Wissot: Farewell to Aunt Irene, the keeper of our family’s facts (column)
My Aunt Irene died Friday, July 27. She was 96 and lived not only a very long but a very fruitful life. She was the oldest living member of my family. My family does not have a history of people living into their 90’s. To my knowledge she was the only one.
I will, of course, miss her presence in my life. She was very close to my mother, deceased now for 20 years. It is not an exaggeration to say that she served as a surrogate mother to me all these years. Yes, 73-year-old men still benefit from having a mother figure in their lives.
But what I will miss most about her passing is that she was the remaining source I could turn to for answering questions I had about the people who were a part of my family’s history.
If I wanted to know what my grandfather, her father, was like when he was in his 30s, then I turned to my Aunt Irene. When I had forgotten the jobs my father took when he returned from World War II, I knew who to call. Was my mother really a champion swimmer at the City College of New York? It’s the kind of question you can’t get answered on Google.
You never know what you have lost until you lose it. You never know what you are going to miss until the person who prevented that from happening is gone. Fortunately, as my aunt aged I could foresee what it might be like when I could no longer turn to her, and I peppered her with questions during our regular phone conversations.
She would also volunteer information that nobody else had told me. When she and her two sisters, my mother and my Aunt Bernice, were teenagers in the 1930s, my grandfather, a man who followed his bliss with total disregard for what others might think, took them to a transvestite ball in Greenwich Village. In a time when the idea of being gay was met with whispers, and gay men and women stayed safely in the closet, my grandfather was showing his daughters a forbidden hidden part of society. I’m sure it increased their understanding of human complexities and nurtured feelings for diversity.
I don’t know if my daughters will begin to ask me questions about family facts that they think I might be the only person left who can answer. They haven’t as of yet. I’m not sure if they don’t think my death is near or just aren’t as curious about their family’s history as I have been.
I would encourage you reading this column to take advantage of the elder members of your family who can do for you what my Aunt Irene was able to do for me.
We can get some of the information we may want from reading the letters, diaries and journals of relatives. My father, for example, never talked to me about his experiences in France and Germany during World War II. It was only after he died that I discovered a journal he kept covering the last six months of the war. It was there that I read he was present at the Dachau concentration camp two days after it was liberated. That’s not the kind of thing you would ever think to ask your father.
The best insights into a family’s history don’t come from printed sources but are the result of impromptu questions that happen spontaneously and can only be answered by a living source.
I can read a grandparent’s birth certificate. But that won’t tell me what it was like for him when as a 10-year-old boy he travelled in steerage on a boat leaving a port in Lithuania headed for Ellis Island. I can go to Ellis Island, as I have, and see my grandparents’ names on a plaque with the names of thousands and thousands of other immigrants who arrived there at the same time. But that won’t tell me what it must have been like for him as a 10-year-old child to stand in a line in a cold and barren huge hall waiting to be questioned by uniformed immigration officials who had to seem stern and intimidating.
For that I need an Aunt Irene. A keeper of my family’s history. A protector of their unknown secrets.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.