If I had known Jes and Jeff’s wedding would be the last time I saw my Aunt Annette, I would have hugged her a little longer. I don’t remember if I told her I loved her or not that day. I hope she had an inkling of how much of her made me who I am.
A week before she died, when I learned she had been hospitalized with COVID-19, I frantically scoured the internet looking for a florist that would deliver pussy willow branches to the hospital. I couldn’t find one. I had to settle for mentioning them in a note that accompanied some other bouquet. In the note, I told her I loved her, and that I wanted to see her again after all of this was behind us. I hoped I would be able to hug her one more time. I hope the nurse read my note to her. I hope she wasn’t afraid at the end. I hope she felt all of the love and prayers coming to her from our huge, loud family, even though we couldn’t be with her in those last moments.
It’s strange how the world feels so different when someone you love is suddenly no longer in it, even if it has been years since you last saw her. Aunt Annette is the matriarch of my mother’s family. Mom is the youngest of six, and Annette was the oldest. Stunningly beautiful, gentle in spirit, she looked at least twenty years younger than her 92 years when she passed. She always looked 20 years younger than she was. I wish I had inherited her and my mother’s skin.
There are 20 years between Mom and Aunt Annette. Mom lived with her parents downstairs from Aunt Annette, Uncle Paul, and their four kids (my cousins Paul, Joyce, Peter, and Kenneth) in a beautiful, big, three-apartment, three-story house in Brooklyn. Mom has always spoken of Annette as a second mother to her. I think she modeled a lot of her relationship with me from the example of her oldest sister. I am grateful for the close confidant I have always had in my mom, and I know she shared that with her sister. Mom is closer in age to her niece and nephews than she is to her own siblings, and so she has always regarded them as extended siblings. My mom was an aunt for the first time by the time she was three years old. There are six years between my mom and my cousin Joyce – the same number of years that separates me and my brother. I love hearing the stories of how Mom was able to be a “big sister,” for better or for worse. A second mother to my Mom, Aunt Annette was a surrogate grandmother to me and my siblings. Mom’s mom died when I was only six, and while I have some fond memories of her, my brother never knew her, and Aunt Annette and Uncle Paul have always served that central role that the best grandparents are able to fill in a family.
I love remembering Aunt Annette and my mom bantering about anything – there was a rhythm to the conversations, and always laughter. As a child, I couldn’t wait to grow up, so I could be old enough to participate in their grown-up talk. I hear the echoes of their conversations laced with loving, sarcastic humor when I talk to my own sisters sometimes, most recently when I find myself giggling at the antics of Karen’s young daughters. Aunt Annette and Aunt Betty both loved to argue with me when I was three, just because it was funny. I loved hearing Aunt Annette talk to my mother when I became an adult, too, because I sensed that tangible thread of sisterhood; a long, deep shared past in the timbre and rhythmic patterns of their conversations. It sounded like “home.”
The house in Brooklyn provided the backdrop to my earliest childhood memories of cousins and holidays. Aunt Annette had a huge vase full of pussy willow branches when I was very small. I would pick the soft blossoms off of the branches like they were my tiny pets. I would wrap them in tissue or cotton and place them in small boxes she gave to me for their care, despite the fact I was ruining her plant. I called them “pissy willers.” I so wanted to send some to her while she was in the hospital. I know she remembered this shared story as vividly as I do.
Christmas Eve was always at Aunt Annette and Uncle Paul’s house. I remember my sister Karen and I peering over the kitchen sink at an octopus Uncle Paul was preparing for everyone to eat. “Don’t eat the testicles!” became a joke when Karen misspoke the word, “tentacles.” During the party, I would usually find time to creep up the back stairs into my Uncle George’s apartment, where he introduced me to the soundtrack of Peter and the Wolf. Kenneth and I would play “KerPlunk” or “Trouble” in his too-cool, teenage bedroom. He had a papier mache bust (or was it clay? school art project maybe?) with sunglasses, a hat and a cigarette hanging out of its mouth. Ten years older than I am, Kenneth was my first crush when I was five. I thought he hung the moon.
The other backdrop to my childhood was Aunt Annette and Uncle Paul’s house in the Poconos. I always felt so proud to know that my uncle had built the entire house with his own two hands. Their whole family has such a gift for craftsmanship. I still love old houses with custom woodwork and stained glass – that decor and the smell of pine trees and bug spray bring me back to the house in the Poconos. I still have a stained-glass mirror with hooks that Uncle Paul made for me. “It’s supposed to hold MUGS,” he would tell me, when I told him how much I love it, and that I use it to hang sweaters and light jackets. Mom still has a “BP” (Big Paul) bread knife in her kitchen – I think most of the siblings have one. He carved handles and crafted the best bread knives any of us have ever owned. There was one year he made everyone little wooden squirrels – they had a little hook on the front of them for pulling out a hot oven rack without burning yourself.
The house in the Poconos was synonymous with vacation. Mom would take the four of us for days at a time in the summers. Aunt Annette introduced me to steakums with cheese on toast. I ate them for lunch at the table in the screened in porch, careful not to leave any food out there overnight, or the bears would come. We woke to bear claw marks through the screens one morning after we left food on the table accidentally. I never actually saw a bear, but ever-evolving stories of sightings were told and re-told by many members of the family.
My Uncle Paul built a treehouse for Kenneth that was equipped with electricity and a black light. Kenneth decorated it with glowing posters, and he rode a motorcycle. Both things were forbidden for me. The treehouse was so high, I wasn’t allowed to climb the ladder without an adult climbing right behind me. Under the treehouse was a sandpile we could play in, and two swings. Kenneth did take me for a ride on the motorcycle once. I imagine my mom’s heart was in her mouth the whole time when I think about that now.
Otter Lake campground became a site for annual family reunions very early in my childhood. I remember being one of the youngest kids at those family campouts, wearing my favorite dark green, Otter Lake sweatshirt with a picture of a glowing moon on the lake. Later, a whole new generation of children was chasing each other around the campfire and into the woods. I remember seeing a little Christopher wearing that hand-me-down sweatshirt, the glowing orange moon now faded to white. It made me feel like an important part in the chain of my family. Now many of the younger cousins I saw grow up have children of their own, too. I hope we can all get back there, or to Lake George, or somewhere, as a loud, raucous group soon.
The time goes so fast. I am so sad I won’t hear Aunt Annette’s voice again; that I won’t get a chance to hug her one more time; that my kids won’t know her and the Brooklyn house and the Poconos house the same way I do. But I guess that’s life. It moves and changes and also stays the same, whether you are paying attention or not. I write this essay to remind myself to pay attention. I look forward to it resurfacing in my Facebook memories, so I can conjure these images and memories again and again and then pass them on to the next generation.
Rest in peace, Aunt Annette. I love you. You live in my heart and in all of the best stories that make up the lives of this family.
A few of these pictures are mine; many I “borrowed” from my cousins’ social media posts (especially Joyce’s). I hope they don’t mind. I just want to be able to find them easily in one place whenever I want to look at them. Hoping to collect some more from my mom, too.