My great aunt is dying. She is 92.
Aunt Bernadine is the last of my relatives in her generation, and she is not my blood relative. She married my Nana’s brother, Uncle Ned. My family was very close with Uncle Ned – brunch every Sunday, always holidays and birthdays together – but Aunt Bernadine wasn’t always around. She was a bit of a recluse. For as much as Uncle Ned was normal, Aunt Bernadine was a little on the kooky side.
Aunt Bernadine didn’t dress flamboyantly, she wasn’t into the arts or something cool like pagan rituals. She never dispensed interesting or thoughtful advice, and she wasn’t the person I went to when I didn’t know how to talk to my parents. Rather, she was kind of self-focused and not real loving, even to her only daughter. My great aunt came from a family history of mental illness so even if she didn’t have a large dose of that, her family influenced how she interacted with others. Certainly not an influence one might prefer.
But I loved her. Yes, she was not to great to my Nana, but I came along well after all the fighting happened. I saw this quirky, nice lady who smiled when I said hello to her and would listen to me when I had some story to tell (which was often). I loved my Uncle Ned so I naturally loved my Aunt Bernadine. When you’re 7, that’s just how it works. Even as I got older and learned that she wasn’t the sweet old lady I thought she was, I didn’t care much. Water under the bridge to me.
Once, when I was at college, Aunt Bernadine mailed me some poems she wrote. I was touched that she thought to send them to me. Aunt Bernadine seemed to know me as me – a writer, an artist – not just as one of her great-nieces. I don’t know where those poems are, but I don’t think I threw them away. In the event that I find them, they will certainly be framed.
As the last of the truly Elder generation, I worked hard for my daughter to meet Aunt Bernadine. With L’s dancing and running around the lobby of the Assisted Living center, Aunt Bernadine would laugh or smile as best she could. I doubt L will remember my aunt, and that makes me sad. Sometimes I regret that I didn’t have children earlier so that my kids could enjoy as much of my family as possible (of course, who the father would have been I have no idea!). My family, although strewn out all over the U.S., is the focus of my life. I never thought I’d say that, but there it is.
Yes, Aunt Bernadine lived a long life. Yes, her quality of life in the past 6 months or so hasn’t been so good. Yes, everyone dies. But I am taking this time (a day, maybe two) to just be really sad as we wait for her to die. Kooky or not, Aunt Bernadine is a part of my family, and I love her.
**UPDATE** After writing this post, I remembered that Aunt Bernadine used to say things to us that sounded like non-sequiturs but apparently were completely logical to her since what she said often made her chuckle. I also remembered that she would end conversations with “Toodle-loo!” We thought that was so silly. But it made her unique.
Aunt Bernadine died tonight, March 18, around 9:30pm EST. Toodle-loo, Aunt Bernadine. Toodle-loo.