My aunt MJ.
Maybe I shouldn't have gone through my box of old pictures yesterday, but I did.
My mother and my aunt MJ were fraternal twins, the only children my grandparents had. My mom is the dark-haired one; my aunt is the scowling blond. This is how the two of them appear in almost all pictures.
They never got along very well. My mom was bossy, and a goody-goody (well, according to my aunt). My mom got her way more often because she knew how to wheedle. She did well in school. My aunt raced toward home after school to climb a tree and throw things at my mom.
My mother graduated with high honors from Wellesley. My aunt got thrown out of Bryn Mawr for rebellious acts and then went to Italy and studied oil painting. She traveled all over Europe and stayed away so long my grandmother actually sailed over the Atlantic to exert pressure and bring her home again.
In the boxes of old letters which make me cry (so I never look at them) there are multi-page letters MJ wrote to me on yellow legal pad paper with little sketches all over them - of street scenes, of cats, of the people in my aunt's life or just the ones she saw in the market. I treasure these letters immensely.
This picture of my mom cooing over the doll baby carriage while my aunt turns her lip was rather prophetic: after enjoying being a researcher at Time, Life Inc., my mother married and had three kids. My aunt never married, but continued to be a working artist and researcher, first at Time, Life Inc. and later at the Reader's Digest in New York City, until she retired a couple years before she died in 1999.
That meant that my brothers and I were the only kids in her life. Even though she and my mom fought constantly, MJ would come out to the suburbs to visit us and always made us feel special. I would have turned out much crazier than I am (even) if it hadn't been for her.
When my daughter Melina was born, my aunt MJ continued in the same way, caring for and loving my kids as if they were her own grandchildren. We would go visit her place on the Outer Banks, at Buxton, right next to the lighthouse, and she would dote. Some of my very happiest memories are of hanging out on the beach with her and the kids, throwing bread to the gulls.
My mother died in 1979; smoking and drinking had taken a fatal toll on her health. My aunt lived for twenty more years, and was the most important "adult" in my life. When I was a kid, she was the one who always loved me, no matter what; she was the one who showed me an alternative to the suburban life my mother had lived and loathed. When I was an adult, she was my haven, even though I saw her rarely.
And she was the one who was there for my kids and watched them grow up. I am so sad that decades of my nagging her not to smoke had no effect at all and that she died of lung cancer in 1999. I miss her constantly.
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