When I was born and brought home from the hospital in a Volkswagen Bug that had no baby seat but was otherwise very reliable, my parents had no bassinet in which to place me. My father suggested the floor, which he had recently refinished and was very proud of. But Aunt Helen, my mother’s older sister and sole sibling, had a wiser suggestion. “Put him in my laundry basket,” she said. And so I was placed in the laundry basket, with perhaps a pair of socks supporting my fuzzy little head.
When I started forming words, my name for her was “Aunt Hen,” and Aunt Hen was always a part of my life. She and my Uncle Joe lived in the next town over, and it to was their house that we went for those kinds of special occasions that require chips and dip. At Christmas, there was an ornament of a man in a boot that Aunt Helen would hide in the tree, and the first of my brother and I to find it got an extra helping of candy canes. At Easter, she filled her house with jellybeans, and I would stuff my pockets as if I had discovered an ancient treasure. Whatever confusion I might have experienced as the child of an interfaith marriage, such confusion was swept away by large servings of pie.
I particularly remember the Fourth of July. We would all sit in Aunt Helen and Uncle Joe’s backyard, and when their black Labrador retriever—first Max, and then Abercrombie—came by with a tail swishing this way and that, we would all hold on to our drinks and hamburgers lest they be swept to the deck where all dogs have a right of first refusal.
Aunt Helen had a funny way of putting things. She was quick with the one-liners. Whenever we attended a Jewish funeral, Aunt Helen used to say, “Okay everybody, let’s take a bet. Meat or dairy?” And when my mother was doing Christmas shopping and needed some gift ideas for Uncle Joe, Aunt Helen famously said, “Don’t buy him any more clothes. He wears the same shit every day.”
Yes, Aunt Helen’s defining trait was her sense of humor. When my mother was in middle school, Aunt Helen helped her study for an exam in American history that was going to test the various acts—the Navigation Acts, the Molasses Act, the Sugar Act, the Currency Act, the Stamp Act—that led to America declaring that it had a right to pass its own oppressive acts. My mother was wearing ski pajamas during this study session, so Aunt Helen asked, “And when was the Ski Pajama Act enacted?” Decades later, when yours truly was studying those same acts, my mother would ask me about the Ski Pajama Act, even though I had never heard of ski pajamas.
Aunt Helen was at her funniest when talking about the family. She knew all the family gossip. If this cousin wasn’t talking to that cousin, Aunt Helen always knew the gory details and we would all gather ‘round her like our ancestors once gathered around storytellers in the days before the E! channel.
Just because she was funny, however, did not mean Aunt Helen was a pushover. She taught elementary school, and even outside the classroom there were still only two ways of doing things: her way, and her way without being told. She liked to moderate the speed at which my Uncle Joe drove the car, saying, through clenched teeth, “SLOW…DOWN…JOE.” Averaging about 35 m.p.h. on the Long Island Expressway, we knew we had to tell them to be places 3 hours ahead of time.
But they always made it. Aunt Helen and Uncle Joe went to everything.
Even after diabetes confined her to a wheelchair, Aunt Helen was determined to attend every major event in everyone’s life, no matter how much she had to travel in a van or yell at my uncle. She went to my college graduation. She went to my law school graduation. Even the morning of my wedding, in a hotel some 300 miles from her home in eastern Long Island, she passed out and had to be revived. I knew nothing of this until months later, for at my wedding she was dressed up, and alert, and happy.
When she went on dialysis, I was worried that she wouldn’t be as funny as she had been. But the moment I saw her those worries went away. She didn’t talk about her illness at all, and instead would talk about the latest politician to momentarily forget about the existence of video cameras. Of all the limitations her illness placed on her, it did not touch her mind, her voice, or her personality. She was at all times—healthy, sick, standing, seated, lying in a hospital bed—a mixture of unconditional love and sharp wit. She never let anything get in the way of seeing her family and friends. And she never let anything get in the way of a laugh.
I remember visiting her in the hospital after she had both legs amputated. She was sitting up in bed and asking me about how I was enjoying work. When I told her about how the hours were long and that the partners were driving me crazy, she said to me, “Well, don’t let it get to you too much. Make sure you have fun, too.” And then she sent Uncle Joe and I out for some food in blatant violation of hospital rules.
Three weeks before my wedding anniversary this past May, my wife and I received a card from Aunt Helen, congratulating us on making it through yet another year without killing each other. She was always very thoughtful like that, and I laughed at the time because I figured that she had just forgotten the exact date of our anniversary. Why else would she be sending me a card that early? I made a mental note to call her.
As it turned out, a few days later it was my Uncle Joe who was calling me, to tell me that Aunt Helen had passed away the night before. My first thought was that I should have called her. I guess I was too busy downloading the latest version of iTunes to find 10 minutes to talk to my aunt. The guilt was terrible and I didn’t feel like eating that day.
But then I thought about what Aunt Helen would say. “Don’t worry about me. Enjoy yourself. And eat.” And I smiled, and knew that Aunt Hen would never really leave me. And then I went and got a sandwich.