When I was a little girl, I remember thinking that my dad’s family all sounded like aliens. Their thick accents and the way they said my name, I knew they couldn’t be from this world. This was especially true of how I viewed Aunt Natalie. To me she was really, really tall, like six feet tall, and very, very intimidating.
I may have felt that way for a long time, except for one summer when I was seven or eight. We were visiting “out east” when my mom took ill and had to be hospitalized. I remember waking up, Aunt Natalie sitting on the bed and saying, “Sharna (insert accent) your mother’s in the hospital and you’re going to be staying here for a while. That’s ok with you?”
I just nodded thinking to myself, do I have a choice?
Although I felt scared about my mom and a little lonely for friends my age, hanging out with my 50 something aunt and uncle proved to be really awesome. The first time I ever tried honeydew melon was when Uncle Don brought it home one evening. I learned that people drink milk with their tea in Cherry Hill.
I swam every day in the pool and read books. But the best part I remember was touring around Philadelphia, walking in the steps of Benjamin Franklin and wondering why they didn’t fix the crack in the Liberty Bell. I credit the time that I spent there for my love of history; and it’s probably why I majored in it in college and taught it for seven years to high school kids.
Last year when my niece Talia had her bat mitzvah, Aunt Natalie asked if she could stay with me for a week so she could tour Chicago. I told her, of course. My friends were astounded, “your aunt in her mid 70s is staying with you?????” I told them that Aunt Natalie wasn’t really in her mid 70s, that was just her age. Until this month, Aunt Natalie had way more energy than I did. When she visited, I was working, and Aunt Natalie took advantage of seeing all of Chicago. She took the bus!!!!! and saw the museums, took an architectural boat tour and went shopping. She told me the only requirement that she had for her stay was that I have coffee and sweetener for her in the morning. Besides that she didn’t need me at all. When she found out my spare bedroom only had a blow up mattress, I had to threaten her so that she would let me sleep on it and give her my bed. At night we hung out, meeting my brothers and their families for dinner, and took walks along Broadway, talking about life.
While she was staying with me, she talked a lot about Robert, her nephew and my cousin who passed away from a brain tumor. She helped him and his family out during his illness. She told me and I’m sure some of you about Robert insisting on taking her out to dinner to the Cheese Cake Factory. She told me that the she had called ahead and although they didn’t take reservations, after explaining Robert’s situation, the manager set aside a table for them. She talked about the kindness of this manager for a really long time and I wondered why she was so enamored by what had happened.
Something that I learned about Aunt Natalie is how much she valued kindness, both the kindness of others and what an important virtue it was in her own life. Before going to dinner with my brother Eric’s family, she insisted we stop somewhere to buy the girls stickers, notebooks, and markers. I told her that she didn’t need to do that, but she insisted. So we were late to dinner and got the kids the gifts. When we arrived she handed them to the girls and they had big smiles on their faces and played with them during dinner.
She told me when she was staying with me how sitting with Robert and good friends through their illnesses made her firm in her own decisions about how she would handle any end of life decisions. I told her to stop being so morbid and she should cross that bridge when she gets there. She told me she just wanted me to know and also to tell my father and anyone else.
I told her I would. But I didn’t think it would be less than a year after her visit.
I last talked to Aunt Natalie two weeks ago. She didn’t really want to talk about her illness. Instead she wanted to hear about me, my brothers and their families. I told her I was keeping tabs on Donnie and she told me that she really, really appreciated that. I really didn’t think it would be the last time I would talk to her.
But one thing I did do while we went on a walk while she was in Chicago was thank her for taking care of Eric and me during that summer over 25 years ago. Because as an adult, here’s what I’ve learned: not everyone can or will do what needs to be done, even for family. My dad needed someone to watch over my brother and me while my mom recovered in the hospital, and I’m sure Aunt Natalie didn’t hesitate to take on the responsibility, even though we were her alien niece and nephew from the Midwest. She provided a fun, safe environment during a difficult time in a child’s life. Aunt Natalie worked, she had adult children, tons of friends, but she prioritized our welfare and wellbeing. She could have given my dad the number of a great babysitter, but she didn’t.
And I know, because of her, if anyone needed me to do the same I would.
Aunt Natalie, I am really going to miss you and will always remember the unconditional love you provided to a scared little girl a long time ago. May your memory be for a blessing.