Aunt Teresa was a woman ahead of her time. Born in 1925 into a family headed by my relatively-recently-arrived-to-Connecticut-via-Ellis-Island Italian grandfather, she grew up during the Depression with her parents and three brothers, one of whom became my father. She, like many of that era, retained a level of frugality that could seem insane to those who didn’t come of age with the same economic hardships. Miser, penny pincher, stingy with money – all these things were said of Aunt Teresa, who would drive five miles back to a store or make a scene in a restaurant if she thought she’d been stiffed a dime.
But Aunt Teresa, always full of contradictions, was also a spender. She liked nice things, and prided herself on buying clothes and other items that would stand the test of time. Value was important to her. She was also generous to a fault. I affectionately referred to her as Santa Claus because she gave gifts, all kinds of gifts, anytime, all the time. If you needed anything, and even if you didn’t, she would provide.
Aunt Teresa went by many names – Teresa, Terri, Tessie, Zia Teresina, Aunt Terri. That multitude of monikers reflected her elusive, enigmatic, and often maddening nature. She was exceedingly strong-willed and stubborn, could not admit a mistake, and was, at times, judgmental. A line from Shakespeare comes to mind – ‘Though she be but little, she is fierce.’ Did I mention Aunt Terri was little? Under five feet tall and remarkably petite, she passed for a child well into her fifties. She needed to sit on at least two cushions just to be able to drive a car, and she always had a car, often the newest, craziest model coming off the production lines. I remember her yellow VW bug the best, but she also had various models of American Motors cars, including the ill-fated Pacer, and of course, when Ford came out with the PT Cruiser, she bought one.
Back to that will of hers – I have often said I’ve never met a person who could live so successfully in denial. If she said something was white, you could show her with tangible proof that it was black and it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference. She managed to espouse all kinds of points of view about the world and people with this skill. Sometimes those views were negative and sometimes positive, but most of the time they were the latter, and always when it came to her family. While her refusal to accept hard truths about those she loved could drive me crazy, I also envied it. Denial worked really well for her.
When I was growing up I was often accused of being just like my aunt, which was code for saying that I was difficult. Like Aunt Terri, I was the only girl. When I complained about the injustices that sexism played in my traditional Italian family, when I talked about the women’s liberation movement that captivated me, or when I spoke out about anything in general, I was just like Aunt Terri, who despite being loved by the family, drove everyone crazy with her unconventional, outspoken ways, and with that stubborn streak that, it now seems clear, came largely from trying to survive as an independent woman in a sexist, misogynist world.
Aunt Terri never married, and she never had children. That was another way she was different from other women of her generation, heck, even my generation. There was a vague family story, not told very often, that she had a sweetheart who died in the war, but I never heard her speak of him. To me, she was my single aunt, and happy to be that way. Instead of her own children, she had my brothers and I, and to us she was like a second mother. That was sometimes confusing, because she had a complicated relationship with my biological mother, but even if she wasn’t always kind to her, she was always there for her.
For me, as a little girl growing up in 1970s America, Aunt Terri was a role model. She had her own apartment in the big city of Boston and was financially independent. She’d struck out on her own in the 1940s, living in a New York City rooming house while going to nursing school (lord knows how she convinced her father, who wouldn’t even let her attend high school dances, to consent to that). For entertainment she’d go to city haunts like Radio City Music Hall, where she’d be stopped and questioned because the authorities thought she was a child. After she became an RN she moved to Boston and for decades worked as an IV therapist at the Deaconess Hospital, coming home to Connecticut several weekends a month to visit her parents and brothers and nephews and me, her only niece.
Sometimes she took me back to Boston with her. I vividly remember those two and a half hour drives, and the excitement that would well up when we’d get in view of the Boston skyline. I longed to get away from Connecticut and move somewhere exciting, and those trips to Boston with my aunt were my first forays into realizing those dreams.
When I was 15, I moved to Boston to live with Aunt Terri in her tiny studio apartment on Huntington Avenue. She’d found a school on Newbury Street that she thought would be a good place, and I jumped at the chance. For a while it was just Aunt Terri and me. I lived the lonely existence of getting on the train to Copley Square in the morning and returning to an empty apartment in the afternoon. At that point Aunt Terri worked the night shift, walking to the hospital in the mid-afternoon and returning home by cab after 11. I would wait up for her and we’d talk while she smoked cigarettes, filling the air with cloudy gray, snubbing out the butts in ash trays overflowing with silver powder. We now know how poisonous that was, but to this day, for me the memory of a smoke-filled room brings a certain warmth and comfort.
If it hadn’t been for my aunt, I don’t think I’d ever have gone to a restaurant as a kid. My own family rarely went out to eat. It was pretty much once a year, on Mother’s Day, to the cafeteria-style Bonanza Steak House. But with my aunt, we’d go to the art shows at Mystic Seaport which her brother, my Uncle Domenic, participated in, and look at the paintings and the seagulls and dine out. When the waitperson came to take our order they’d turn to both me and Aunt Terri to ask if we wanted Shirley Temples. When I was 13 she took me skiing to Stowe, Vermont. We stayed at a hotel owned by a friend of hers, hit the slopes during the day, then settled down at a restaurant for a nice apres ski dinner. In Boston, on her nights off we’d go to Chin’s Village on Route 9 in Framingham where we ordered sizzling platters of Chinese food, or Jack and Marion’s in Coolidge Corner, or, on really special occasions, Pier 4 where I’d get my favorite thing, Broiled Onions for Two. On the drives back to Connecticut we’d stop for lunch on the Mass Pike at Howard Johnson’s. No matter where we went, because of my working class conditioning I would look at the prices on the menu, nervous about getting anything too expensive, but whenever I’d say I wasn’t sure what to order my aunt would say, without fail, “Get what you want.” It was the same story when she’d take me shopping. We’d go to Buster Brown for shoes and I’d cringe upon looking at the price tags, but my aunt would always say, “Get what you want.” If I asked her whether she liked the shoes I tried on, she’d say, “Sure, but you have to like them, not me.”
