Today I learned that Aunt Mary passed away. In actuality she is my father’s aunt but in Italian-American families the ties run deep and your aunts, great aunts and first, second and third cousins are simply all part of the clan.
My grandmother’s half-sister, Mary, was the oldest child and lost her father at a very young age, never having the privilege of knowing him. In Italian tradition, the best man is sent to marry the widow. This man became my grandmother’s father and raised Mary as his own.
My grandmother and her siblings are some of the last of a colorful and strong generation of Italian Americans who built their way up in life, survived WWII, the Great Depression and experienced living in New York when the bakery was owned by your neighbor and the neighborhoods were organized by country of origin. Mary worked with her mother in a cake factory, a path not often traveled by women during those years and she used the money she earned to live the way she wanted, rarely playing by anyone else’s rules but her own. In fact, in those days this was considered scandalous, a fiery red-head who smoked, drank and danced and didn’t have children. Mary used her money to help her mother with expenses and bought the nicest clothes she could. My grandmother told me that her sister had so many clothes that when Mary was out of the house she would secretly try them on.
For as long as I remember Aunt Mary wore her hair up and kept it a fiery shade of red. Red hair, red lipstick and not one strand of hair out of place, this is how I will always remember her. She and Uncle Harold were married for over forty years and made sure that every penny they had was spent. For many of us in the family this was scandalous in itself since most of us squirrel away our savings so that when we are old and gray we can enjoy our lives. Not so for Aunt Mary and Uncle Harold, they enjoyed their money in their youth. In her 90’s she made lots of friends at her assisted living home. Aunt Mary lived the way she wanted, up to her very last day.
There will be no grandiose funeral for Aunt Mary, she leaves no children behind and her husband Harold recently passed away last year. This made me sad but Aunt Mary would have scoffed at that. As James Dean said: “Dream as if you’ll live forever, live as if you’ll die today.”
I have fond memories of Aunt Mary and wanted to honor her memory in a way that would make her smile. Goodbye Aunt Mary, say hello to those we’ve lost, say hello to your father, and save some red hair dye for me!