In my growing-up years, life and death were marked by filled seats at our Sunday dinner table. When I was six, Great-Grandma’s cushioned chair was replaced with two high chairs to accommodate new baby cousins. Eventually, the high chairs were swapped out for kitchen chairs with seats holding bulky encyclopedia selections like Volume 11-12: Fra to Ha or Volume 4: Ci-Cz. Atop each book stack was an antsy child, kept still with nothing more than, “Sit quietly or I’ll tie you in with Grandpa’s belt.”
Like death, aging had no place in my childhood. Since all grown-ups had control over me, a command from an aunt only 14 years my senior had the same importance as from a 60-year-old relative. I didn’t notice greying hair or wrinkled brows and more important, I hadn’t noticed the softened hearts that often come with age, until we had long since moved from Thatford Avenue.
As my father’s career flourished, so did our neighborhood. We were living in fashionable Flatbush on a day when Tanta and Grandma visited. The chubby sisters, in cotton flowered dresses and stockings pulled up to their knees and knotted flapper style, entered wheezing from the burden of 4 shopping bags filled with Grandma’s prepared side-dishes. I offered to unpack the goodies to ensure a quick exit. After the last Saran-wrapped noodle casserole was put away, I ran back to the living room, hugged and kissed the women goodbye and made my retreat. The kisses meant nothing to me-just a way to take my leave.
From my bedroom, I heard Tanta, the aunt I thought didn’t like me, say my name. “Your Adrienne…,” she confided to Grandma, “… not like my grandkids. She’s so sweet, so affectionate. You’re a lucky woman, Rose.”
My life in Flatbush had been on a downward spiral; removed from the gifted classes due to my appalling math grades, teen blemishes dotting my chin and secret crushes who found thinner girls more appealing combined to make my adolescence a nightmare. But in one moment of Tanta’s declaration of love for me, I was wanted. From that day, I hugged her often, but It would be years before I’d recognize her gruffness was really her life-saving tenacity.
When my great-grandmother rescued her children from the orphanage, a childless cousin and his wife in Connecticut asked to adopt one of her daughters. Great Grandma, envisioned a life of luxury for her eldest, and sent Tanta. The wealthy couple showed off their new daughter in beautiful clothes, but at home Tanta was a free maid who, among her household jobs, cleaned the bedrooms. Each morning, she swiped one coin off the gentleman’s bureau until she had enough to take the long train ride back to her family. She was nine.
With that same determination, she became a baby-nurse; a woman who cared for infants during their mothers’ post-partum week. From colic to swaddling, there was nothing she didn’t know about infancy. One impressed mother convinced her that she’d make more money as a licensed practical nurse. Tanta self-studied, passed the LPN exam and accomplished her career goals with only an 8th grade education.
On a frigid December morning, like the one that brought the tower of toys, a phone call announced Uncle Jack’s stroke. Hospital visits for my clan meant hours of meal preparations, not just for the patient: we fed visitors and even staff. Re-purposed paper bags filled with wrapped chicken salad sandwiches and quartered oranges were passed among us in the hushed hallways and offered to anyone we deemed in need.
As soon as Grandma lured Uncle Jack’s medical team with her culinary delights, Tanta reeled them in with her unparalleled knowledge of nursing care. While finishing off their home-cooked lunches, Uncle Jack’s doctors were eager to discuss his prognosis with Tanta. Everyone concluded that Uncle Jack would be in the best care at home. And he was.
Using flash cards to stir his memory, pencils and crayons to re-awaken his fine motor skills and jerry-rigged pulleys to strengthen him, Tanta brought Uncle Jack back from the un-dead life of a stroke victim to the strong man he was. But, like most men of his generation, Uncle Jack felt unmanly without work. Despite Tanta’s orders, he went back to trucking. Another more devastating stroke followed. Throughout their last years together, they were never apart. Jack’s wheelchair with Tanta at the helm seemed like an ancient mythological goddess; part woman, part machine as she wheeled him everywhere, translating his slurred speech for others, combing his wiry hair and kissing his cheek when he smiled at her.
After Jack’s death, she continued working. At eighty, she contracted a flu virus at her job and died. Like her siblings, Tanta scoffed at religious trappings. She left instructions that her funeral be quick and simple. At graveside, I stood next to my cousin Lola. We were the first granddaughters of Tanta and Rose; only a month apart in age, friends during our childhood, married the same year, and seven years later, suffered infertility with the same agony. After Tanta’s burial, Lola returned home to Florida, I to Queens. Two weeks later, we each learned we were pregnant.
My stubbornly atheist family made only one concession to a higher power. They considered Lola’s son and mine miracles from God brought by Tanta’s crusty petition at the gates of heaven.