I’ve just learned that my “Aunt” died last Thanksgiving. I knew she was ill, simply because I hadn’t heard from her. When a card came back with no forwarding address…I knew. I had to learn about her death from an obituary, simply because her adopted son never saw me as family apparently. Or maybe he was jealous — as if her love could have ever had a limit.
Aunt Zee was an amazing woman. When my own mother had struggles, it was Aunt Zee who would wrap her arms around me and tell me she loved me. Growing up, she never came over without a gift for me in a paper sack. Someone once asked me if I wanted a baby brother or sister. I doubt I knew what that was at the time, but my response was, “Aunt Zee will bring me one in a paper bag.” The toys, the candy, whatever it was…never mattered. What mattered was that here was someone who loved me. Even as a child, I knew how precious that was.
She inspired me with her love of life and her sheer strength of will. Let me tell you about Aunt Zee.
At 17 she joined the army.
Now think about that for a moment. This was World War II. Men were running away and joining the army, but women were Rosie-the-riveter. Not Aunt Zee. When she went to enlist, she was told she was too fat and that she’d have to come back in a few weeks. I forget the details now, but she told me of the crash diet she went on. I think she lost 50 lbs.
In the army, she did some form of paperwork and she was assigned to Greece. That was when she did the next amazing thing. Aunt Zee returned from the war with a husband — a Greek man named Kostos who would become my beloved Uncle Chris.
She told me early on: don’t let anything stop you when you want something. Don’t let anyone tell you, “You can’t.”
I do not know how my Aunt and Uncle came to be in California. I suspect it was her desire to be near my mother…or possibly Uncle Alfred. But they lived near us for as long as I can remember. Even when we lived “way up on the hill…” I know they’d bought a lot near us. I spent very little time with other people growing up, but Aunt Zee and Uncle Chris were the exception.
They took me to Greek festivals and made sure I attended Greek school — at least for a little while. Aunt Zee made sure I knew how to cook a few of the Greek dishes I loved. I remember their home being dark and cool on hot summer days. Full of Aunt Zee’s musical laughter and the scent of her perfume.
Aunt Zee and Uncle Chris were school teachers. They loved children with a passion, but could not have any of their own. They taught school for over 30 years — but not ordinary school. Aunt Zee taught children with special needs. In a strange and often harsh world, I know she brought her special zany brand of love into those children’s lives.
I remember their son. He was a hard presence in my life, because far from being the cousin I’d hoped for, he hated me. It was from Aunt Zee that I learned how to love a teenage boy through the rough stages of life. I was in his wedding…and saw him grow from the wild teen to the respected father he would become. Yes, Aunt Zee knew how to mother.
After she retired, she didn’t qualify for Medicare because the school had never paid into the system. She worked as a receptionist for a motel until she qualified. Sometimes we’d talk on the phone.
When my mother died, Aunt Zee was the first person I called. It was only later that I would receive an angry phone call from her daughter-in-law blaming me for Uncle Chris’ death. He said on the day that my mother died that life was no longer worth living…and he died a week later. I’d cared for my mother during her long illness and been unable to visit for so long…and then he was gone.
True to her vivacious nature, Aunt Zee did not wait for me to come visit, but came to visit me. She was still a powerhouse of energy, despite failing health. She neglected to mention that she was wheelchair bound, and didn’t bring the chair…so we had an adventure finding a chair and getting her the equipment she needed to be comfortable and enjoy the trip. We had such an adventure.
At the time, I knew she had dimentia. During that lovely visit, she would alternately address me as myself, my mother or my grandmother. I learned more about those women during that visit than I had ever known. She sat with my grandmother’s trunk and told me about all of the pictures in it. She filled my life with a sense of story and joy.
And of course, she brought me a paper bag. I know now that she’d come to say goodbye. She knew her daughter-in-law planned to have her put into a facility. What was in that bag? Nothing fancy, but something precious. It was a necklace for holding a cotton ball soaked in perfume. She told me how she had always loved the way I’d climb into her lap and play with her necklaces, so she wanted me to have one for kids to play with.
She always smelled beautiful.
When I talked on the phone with her daughter-in-law, she told me to leave Aunt Zee alone. They were going to send her on a cruise and then put her in a home. I didn’t oppose the decision…her mind had slipped far away. I continued to send cards, hoping that somehow she’d get them and know that I still loved her.
So now the three of them are together: Aunt Zee, Uncle Chris and my mother. I suspect Heaven is a rowdier place.