Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Sad Memory

This is a photo from 1978 of my mother’s Aunt Alice and Uncle Charlie, my great aunt and great uncle. They lived near us throughout my life until they died. They were really grandparents to my brother and me, giving us many experiences, many presents, and lots of love.
Aunt Alice was my grandmother’s sister, second–generation Irish from Buffalo, New York. She was a warm, loving, and very light–hearted woman who loved her life, most especially Uncle Charlie. She was a terrible cook, but Uncle Charlie thought that she was his own personal Julia Child. He loved her cooking, lumpy mashed potatoes and all. She was a good Catholic woman, but most of all she was a great lover of her family: her son, two grandchildren, my mother and her siblings, and my brother and me. One of my favorite memories of her is from a trip she, Uncle Charlie, my Mom, my brother, and I took to Texas and Colorado in 1963. We were driving from Dallas, Texas, to Boulder, Colorado, when my brother started showing her his recent issues of Mad Magazine. Aunt Alice had never seen those silly things before, and she loved them. She laughed so hard that she had the whole car laughing with her, even though only she had read the magazines. I loved her very much.
Uncle Charlie was a second–or third–generation German American, also from Buffalo. He was a hard worker who loved his work. He made small wooden models of historic sites for the National Park Service in the Department of the Interior. He was an artist. When he turned 70 years old, he was supposed to retire. 70 was the mandatory retirement age for Federal civil servants back then (around 1970). He was given a year–to–year extension and so worked for two or three more years. My memories of Uncle Charlie mostly are of him in his chair in his living room, reading the paper (he took the evening paper, The Washington Star, so he would have the most up–to–date news when he came home from work), listening to the large radio they had in their living room, or just sitting and thinking. Another memory I have is from the same Texas/Colorado trip I wrote about above. He, my mother, and I were walking apart from all the others of the family during a visit to an amusement park in Denver. We decided we were hungry and Uncle Charlie bought the three of us a hot dog with sauerkraut. I still can remember how delicious that hot dog was! About halfway through the hot dog, my mother remembered that it was Friday, when we weren’t supposed to eat meat. She mentioned this to Uncle Charlie, suggesting that we toss the remainders of our hot dogs. Uncle Charlie said that he wasn’t going to chuck his. His hot dog, he said, was so good it was worth going to hell for. All of us finished our hot dogs, enjoying them even more because they were so good they were—literally—sinful.
Aunt Alice and Uncle Charlie have been on my mind all day. Last night, when I was saying my bedtime prayers, a memory came to me from Uncle Charlie’s funeral with a very clear image of Aunt Alice, inconsolably sobbing throughout the funeral Mass. By this time, Aunt Alice was about 90 years old. She and Uncle Charlie had been married for 70 years or more. While earlier in her life she had been a generously–sized short woman, at the time of Uncle Charlie’s death she had lost so much weight that everything below her head looked like bones in a loose container of skin. She sat in the front pew at church, a very tiny woman with her son’s arm solidly around her to comfort her, and she sobbed. She didn’t say anything. She just cried. When I went to kiss her at the Kiss of Peace, I soon regretted approaching her. Seeing me, for some reason, set off a fresh round of tears. I saw her several more times that day—at the cemetery and at her son’s home—but she didn’t react to me that way again, thank God.
My memory of this funeral Mass made me very sad. It made me realize again how much these two people loved one another, how deeply dependent they were on one another in their latter years, how they faced old age and death not alone but together. Although she never explained her grief, Aunt Alice didn’t have to. I had some understanding of it at the time, but now my understanding is much deeper. With a different understanding, my memory, with its crystal–clear images, has made me tear up several times, something I didn’t do at the funeral. I wish I had hugged Aunt Alice more that day. I wish that I had known then what I think I know now about her feelings.
I’ve heard from several sources that one of the biggest components of grief is the fact that the death of a loved one makes us immediately conscious of our own mortality. I believe that’s true, at least in part. But I also believe that Aunt Alice’s grief that morning had little if anything to do with her own death, which came two years later, and everything to do with losing her life’s one and only soul mate, the man she loved in the 1910's and the man she loved even more in the 1990's.
I’m asking God again to give these two beautiful people the eternal joy that they deserve. I’m also asking God to make sure that they stay together so that the journey that they began together in Buffalo more than 100 years ago may continue together now and forever.