A small grief on the subject of belonging

My aunt passed away this fall–on Thanksgiving Day, actually. It was both sudden and not: she had been sick and struggling for some time and had elected to transition into hospice care, but no one expected to lose her that day, that week.

Unlike the rest of us, my aunt was slight in stature, short and slim. She could seem soft-spoken or reserved. Like many of the funny women I know, she used that expectation to her advantage and could land a coarse joke that slayed all the more because you didn’t expect it from her. She is legendary in our family for her dislike of objects and clutter–“less is best,” she would say–except for books, which (despite regular trade-ins at the used bookstore) still filled every cupboard and shelf in her sitting room. The bookstore staff knew her well; once I watched her walk into the store like a queen, greet everyone by name, and demand a shoulder-rub (which was given good-naturedly by a senior staff member).

My aunt, her husband, and her daughters all grew up and spent their lives in Pittsburgh, mostly South Side. Her funeral was a lively, upbeat seven hours with more laughter than tears; I imagined she would have enjoyed it immensely herself, given her infrequently-exercised love of the spotlight. At her funeral, I introduced myself to strangers as my aunt’s niece and my mother’s daughter, using my mother’s maiden name. The strangers introduced themselves to me as Bobby from back the hill, or Bonnie from up Berg Street, or Barbara who grew up in Rocket’s old place. The funeral director had played ball with my uncle on Brook Street seventy years ago. I hugged a woman I’ve known as Little Edie since I was a child, when her family lived next door to my grandmother; she was stunning then and still is, now a grandmother herself whose husband works with my aunt’s son-in-law. Even my mom, who has lived in Tennessee for forty-odd years, could speak fluently with old friends and new acquaintances using street names and the families who had once lived there (and in some cases still do).

I did not grow up with this sense of place. My childhood home is on a five-lane road where houses are spaced apart by grassy yards and live oak trees. I had only passing acquaintance with our neighbors growing up; kids didn’t ride bikes or play so close to the busy street. None of my schoolmates were within walking distance–and though Facebook connects me to many of them, I wouldn’t say we’re on funeral-going terms.

My aunt was so much of her own place that she rarely left Pittsburgh, although of course there were a variety of factors that contributed to that: a tendency for airsickness, a grumpy husband, a sort of codependence with her mother (my beloved but flawed grandmother). But she did come visit my mother and our family in Memphis a few times–something like once every ten years. And twenty years ago she did fly to Paris with my mother and me, then on to England. (We took the Chunnel, on which a young American woman shouldering a gigantic backpack stopped by our seats to chat about Pittsburgh, because my aunt’s accent was unmistakable.)

At the time, I was a college sophomore and doing a summer study-abroad at Oxford on scholarship. It was my first time leaving the country. When I told my mother I was going, she said she had also never traveled abroad and wanted to come too. When she told my aunt, my aunt reminded her that she had also never traveled abroad and had always wanted to see London. So we all went together.

I have many fond memories of this trip–predominantly of hoofing it around Paris and London and Oxford holding one of each of their hands, trying to keep us together as my mother rushed ahead to see as much as possible while my aunt strolled slowly to take everything in. I remember counting bags whenever we left one lodging for another, drawing circles and lines on maps, and finding our distant relatives outside Manchester as difficult to understand as the Parisians (whose language I had only a schoolroom grasp of). Even now I will occasionally buy pain au chocolat for breakfast and think about how we ate them every morning when my family finally deposited me at Oxford; the chocolate croissants were 99 pence, a delightfully indulgent non-food for the most important meal of the day.

On the day that my aunt passed away, I spent some time sitting by her hospital bed and trying to make her laugh and feel loved. I reminded her about the pain au chocolat as well as the strange Europeanness of the hot dog and coffee she ordered in Paris. I kept forgetting that she had told her husband and daughter that she had a terrible time on that trip, that she missed them every day and couldn’t wait to be back home.

I believe there was some truth in that; I’m something of a homebody myself, despite my lack of connection to the neighborhood I grew up in. I am sure she did feel like a fish out of water and eager to return to familiarity and routine. But there’s a lie, too: I saw her shine in an unfamiliar environment. My aunt overseas was game, excited to see and try new things, and very funny once she relaxed around our British cousins.

When someone you love passes, people always ask “Were you close?” I’m not sure how close I can claim to be to my aunt. I loved her, and I enjoyed spending time with her, but as I grieve her I am realizing there is much I do not know about her: what she thought, how she felt, why she chose the life she chose, whether she felt she had much choice. I find myself laying little moments like these side by side; in lyrical writing, such juxtapositions can form the rough sketch of a story, and what goes unsaid only adds more emotional weight. In my reflection, though, I just feel the negative spaces. I grieve for the ties that bound my aunt to life in the place where she grew up; I grieve for the comparative lack of ties that connect me to my own place; I grieve for what I do not know about both.

They are small griefs, on the face of things, but easier to feel.


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