Aren’t I cute in my blue tuxedo? That is me and my Aunt “Bebe” at the time of my Bar Mitzvah, in May of 1976. I had no clue, and I wonder if she did, that in 7 months she would be dead from cancer.
Attached to the side of her refrigerator was Mom’s Big Paper Calendar. Each year she would buy one of those large blank calendars where you write in the month, day year, and she would copy over the events from the previous one. Meticulously penciled in were birthdays, anniversaries, and in later years, many markings of dates of friends and family members who passed away. And in her own Cookielady fashion, were also includes milestones for pets and dates of key family stories, like the date and year my sister’s nose got broken when hit by a baseball (a week following this, she had recorded when she had her own hysterectomy – does Hallmark make a card for that?)
When we cleaned out Mom’s house last year, I transferred it to a Google Calendar, and in a different way, I hope I carry on the spirit of what Mom did. I feel the connection when reminders come up from that calendar.
Last week, December 7, marked the day my Aunt “Bebe” technically my great-aunt, passed away. What saddens me is that I know so little about her beyond the presence she represented to me when I was a kid. I know almost nothing.
Her real name was Reba. I am not sure why we called here “Bebe” or even if that is spelled right.
She lived in Silver Springs, MD with my Uncle Morty. I guess it never dawned on me that it was odd in their modest brick house they had separate bedrooms. Much later that I realized it’s because, while I called them “Aunt” and “uncle” they were not married.
They were blood relatives, how possible?
They were brother and sister, in fact, twins. The family tree limbs are even more crossed, they were the youngest siblings of my fraternal grandfather, but much younger, so they were maybe only a year older than my Dad, who would have been their nephew. Confused? That’s why I called them Aunt and Uncle.
We would drive a few times a year from Baltimore to visit, very warm memories, mainly because of the attention they gave me. Not the lavish kind of spoiling the kids, but the way they honestly took an interest in me, encouraged my schooling. Well that is what I recall, I cannot remember too many details. But it was that strong sense of genuine interest, and also that thing when adults both treat you like a child but don’t treat you childish. We spent time together talking, walking, not in front of screens.
I cannot remember what kind of work Bebe did (I am counting on my sisters). I never knew her husband, not even his name. She had a son, Steven, an even more vague memory- a wooly haired man with a bushy beard, likely fully immerse into all of the hippy scenes of the 1960s. I heard he lives in the Portland, Oregon area. No one in our family ever had contact with him after his mom passed away. Do you know how many Steve Goldman’s there are out there?
Aunt Bebe shared with me with one of her own hobbies, collecting stamps and coins. She gave my my first stamp album, and a number of my first items in the book. I don’t remember if she started me with coins first or after stamps, but she also gave me those blue books to hold wheat back pennies and old buffalo nickels. She seeded those collections too. I know she would spend a lot of time talking, teaching me about these things she enjoyed. She was not being super talkative but always provided a warm and nurturing presence.
Like my parents, it was that 100% assurance that not only were they they for you. An assurance as solid as the earth.
Except, as a kid, you have this sense that it is the permanent kind of permanent..
… until your parents are explaining cancer to you.. I can see Aunt Bebe smoking a lot of cigarettes, and would not be surprised if that’s what did her in. I have a faint memory of visiting her in the hospital in the weeks before she died. Always kind of bony skinny, she was frailer yet, and her head was bandaged. Did I understand chemotherapy? Could I look it up in the internet in 1976?
I know I have these strong buried memories of her, but it bothers me so much that I have so much little insight into her life story. This is some of the drive for constructing my grandmother’s stories from audio recorded in 1993 and likely my own pursuit of storytelling. I think of the boxes of my own history, old letters, school reports, photos, cards, cassette tapes in the boxes in my closet. What am I doing with all that ephemera?
We have so much more available to us for not only collecting and organizing the bits of our stories, but also making it in a form that will last as well as a form that is easily shared.
And frankly that is why all of this posting online is way more than navel gazing or resume building or just frivolous frittering checking in statusiing- we have at our disposal the tools, means, skills to keep memory from fading. And that is important.
I know fully my Aunt loved me. I have a sense, not in the afterlife BS looking down from clouds etc, but just in the sense that her time and attention spent on me becomes part of me, shapes me, and is with me. And while I struggle to assemble anything other than an out of focus recall of her, I know its there.
And you know what, just in the reflecting, typing, I feel more memories kicking in. I feel more of that presence.
It’s that thing of how some cultures say you die first when your body ceases to function, but your real death is when people stop telling your stories. So Aunt Bebe, you live.
And I will stop doing the latter only when the former happens.