When Aunt Terri retired she moved back to Connecticut to live with her parents and Uncle Domenic, also unmarried, because no matter how independent she was, she always deferred to them. That, more than any stubbornness or inflexibility or refusal to face reality, is what drove me crazy. I could never understand how or why a woman as strong and smart as my aunt would bend to the will of her father and brothers and ultimately nephews, and I probably never will. She loved them, and perhaps it’s just as simple as that. Although she was ahead of her time in many ways, when it came to her family she was strikingly traditional. She was an Italian through and through, espousing the “blood is thicker than water” ethos with every fiber of her being. She might complain about them at times, but no matter what anyone in her family did, she would fiercely defend them. Internalized sexism would dictate that her harshest criticisms be reserved for female members of the family, like my mother. Her father, to me a distant, vaguely terrifying figure, was to her a god. She believed him to be the kindest, most benevolent man on the planet.
While Aunt Terri loved all of her family, she did have favorites. She clearly preferred my eldest daughter, Justine, and would light up whenever she saw her or talked about her. I think she also favored my oldest brother, Mark. She loved children, but she also really loved old people. She took loving care of her parents as they aged, and she took pleasure in visiting homes for the elderly, doing so as a spry woman even when her own age was close to the age of the people she visited. When me and my husband and daughters went to Italy to see where my mother and her father had grown up, Aunt Terri, at 78, came with us. She was quite good at making friends, and even more important, at keeping them. I remember Liz and Dick, who lived in a house in Auburndale with a bullfrog pond on the property. There was Jeanne, the French lady who was a telephone operator at the hospital, and Georgia, the Greek woman who worked in the cafeteria. When Georgia needed a place to live, Aunt Terri invited her into the studio apartment with us. Bea was the friend who owned the hotel in Stowe, and Scottie lived nearby in Middlefield, Connecticut. There were her fellow nurses, among them Marja from Fitchburg, who invited me to stay at her house one summer with her younger sister Ellen, and who made the most extraordinary Swedish pancakes I’d ever had. And there was Felicita, who Aunt Terri went to visit Machu Picchu with when she was in her seventies. I lived in Newton for seven years with my two older children and husband at the time, and while I made friends with the neighbors, it was Aunt Terri who stayed in touch with them, swapping holiday cards with Donna and Tony, who lived across the street from us, for years after I moved and stopped having contact with them.
Many of her friends predeceased her. When you make it into your nineties that kind of thing happens. Right about 90, Aunt Terri started needing a caretaker of her own. It was hard to see her failing, handing over responsibility for her basic needs and her finances to male members of the family and live-in help. She remained cheerful, even during the last couple of years when she stopped leaving the house much at all. Her mind wandered and she’d get confused sometimes, but she stayed sharp enough, still commenting on politics, dubbing our current president “Donald ‘Jerk’ Trump” and proudly displaying the pictures of the Obama family that had been sent to her in the mail, presumably after she donated. A few years ago, when she still had control of her checkbook, we’d sometimes help her sort through her piles of mail. It was astonishing how high the piles were – Save the Children, Native American organizations, American Cancer Society – she donated to them all.
The last time I saw her was about a month ago, in late February, before this fresh hell of a pandemic we are now living in took hold. We stopped for a visit on the way home from a trip to Virginia to celebrate my father-in-law’s 95th birthday. Aunt Terri was happy to see us, as usual, sitting in her chair at the dining room table with the television blaring, delighting us with her laugh and exasperating me with comments about my weight.
Less than a week ago my brother called to say she was ill and he was unable to take her to the emergency room because of the current crisis, but he’d have a tele-health call with the doctor the next day. I immediately called her but she was too out of it to say much of anything. All I could do was say I love you, and hang up. The next day my brother called to say she’d been admitted to the hospital with pneumonia. Since she never leaves the house, COVID-19 was unlikely, but because her caregiver had just returned from New York the week before and because of her symptoms, they were testing her, anyway, and no one was allowed to visit. Two days later, before we even knew the test results, she died.
That was yesterday. I’m very glad she didn’t suffer long, but the thought of her dying alone is horrible to bear. She, who stayed loyally, steadfastly, and lovingly at the bedside of many dying people. She, who spent a lifetime caring for others as a nurse and beyond. She had to die alone, and now we can’t even have a funeral to grieve and celebrate her life. Eventually, we will honor her with a memorial. Many people are finding themselves in the same situation, the horror of their loved ones dying alone, of impediments to mourning. Many, many more will. I am thinking of all of them, but today, I am thinking especially of Aunt Terri, my fierce, strong, crazy making, larger than life aunt, who I will miss so freaking much. Rest in peace, dear aunt, and the rest of you, please, please, please, stay the fuck at home.