Aunt Patty Was What "Aunt" Means

No better sisters:
Auntie Patty, Left. Mom, Front. Auntie Phyllis, right.
I lost my aunt very early this morning. My Aunt Patty was Mom's best friend. Mom passed in 1989, but time spent at Auntie Patty's house with her defines my childhood: countless sleepovers, TV on the living room floor, holiday meals, thick-crust pizza on a square sheet pan, olive green Corningware with the matching flatware, cups of tea, and grape popsicles in summer. Getting out of Randolph to head south before the traffic starts. Singing songs the whole way home. Arguing with mom in the summer heat when kids could still sit in the front seat. Aunt Patty had a hand in some of my most vivid childhood memories. 

Mom and Patty each balanced four wild kids of their own with the normal struggles of having a husband. My memories of Aunty Patty do not so much involve any specific attention from or direct relationship with her as they are a defining connection to all that she was: her home, her children, her meatballs, her laughter, Uncle Mitch's booming voice, her cigarettes (she never inhaled), and her tuna fish with celery. (My mom never put celery in tuna.) Mosquito-ridden Wiffle ball on the 4th of July. Little tiny toads plucked from the grass near the stream out back. The giant Willow tree and its miniature black beetles. Sitting on the blue skateboard and flying down the hill on Reynolds Ave. The knotty pine paneling under the slanted ceilings upstairs. 

As I got older, Aunt Patty didn't really call me all that much because her own plate was more than full. Still, we remained closely connected, because her oldest daughter Marylou was just eight months and nine days older than me and was like a sister through all the years. Aunt Patty had the same kidney cancer that took my mother, but hers had been caught earlier, so she lived with it for thirty more years than mom did, even though it is what took her in the end. That was only the beginning of the burdens she carried, and I only know some of the highlights and  lowlights: Her husband had Parkinson's; she nursed him at home til his last breath, and it wore her to the bone. Her oldest three all have the same cancer; her youngest daughter has M. S. She worked full time for (I think) more than thirty years at Catholic retreat center where her cousin was a priest. We all felt sad for her for all the weight she was carrying, but still, at every important event in my life through the years, she was there in the front row. 

Before my wedding shower, my anxiety was through the roof. The shower was not a surprise, but I felt keyed up and nervous. No doubt it was a heavy dollop of social anxiety, even though everyone in the room would be the closest friends and family. I suppose I was feeling sad that a certain relationship with a beloved aunt had gone south and she wasn't present, and I wondered who in the room was on what side. Who truly was there to support, and who was there to report?  I missed that relationship, and I missed her daughter, my cousin. Perhaps worse, at the shower, there was no mom of my own, but it had been years since she died so that loss was not up front. It was just nerves, I suppose. Upon arrival, who was the first person I saw? Aunt Patty, next to Aunt Phyllis and Aunt Ellie, sitting in the very front row but taking no sides as I opened gifts on the decorated chair, making sure they would not miss a thing and, I suspect, making sure I saw them too. Not because they wanted to be seen but because they wanted me to know I was supported. I noticed, and dammit, it helped. Attentive, laughing at my wisecracks, and part of it all, because they cared. It mattered so much. It is the only lasting memory I have of that day. 

Happy memories of Auntie Patty's house
are happy memories of Mom.

Patty was my godmother. I think that meant she was supposed to be mom's spiritual pinch-hitter, but trust me this is not a spirit that will accept outside guidance and she knew that. Over the years, Patty could not possibly have been there for every moment a mother might, but it seemed to me that either way, her heart had endless space, and she was as a damn good under-study. Life is busy; it takes all of our energy, and whatever she did or did not do, I didn't even notice because I never once questioned her love. I believe it is part of the reason I have remained afloat in turbulent waters. When you have no mother, this is how an aunt can matter. 

In the last weeks of her life, I had a talk with her son, my cousin Brian. He had recently visited her, and asked if she had any regrets. She thought about it for a while, and her response: "No.... Just that I miss my sister." Connie. My mother. Her sister. Still, thirty years later after Mom's passing. Every person we lose is irreplaceable, and I suppose that losing Aunt Patty is losing a living connection to all those memories, to my mother, to a certain kind of unconditional love.

A friend continually reminds me that sometimes when we cannot have that love from someone else, then sometimes we are called to be that love to someone else. With Aunt Patty's passing, a torch has passed, too. She was an inspiration of persistence and positivity through hardship, and an example of unconditional family love. To me, she was a shining example of how family takes care of each other. And an example of how to endure and still laugh.

I hope I can be that aunt someday myself. But without the celery.

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