their nest egg. She faulted her brother for not taking her and her husband on rides, even though he knew they didn’t have a car (my uncle never learned to drive, because it scared him). She faulted any number of people who disappointed her, and there were many. She never appreciated how much my mother had to mother her, after my grandmother died. She never appreciated how much of a drain it was to listen to her constant litany of ailments and grievances.
And I loved her. I loved the moments that occurred, when she forgot about herself, and I saw the smart, funny, engaging person she was, underneath the constant fear and depression. I loved how much she loved my kids. I loved that she had a crush on my husband and would always ask, “So, you and Dan, are you still together? Are you serious?” and then, when I would tell her that we were married, she would be relieved and say “Good! Good!” After awhile, I suspected that she would have been happy to just see Dan at the nursing home, rather than me or the two of us together.
And I loved that, along with the childlike inability to assume adult responsibility, there existed a childlike sense of wonder at the very simple pleasures of life. Her brother taking her and her husband for that occasional ride in his car. The small, predictable watercolor beach scenes she ordered from catalogs and hung on her walls. The one bus trip she and my uncle took to New England. The extremely inexpensive ring she ordered from a catalog and wore proudly. It had a blue stone and she kept telling me how pretty it was to look at. I now carry the ring in my purse.
Gert, if you are reading this, know that I love you. My kids love you. You have left a mark on all of us and on everyone who ever crossed your path. It was probably not the kind of mark you would have anticipated leaving, but it is there, nonetheless. You were unique.