MY AUNT SALLY
by Eleanor Jaffe
My Aunt Sally died a few days ago. Today was her funeral. She was 95 years old.
I am not sure if she really is my aunt any more because, you see, my “real” Uncle Sam, my mother’s kid brother, divorced her about 5 years ago. They had been separated for 20 or 30 years by that time, but Aunt Sally would never let him go. She refused to divorce him. They lived separately. He supported her. He dated other women and began living with Jane at least 20 years ago, and Jane finally became his second wife about 5 years ago. Still, Sally took her rightful place at all family functions, luncheons, Thanksgiving Day dinners, birthday parties. I even invited her to my son’s wedding 18 years ago in New Orleans along with Sid and Jane. After all, she was still my aunt, and she and my Mom had fun together, despite the fact that Mom always considered her an airhead.
Sally and Sam were a gorgeous couple when they first met in their early 20’s. Sam was a decorated war hero. He’d been shot out of the sky with his crew and was one of the two out of twelve who survived. Ronnie was curly haired, pretty, and very curvey. I was about 8 or 9 years old when they were engaged and came to visit my family. I was enthralled by their movie star gorgeousness and glamour. They married and lived together in Florida for about 30 years — far from our home in Brooklyn. They had 3 children together. My cousin Sarah, their oldest child, died from cancer a long time ago. Sam searched everywhere with her for a cure–all over the U.S. and Mexico to Germany–and was broken by her death. He still seems broken.
I understood, I thought, why Uncle Sam no longer wanted to live with Sally. He was a complex man–intelligent, well traveled, well read, an athlete, interested in Chinese art. Sally was simple. She liked buying $2 and $3 “tschochkes,” according to some who eulogized her today, and then giving them away. She never recognized a rebuff, so she went through life perpetually cheerful and resilient. Most people, it seems, went out of their way to help her, and they liked her. Was she insensitive? obtuse? or loyal and forever loving? She lived with her son and his wife, both of whom adored her. Her daughter-in-law wept from the pulpit as did her son, her grandson, and two other grandchildren. Clearly, Sally lavished her love on them, and they cherished her.
People are complicated. We can’t know what is in their hearts and minds. We guess. We tell ourselves stories that we believe. Some of us are quick to judge others. We become locked into our own opinions (or are they the opinions of others?). We overlook, we simplify, and we think we know. We take sides. And yet, we can never know the whole story. How can we?
I felt very sorry for my Uncle Sam today. I love him and respect him. He sat next to Jane, his second wife, and listened to almost everyone in his family speak of their love and praise for their adorable and adored mother and grandmother—without a word about the father and grandfather who sat two rows behind his first wife’s coffin, which was blanketed by an abundance of roses.
As I grow older, I am more interested in the conditions, changes, services, culture, and even politics affecting me, my husband of 53 years, my friends, and my 102 year old mother. To satisfy my ever growing curiosity about what it means to grow older in our society, I created and taught three BOLLI courses on this topic. My experiences as a high school English teacher and social worker plus a lot of reading about aging and loss (and, of course, living, so far, to 80) have prepared me to write this blog.
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