Yesterday, I sat with two different friends who are facing death. One is 89 and just days away from exiting. She wants to die at home and her daughter is doing everything she can to make this happen. The other has lesions on her brain. She is fighting and still has hope for a few more years. I share her hope as she is young. I couldn’t help but think of my Aunt Sal as I went from one apartment to the next.
Aunt Sal was my father’s Aunt and of that generation when a woman of 50 looked more like 80 today. She was 68 and very much out of shape. Born in 1902 she was a rather wild soul trapped in an old woman’s body. She had a hooknose, skin as white as the moon, white hair with a hint of violet and teeth that seemed to be mid dance in her mouth; she was not a beauty. She always told the story how in the 1920’s there was a copycat Jack the Ripper in Queens. Late one night she and her girlfriend were walking home clutching each other with fear. A neighbor ran into them and asked them, “What’s wrong?”
“We’re afraid Jack the Ripper might get us. ”
“Oh Sal,” he said while shaking his head, “With a face like yours you needn’t worry.”
She always followed this line with a howl that reverberated around the room. We couldn’t help but laugh with her. It was contagious. By the time I knew her, her breasts had somehow settled into her waist which had lost any definition. She wore a tent dress in the summer. Hugging her was like falling into a feather pillow. The light scent of camphor mixed with rose water and talcum powder filling my nostrils. It was the scent of unconditional love. Her right leg was permanently twisted at the ankle. Years of neglect after an accident had left it so. She walked slowly with a cane in one hand and a large plastic shopping bag in the other.
Like Mary Poppins her arrival was a surprise and pure magic. She’d open that large plastic shopping bag and inside was another plastic bag with gifts. Cheap Johns was her store of choice and the gifts trinkets probable worth a penny each. They were ours though for the choosing. It didn’t matter who you were, if you were there and happy to see Aunt Sal you could pick from the trinket collection. That’s what made her so great; she loved everybody.
Aunt Sal was restless by nature. She traveled the train lines working her network of friends and family. A nightgown left in the places she liked to frequent. It was kept ready and waiting for when she did arrive. By day she sat with my mother and told stories. Their laughter echoed from the kitchen. Night though, was what I remember most. My brother’s bed had a trundle and it was pulled up for Aunt Sal. In the dim evening light, all four of us smelling of toothpaste and soap would pile onto her bed. She’d open her careworn handbag and pull out a deck of remembrance cards. Some were tattered others brand new all held together with a rubber band.
Thip, thip, thip. Like a professional croupier she’d finger the deck. Pulling out a card.
“Let’s pray for Joe tonight. He was my special friend who lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in a beautiful apartment. He had a grand piano and oh could he sing; just the most beautiful voice. He was a cupcake you know. Saved me from despair when my baby died. He was a very sweet man and died peacefully too. Let’s say a Hail Mary for Joe”
Wide eyed we’d say a Hail Mary for Joe. The newer cards she’d pass around for closer inspection and the more delicate or dearer ones we looked at from a distance. Her baby’s card we never held. Prayers for her were said privately. Baby Marilyn was two when she swallowed a pin. It was the late 1920’s and nothing could be done except watch her die a slow agonizing death as the pin ripped her apart from the inside.
Thip, thip, thip.
“Oh here’s Murphy. He was my husband and a good man when he was sober. It was the bottle that made him go early. We should say three hail Mary’s for him.”
Aunt Sal thought she was teaching us how to pray. It was the stories both sweet and salty with tears that had me. It took me years to realize a cupcake was her code name for gay. It took me even longer to realize this was her life story as told through a deck of remembrance cards.
Thip, thip, thip.
“Oh, now this one is your grandmother. She was my sister and the family beauty. Her lungs were never any good though. You can’t imagine how much she loved you. Sigh, she had the most wonderful death. Just beautiful. Let’s say a Hail Mary for her.”
Most people gather for births and run away at the first sign of death. Not Aunt Sal. She loved births and deaths.
“After all, ending a good life is just as important as starting one.”
Many times she was the lone person sitting next to a friend as they exited this world.
“No two people die the same. Some go peacefully and others struggle right up to the end. I find saying a prayer over and over usually soothes them. I follow their lead though. It’s easy to figure out.”
We’d sit there eyes wide and mouths open. Our toes warming under her blankets. Her vastness leaned prone against a pile of pillows. There was something so soothing about Aunt Sal.
After about four days of our never-ending enthusiasm, she’d pull out her train schedule and study it. That was our cue she was leaving. A decision would be made to go either East or West. We’d all jump into the car as excited as when we picked her up. As she purchased her ticket, we would run out onto the tracks making small penny piles on the rails. The weight and heat of the train wheels melt the pennies together into odd shapes. Those we would pick up after the train left the station. By then, we would have jumped up and down outside her seat window and run after it a bit on the platform waving goodbye.