One Great Aunt

aunt edna

Grandma Rose was the middle child of five with Bess the eldest girl and great uncle Sammy between them—even when they were in their eighties, Grandma called her big brother, Sammy as if they were still children at the orphan asylum. Following them, were great aunt Edna and the youngest, Sidney. Theirs were old fashioned names of a time long gone: The first two children were born in the 1890’s. But the human condition, whether in the digital age or the days of horses and buggies remains the same.

People have always loved and lost, suffered or triumphed. No matter how woeful these children of the Brooklyn streets spent their early lives, they each lived to be quite old for their generation and with more financial stability than when they were the children of a deaf and mute mother and alcoholic dad; making them winners in the game of life.

Grandma and Bess were plump earth mother types. (Only Bess’ siblings and cousins called her Bess, to the rest of us she was Tanta—German for aunt.) After four generations in America, my family’s knowledge of their mother-tongue was reduced to Tanta, sauerkraut und spaetzle; aunt, fermented cabbage and noodles.) The two older sisters had a passion for cooking and cleaning akin to worship, while Edna, slender and never seen without sparkly earrings and a healthy daub of rouge—seemed too fancy for our rustic Sunday dinners.  

On those Sabbath mornings, the rest of the family females were up at six and heading for the kitchen. They began boiling cauldrons of water to aid in plucking pin feathers from the chickens waiting to be soup. (I’m not exaggerating. I watched as they softened the dead bird’s skin in a hot bath then used tweezers to extract the last errant feathers.)

Edna only visited the kitchen after the men’s conversation in Grandma’s living room turned from politics to sports. She’d sit at the Formica table, its skylark pattern worn from the weight of a thousand bowls and platters, with an inch of scotch in her glass. “Rose come sit for a minute,” she’d invite. Grandma smiled not because of the ridiculousness of leaving a work-station laden with leftover meat scraps and a dozen dirty dishes, but rather that her little sister graciously offered her rest.

When Edna’s glass was emptied, she’d order a niece to bring the Johnnie Walker from the living room. Flanked by her bottle and glass while her family bustled around her, Edna found the peace that alluded her early in life.

I was all grown up with a home of my own before I learned of my great aunt’s past.

Edna, pretty and flighty loved the Jazz Age. Dancing with boys, flasks hidden in the tops of her stockings, she spent her teens during the first wave of women’s liberation. A quiet Jewish boy from down her street was smitten with the red-haired girl who drank up life. They dated in secret and plotted to defy their families by running off together. Then Edna told him she was pregnant.  

I wasn’t privy to why he abandoned her; perhaps the challenge of their different religions, her undesirable lineage and her moral lapse was too much to present to his parents. Maybe he was just a bounder who got what he wanted and left. Whatever his problem, Edna found her solution at a back-room abortionist’s. Unfortunately, it left her unable to bear another child.

She blamed not just the man she loved but his faith as well. Although from a family of non-believers, Edna decided to surround herself with Christians (although she never attended church) and steered clear of anything remotely Jewish-including bagels.

When World War II began, the sons of Tanta and Grandma were called. My Uncle Herby and all his male classmates at Tilden High School were leaving for boot camp the morning after graduation. After commencement, Grandma, who had already sent off her oldest son, her son-in-law and several nephews, sat on her bed and cried. Deep, painful moans that brought her sisters running in. Edna was appalled. “Stop crying, Rose. You’re acting like a Jewish mother.”

On that day, Grandma wouldn’t indulge her baby sister. “You could drown in the tears of all Jewish mothers who have sacrificed their sons. In fact you should.” They didn’t speak to each other again until the war ended.

By then, Edna had mellowed like the scotch she loved. Married, to a former editor of the Philadelphia Enquirer, she joined a Jewish art appreciation group to soak up Chagall. When her nieces and nephews had children, she was so indulgent, we called her The Toy Lady. Her Easter baskets rivaled our heights and weighed more than we did.

I remember her as happy until Uncle Harold died. Edna quickly chose another marriage over loneliness. It was a regrettable choice. Her second husband Ben was a curmudgeon who disliked children, sneered at his in-laws and pointedly remarked on our shortcomings with his permanent scowl. She pretended not to notice in the years they grew old together.

One day my mom called to say Ben had died that morning. I asked about the wake. “No wake. Edna had him cremated this afternoon.” Mom and I laughed as I pictured Edna; glittering earrings, her cheeks aglow, lifting her glass of Johnny Walker and shouting, good riddance!

She was one great aunt.