2017-08-16 / Columns

Remembering Aunt Belle, a woman who lived life on her own terms


We buried Aunt Belle 15 years ago in this season on a grassy hillside. It was a graveside service: Simple, brief and somehow altogether fitting.

Not many tears.

No sad songs.

Just an almost painfully plain pine coffin and some traditional Jewish prayers recited by a rabbi who spoke of Aunt Belle’s pious life.

I think of my mother’s oldest sister each year at this time. And I realize that as in so many families, there are gaps left that can’t be filled. “Too late” are among the saddest words we can utter about relatives who are gone.

What’s left is a kind of deep regret about this little woman I barely knew. I think of her eccentricities and the isolated life she led, and I wish, once again, that I had tried to know her better. Endings always make us aware of the unfinished business of family.

Aunt Belle had married late in life, had been widowed early, and had produced no children. She was always “different.” Eccentric. Maybe even an embarrassment to her more conventional sisters.

In the end, advancing age and illness had made Aunt Belle dependent in a way that she hated. Her final year was one of almost unending medical crises, and my aunt loathed anything even faintly dramatic. Soap operas were not her thing.

The last few times I saw my aunt, all that was left of her physically was a wasted, skeletal body. But there remained that keen intelligence and feisty spirit that I had both feared and admired as a child.

Aunt Belle had accepted, without complaint or anger, the pain of illness. There was an equanimity about her, despite the semi-hysteria of those who gathered around her bedside.

We resented the nurses who ignored her. We lamented the vague indifference of attendants in pale green smocks who saw nothing beyond the charts and molecules and body fluids.

“This is a person with a history, a past,” I had wanted to shout at the young resident who said, “Your aunt is near death. Do you want to be notified?”

Aunt Belle fooled them. She hung on for a few days longer than the pale green smocked men and women thought she would.

On the night before she died, my husband and I visited her. Her emaciated arms shocked me more than they had the last time. Her eyes seemed less focused.

But we shouted our good cheer to her, because Aunt Belle was quite deaf. Those shouts rang hollow in our own ears.

I held her tiny, wasted hands in mine and tried to warm them.

But they were as cold as… death.

The next morning, we were “notified.”

There were so many questions I wished I’d asked Aunt Belle, so many mysteries about her that will go forever unsolved. They were buried with her on that sloping hillside years ago.

But I think of her more often than I would have expected to.

I see parts of her in my own daughters, and in myself, too.

I recognize, as I grow older, that the pull of family is mighty and that its bonds are marrow-deep. But sometimes, there are incomplete chapters.

I know it was difficult for my mother to have Belle as her sister. But was it ever wonderful? Did each of them have memories that would make them smile?

I’ll never know. But I keep hoping that they did.

And I remember a poem I love, one that somehow always makes me think of Aunt Belle:

“When I am an old lady, I shall wear purple, with a red hat, which doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me. I shall go out in my slippers in the rain, with hair in pincurls.”

I like to believe that my late Aunt Belle symbolically chose to wear purple, and to march in her slippers, in the rain, to a different drummer.

And somehow, that’s a fine legacy for those of us who knew her not nearly well enough—but who mourn her still.


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