This is a guest column written by J’s niece, who recently visited:
On Sunday, visited my Aunt J, who is now in an assisted living facility, living in Alzheimer’s. I say “living in” because that’s what it is. She is IN a place of her own and no one ever knows whether it’s distressful for her or devoid of any stress and worry….do memories keep us on edge and more aware of ourselves or can not having many of them lighten our cerebral load? Who knows. There’s many arguments about forgetting things that we wish not to remember but who of us WANT to suddenly be robbed of that?
I haven’t always maintained a close relationship with my Aunt J. I didn’t have a difficult one, either. She was still living at home with my grandparents, finishing high school and entering college when I was just a little person, 5, 6,7, also living with my grandparents. My Christmas presents would be under the tree right next to hers and Christmas mornings, we would all be together, unwrapping our presents…me with my Chrissy and Velvet dolls, her with her clothes and books more befitting a young woman….
I do remember that I liked my Aunt J. I remember a lot of laughter in my grandparents home as a young person. She looked out for me like a bigger sister would and she always had a calming persona. And smart. Even then, at a young age, she was so smart and I could sense it.
I remember we, my grandparents and I, visited her in Boston where she attended Wellesley. I remember kayaking with her and I remember being in awe of her, so young and pretty with her long, brown hair, no makeup but fresh pretty face and smile. She was a woman I looked up to. And then, poof. Our lives separated. I was shipped off to live with my father and his new wife and just didn’t see J for such a long time. Here and there, sporadically, but for the most part, I didn’t see her.
Until I turned 13 or 14. I was troubled. My father and his wife were in a dysfunctional relationship. I, at that young an age, recognized my father’s philandering going on and was the emotional punching bag for his wife. She was miserable and she hated that she was left at home with her husband’s child while he was off doing god knows what or who. I acted out. Ran away a couple times and found out later that my Aunt J, learning of this somehow, approached my father and mother (her sister) and offered to try and help me. She offered me a home in Charlotte, North Carolina where she was living with her partner, A. I wasn’t part of the conversation or decision-making, I just know off I went to live with J and A in Charlotte.
It was a very cute little Cape Cod with cool stuff in the house, lots of good cooking and constant stream of the McGarrigle Sisters, Joni Mitchell, Melanie and other great chick music. I went to school and plugged along, but ended up presenting teenage problems for them too that they couldn’t handle. So I was shipped off again, back to my father who was leaving for Athens, Greece to do a two-year stint.
I never felt like my time with J and A was regretful, I have fond memories of being there. And yesterday, while I was visiting her, I told her a few stories about my stay with her, things that if she were completely cognizant, she would have chuckled at too, but alas, she does not have those memories stored away. She truly did not entirely know who I was so she couldn’t put the story together in her own mind’s eye.
She and I looked at photos she has in her room of her parents and her siblings. She pointed to my mother in the photo and said a couple times ,“She’s dead. she’s dead.” I broke. I began to cry and tell J I missed my mother and she just stared at me blankly. Again, is it better to remember and feel the pain of loss or was she better off for being so matter-of-fact about it and not FEELING the pain of it? Who knows.
I can only hope that before this nasty disease that robs us of our memories settled into my Aunt J, that I provided HER with some decent memories of me. I hope she had no regrets about taking me into her life for a period of time and trying to help me. I hope she at some point realized that she absolutely did the best she could and it wasn’t long into my adulthood that I recognized that about her and appreciated that about her. Truth be told, that little bit of time I was with her, I was safer. I was happier. It was the respite I needed.
J and I walked around the neighborhood yesterday, and I chattered on and on about stuff, catching myself a couple times asking “do you remember…..?” which I realize wasn’t fair. But she was the same forthright person she’s always been and would give me a firm “no.” I told her stories about my grandchildren, told her about my job, asked her about her children and her wife. She wasn’t able to finish too many sentences but she wanted to converse with me. She held my hand a couple times which I’d like to believe was momentary recognition………or just gratitude that I was there, a visitor.
She looks like the J I’ve always known. She was warm and pleasant and towards the end, as we sat in the wooden gliders on the large porch of this place, she suddenly raised her fist and said “Hillary!”
Yep, that’s my Aunt J.