Aunt Mary's 90th Birthday, February 14, 2014
My Aunt Mary passed away on Saturday, May 9th. She was 91 years old. She had been sick off and on for a long while, but I believe she fought to stay with us as long as she could. She had been in and out of the hospitals with heart attacks and pneumonia a few times in the past two or three years. She bounced back and recovered. I don’t know how she did it, but I think a lot of it had to do with her easy going personality and her love of life. It suddenly hit me yesterday morning that at this point in time, the person I have known the longest in my lifetime was my Aunt Mary. I remember a picture of her holding me one hot August day when I was 12 days old. It was my baptism day, and she was my Godmother. She is the last of her generation in my family. All of the aunts and uncles I grew up with, and my own parents, are all long gone . . . gone, but not forgotten.
My Aunt Mary had a heart of gold. She took care of my ailing grandmother (her mother on-law) when her own three daughters could not. She loved children. Even at four years old I knew that because I ran away from home one day and went straight to Aunt Mary, who lived in the apartment below us. Of course she took me right in, sympathized with my plight, and let my mother know where I was on the sly. I remember her taking me to the circus for my birthday one year. I had never been to one before. Another time she made arrangements to take five of us (two of her own children and three others) to see Bozo the Clown. She took us out of school that day and we traveled by subway to Manhattan to be on the show. That was a big deal back in the day. She loved parties and looked for any occasion or celebration to host one. She enjoyed having a house full of family, talking, laughing, eating. Always good times and memories.
Aunt Mary loved cooking and her cast iron skillet. When we were in elementary school, my brother and I would go downstairs and wait for Aunt Mary’s kids to get ready so we could all walk together. Every morning I witnessed the same thing. My Aunt Mary was busy cooking up some fried eggs for her son, who then ate them while watching cartoons and dunking his toast in the runny yolks. I don’t know why that impressed me so much except I didn’t care for eggs, but she made them look good.
My first memory of the smell of pine trees was at my Aunt Mary’s house. We had an artificial tree, but she always got a real one every year. I loved it. The scent filled up the whole apartment. She would always let the kids help decorate the tree. The best part was when she gave us the tinsel. We would throw handfuls on the tree, in clumps. She would laugh and take it off, showing us how to hang a strand at a time on every branch. Till this day whenever I smell fresh pine it takes me back to my childhood and Aunt Mary’s tree.
New Year’s Eve also has special memories for me it thanks to my aunt. We would all get together at her house after dinner. The adults would play cards all night, while we watched Guy Lombardo and waited for the countdown. Aunt Mary got us hats and streamers and confetti to throw at midnight. Then, at midnight, after the ball dropped in Times Square, she would take out all the noisemakers and her pots and spoons and give one to each of the five of us. She took the five of us outside to bang pots and welcome the new year. We knocked ourselves out because at the end of that tradition, the adults were still busy playing cards, but the kids were getting sleepy. Aunt Mary took us into the bedrooms and let us lay down and close our eyes. We slept until the adults were done with poker and took us to our own beds.
My most cherished memories of my Aunt Mary would have to be her Thanksgiving dinners. I remember them vividly. For me, it was the best way to kick off the holiday season. I would wake up on Thanksgiving and watch the Macy’s parade which ended at noon. Then we would all go downstairs to Aunt Mary’s. Aunt Mary had already been up since the crack of dawn, stuffing the huge turkey and roasting it. She also had a big pot of meat sauce cooking on the stove. It was a double feast! I was too busy stuffing my face to realize how much work went into making those Thanksgivings what they were. Two dinners, a traditional Italian meal and a traditional Thanksgiving meal, bread, fruit and nuts, coffee and dessert. The shopping and preparation before hand. The packing of leftovers and clean up afterwards. There were anywhere from 12 to 16 people there every year. I don’t know how she did it, but she did. And playing in the background was always the Laurel and Hardy movie “The March of the Wooden Soldiers,” that we never got tired of watching. Once the food was all put away, the adults played poker, all except for Aunt Mary. She “hung out” with the kids teaching us card games and singing a couple of choruses of, “Oh My Darlin’ Clementine.” Thanksgiving lasted from noon to midnight, but the memories of the sights and smells of food, the laughter of family, the way my Aunt Mary made us all feel . . . those things will be with us forever.
Eventually, as I got to my early 20’s, I realized how much it meant to me to be able to have all those wonderful Thanksgivings. My mother was hosting Christmas dinner one year and I thought it was the perfect time to let Aunt Mary know how much we appreciated all she did for us over the years. I got together with my brother and cousin to buy her a gold bracelet. I bought a special card and wrote a personal message in it and we handed it to her that day. Her eyes filled with tears as she read the message. I think she was stunned to learn how much we treasured those days and all the love she put into them, and we still do.
To know my Aunt Mary was to love her. She touched many lives. She will be greatly missed. Today we have to say good-bye. Our hearts are broken. There will be tears and sadness, even though I don’t think she would want that for us. She would want us to remember all the happy memories and sing a round of “Oh My Darlin’ Clementine.”