My ex has a host of aging Italian aunts and there is one in particular who has, since her mother died three or four decades ago, lived alone in a little apartment at the end of the main street in the mountain town where she was born. She never married, never traveled and by the time I came along, she never left her apartment, relying on relatives and a woman she paid to do her shopping and the housework.
Her endearingly naive view of the world is largely based on telephone conversations with the other aunts and their nieces and Italian television (black and white until the nineties, when someone in the family finally convinced her that color TV was safe). She watches Mass every day and can be relied upon to spread news of any family intrigue over the phone.
She has an impressive sweet tooth and is exceedingly generous; as a result, she is always foisting boxes of chocolates and candies on us. She always has a treat to give the boys.
When we were dating, my ex took me to meet her and she showed me old photographs of relatives who had emigrated to the United States decades before. “Do they look familiar?” she asked. “Maybe you know them.”
She calls me every year on my birthday, just like everyone else in the family. “I have a box of chocolates here for you!” she invariably announces. “When are you coming to see me? When are you bringing those boys? I will keep the chocolates here for you until you come. So come! I’m expecting you!”
Then, when we go she takes our picture with a disposable camera, and shows us the pictures from our previous visits, and those of other family members. She brings out pictures of my ex with the boys and while I look at them, she searches my face for some sign of regret or softness, some signal that it was all just a small misunderstanding and not for real. I assume she does the same to him.
After we split, my sister-in-law informed me that the family had decided not to tell her. “We’re not sure how she’ll take it.” They only told her after she started calling everyone, distraught, insisting that I must be angry with her for something she had done or something she had said, since I never came with my ex and the boys anymore when they stopped by to see her.
After hearing the news, she called me right away. “I am calling you because I want you to know that I will always be your aunt, no matter what. You are still my niece.”
Once, about twelve years ago, she fell getting out of bed, and had to be hospitalized. She was so mad at her brother and his wife who found her and insisted on calling the ambulance. Later, at the hospital, when the doctor asked her how long it had been since she’d seen a doctor, she is rumored to have answered, “Oh well, let’s see… it must have been 1964. Or 65?”
After that she agreed to have a nurse come by and see her regularly, and someone checks up on her at least once a day. Over the years, she has been hospitalized from time to time for various recurring ailments. Which is why I was not too concerned when my ex informed me that she was in the hospital again, except that this time he said she didn’t look herself.
Then a cousin texted me last week that she wasn’t doing too well, and my father-in-law called twice. Sunday night he seemed particularly concerned, having just been by to see her, and noting that she could barely talk.
Today was a national holiday and we went up the mountain to see her. Indeed, she did not look herself. She was half her former self, frail and tiny. Her shoulders looked so small, little knobs in a white nightgown, and she could barely speak.
She was happy to see us but very upset that she had left the boys’ gifts at home. “I still have their Christmas stockings,” she whispered, and I was appalled I’d let six months go by without taking them to see her. I told her we’d get the stockings the next time we see her, possibly at her birthday party in September, a party she throws every year for everyone in the family, and starts planning again in October. “All right,” she said. “And if I’m not here in September, you will all have the party anyway.” She seemed immensely reassured when we all nodded and voiced our agreement that yes, of course, no matter what, there would be a party in September in her honor, whether she was around for it or not.
And looking around at the two other aunts, my kids, one of her nieces, crowded around her hospital bed, I was reminded of the opening passage in Diana Athill’s “Instead of a Letter”, in which Athill’s dying grandmother, alone with the young Athill, asks her, “What have I lived for?” and silence ensues.
It is a question this kind, sweet, innocent aunt will never need to ask herself, or any of us for that matter, the answer being so plainly clear.