My mother and my aunt worked together--two friends, single, living and working in Boston. My mother kept this picture of a good-looking guy on her desk--one of her three brothers, Walter. Walter was tall, dark and handsome. So when my not-yet-Auntie Helena asked to be set up with my mother's brother, she had Walter in mind. Of course, Walter wasn't who my mother had in mind. My mother's older brother, John, had served his country in the military; intelligent, sensitive, tall, and handsome but not dark, a redhead--he was who my mother intended for what my aunt did not yet know was going to be a blind date.
When my aunt saw this guy with red hair approaching her door, she was seriously confused. That wasn't the guy in the picture! But there was something about him she liked. So she opened the door. The two were together from that moment forward for the next 42 years...until yesterday.
I like that story because my Auntie Helena was that kind of person. She lived with deliberation. Nothing was mindless or automatic or an after-thought. She was a doer--she didn't wait for things to happen, she made them happen. And she loved in a way beyond compare--willing to take big risks for the people most important to her. Simply put, she was passionate. Auntie Helena spoke her mind, and when she spoke, it was always with authority. I let silence be my companion far too often; in many ways, I wish I was more like her....
Luckily, I had an aunt like Helena in my life to inspire me.
The way my aunt loved is what I love and respect most about her. I was the first grandchild on both sides so people like Auntie Helena became 2nd mothers. When Auntie Helena first saw me, she fell in love. And because of that love, she was willing to take big risks.
My aunt baptized me as a baby. While that may not seem unusual what makes it so is that I was Jewish. Oops. But it wasn't a mistake. My aunt risked friendship; she risked familial conflict. But she loved me enough to take those risks, risks to protect a person she loved. Tell me that's not monumental! What an amazing woman. She wanted me to be protected, no matter what AND no matter who thought otherwise. And I'm better for it. Not just because of the baptismal waters, but because of her pure and total love.
As a little girl, I would study my aunt's face when she said my cousin, Anne's, name. It was as though in speaking the word that means grace, my aunt was filled with it. Seeing someone light up with such joy, such pride, from just saying a simple word was new to me and I was fascinated by it. But that's another example of Auntie Helena's pure heart. She loved Anne so totally, so completely, that anyone who looked at her knew it...even a child.
Life would sometimes get in the way and my aunt and I couldn't always see each other as often as we liked. But that didn't stop my aunt from being there when I really needed her.
Earlier this year, I had lost my paternal grandmother; she and I were extremely close, like mother and daughter. I was outside of myself after her death, an unthinking, unfeeling automaton. I wasn't eating well or feeling well until the doorbell rang and there was Auntie Helena and Uncle John, complete with a big tray of fresh fruit and an even bigger tray of bagels. As a vegetarian, I can't tell you how grateful I was. Not just for the food that finally tempted my non-existent appetite, but because my aunt was there to take care of me. Even as an adult. Even though she lived a three-hour drive away.
We had an impromptu family reunion in 2001; people were milling around, talking and eating--except for me. I had just been diagnosed with my second malignant brain tumor and was mere weeks away from the surgery. To say I was scared would be an understatement. But though not exactly stoic, I'm not a crier either. So when my aunt walked in to the house and came over to me, I didn't just cry--I began to weep. It had never happened before, or since. Seeing my aunt was like seeing an angel from God. I felt instant strength, instant love...so powerful, that it washed my fear away like a distant memory.
Sometimes we have people in our lives who give us more than we realize. Only when that person is gone do we stop taking them for granted. Auntie Helena's impact was such that it would be impossible to ever take for granted. She gave me my first Barbie doll; it had changes of clothes and a blow-up house that had separate rooms with furniture...even a car! Those toys became so much more than simple play things--they became a connection to my aunt. I played with those toys through high school--not because of arrested development, but because every time I took it out, I remembered my aunt. That memory gave me courage. Each and every time. And it still does.
I don't exactly believe in heaven or hell; to me, the person doesn't die, just the body. The spirit or soul or mind or whatever you wish to call it is infinite. My aunt's brightness filled my life and so many others. That kind of illumination doesn't just die. It doesn't disappear. It continues to bring light across the expanse of space and time.
My uncle, a man who drove six hours just to wish me congratulations on my wedding day, always called my aunt "the doll." I recently asked him why. He said, "Well, Becky, that's what you call someone with attractive features...." And that's my aunt. A person with attractive features, inside and out.
Here's to Bugles and Pepsi, butter kept in the cabinet and not the fridge, and slot machines that are all winners; Helena Marie Thomas, a GREAT lady...an even better aunt.