Category Archives: eccentric aunts

the eccentric aunt


every large family has a beloved stand-out, a favorite. a person who laughs the loudest, wears the biggest hats, dons the most colorful clothes and knows all the famous show tunes. the larger the family, the greater the sharing of this individual, or rather the greater the sharing by this individual of his or her exhibitionism.

i’m irish and i’m guessing my parents would’ve had more kids if biology allowed but there are just the three kids in my immediate family (or as the shrinks call it, “my family of origin”). i’ve got at least 20 cousins. want a funky ancestry story? i’ve got one: my great grandfather’s (tony) first wife (sarah) died around 40 of typhus after returning from a trip to ireland. she left behind four daughters, one of whom was my grandmother (she lived ’til her almost 90s) and tony. after sarah died, tony sent word back to ireland and married delia, sarah’s niece, who then became my grandmother’s her stepmother. yes, you read right. this was the early 1900s: my great-grandfather married his late wife’s (my great-grandmother’s) niece and they went on to have at least six kids. so my mom’s uncle is also her 2nd cousin once removed? and his daughter, my cousin whom i consider to be like a sister to me is my aunt-cousin. it’s ok. you don’t have to care any more about that.

that story and all its trappings should satisfy the requirement for at least one eccentric aunt in the entire clan, right?

so given the ‘beloved stand-out’ definition from above, in all my family’s bloodlines, we indeed have the aunt, a woman who is the oldest and who is a grandmother, thus making her the reigning Grande Damme or more accurately in this case, the femme du festive, the eccentric woman all the cousins enjoy. “elder stateswoman” doesn’t apply because in this particular scheme, our person has never really been a conformist; you wouldn’t go to her to settle a disagreement. her  irish heritage dictates that we don’t settle disagreements, we deny them. just go to bed; it will all be ok in the morning.

judging by the numbers in my family and the fact that my great-step-grandmother-aunt had at least four more girls, one of whom had at least four daughters you’d think that the odds of that the stand-out eccentric aunt could be one of maybe six to eight living women . . .

and that the odds would be that i’d get to enjoy an eccentric aunt.

well, no. this eccentric aunt for the cousins is my mother, whom i love and whom my cousins and her step-uncle & aunt -cousins love and admire. there’s a difference: you can love someone without admiring them. when you love someone, you just do and you allow them to be who they are even if you wish it were different. one of my favorite current writers, nora ephron, wrote a story in the 10/11/10 New Yorker and in it, she had this wondrous clip about her own aging parents, flaws and all, “Still, it made me sad. You always think that a bolt of lightning is going to strike and your parents will magically change into the people you wish they were or back into the people they used to be. But they’re never going to. And even though you know they’re never going to, you still hope they will.”

so i waver between admire and love. when you admire someone, you sorta really dig that person and you want to be like that person or at that you least get that person. my lot is no different from other women i know: they love their moms, but they don’t want to be just like their moms.
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as we’ve grown older my cousins have come to love and adore my mother’s unpredictable, larger-than-life, “Auntie Mame” ways and vagaries. give her a ukelele and she’s off to find a raccoon coat and a large feathered hat for the boat races. show her a piano and she’ll figure out how to play almost any Gershwin tune by ear. i, in return found myself gravitating to my aunt’s solid natures, their gentle humor, their reliable less-showy dispositions and the fact they always served a vegetable with dinner.

my mother has aged considerably in just the past few years and has several health concerns and this makes me sad. she hasn’t been up to the summer house in canada since 2010 and her travels with my dad are restricted by her medical requirements. just when i’m on the brink of appreciating her for the gifts she shares with my cousin-world and just when i’m ready to accept her for who she is and denounce my übercoolness, her health rapidly declines. it’s complicated; the whole damn scene is complicated, but this dynamic is especially complicated and it hurts.

an important family event is on the horizon in a few weeks and i’m hopeful my mom will be able to travel to it, but i’m also curdling up inside because knowing her, she may able to travel to it and then she’ll sing. like i said, it’s complicated. but it needn’t be and it’s up to me.

in households all over the world, when teenagers are sulking in their rooms, listening to loud obnoxious music, boasting questionable hairstyles and wearing clothes that announce their “up yours” sentiment, i too was in one where the styles were different, the attitude was unique and the music was imported, obnoxious, loud and sounded like cars crashing into wailing firetrucks or simply whaling ships crashing into the moon.

“omigawdwouldyouturnoffthatgodforsakencaterwauling?!” STOMP STOMP STOMP . . .  “itsoundslikesomeoneisinmortalpain!” BANG BANG BANG! “ohjeeezusjustturnitoff!” . . . “ican’ttakeit–it’shorriblenoise;thosepeoplearehurtingeachother!” . . . “please!fortheloveofpete… i’llcleanmyroom,i’llwalkthedog!”

that’s right. “i’ll clean my room, i’ll walk the dog!”

the loud, cacophonous, injurious, scream/singing “music” was always someathingaloudandinainitaliano and the performer: the famous operatic tenor, Enrico Caruso. if it wasn’t Caruso it was Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess or the unbearable (let’s remember, i’m the kid here) Judy Garland singing the soundtrack from “Meet Me In St. Louis.” and that chick had a daughter.

on any given saturday morning in my big victorian home with wooden walls, wooden floors, 8′ high windows and plaster ceilings (get it, acoustics) the radios were coordinated for an in-home, “this one goes to eleven,” volume-beyond-the-safe-point broadcast of “Mobil Oil Presents: Live from the Met,” the free weekly classical music concert. during these concerts, any self-respecting screeching, howling, vibrato-abusing tenors, sopranos, baritones or whatever were amplified and would take our windows, mirrors, picture frames, buffet cabinets, martini glasses and measuring cups to the verge of universal shattering. this went on for years.

i wonder if my parents wanted to inspire us to run away when we were in elementary school.

it was never The Rolling Stones or The Cars or geez, The Four Tops or The Spinners or Neil Diamond. top-40 tunes or music performed by people who were still alive was seldom heard outside us kids’ bedroom doors. i used to listen to ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” or The Bay City Rollers’ “Saturday Night” on my Raggedy Anne record player until the grooves cut through the vinyl. it dawns on me now that hearing all my parents’ incredibly annoying music at extra-strength decibels turned me into a song-repeater / abuser. if i like a song, i latch on, baby until it is flat, panting, begging for a drink and translated into 40 languages: “you’re done being played when I say you’re done!” i also suspect it’s why i have been known to routinely dismiss a catchy song based solely on the lyrics. Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” might be great to dance to, but wtf is going on as far as those lyrics are concerned?

so my mom is the eccentric auntie. if she makes it to this important event i sincerely hope she will summon the strength to belt out her favorite, “It Had to Be You” from her little wheelchair. i pledge i will not run and hide under a table with my hands covering my ears. but if she gets a ukelele, you’ll find me in the coat-check closet ransacking it for any raccoon coat i can find. and then i’ll bring it to her.

thank you.