One is not born a woman, one becomes one. ~Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1949
Yesterday a favorite aunt of mine passed away. About six weeks ago doctors discovered a tumor in her brain, and gave her a very grim prognosis and a very short time to live. Unfortunately, they were right. Fortunately, though, she is no longer in pain. In fact, she died in her sleep, and that is a blessing in and of itself.
My aunt was actually my great aunt. She was my grandmother's sister. One of a family of four girls and two boys. She was my grandmother's best friend. She was something of a spectacle. She was truly unique. She was a role model.
My aunt, Murlene, was flashy. It was a rarity to see her without black pantyhose, a skirt and some sort of showy blouse. She wore large costume jewelry, full make-up always, and her hair was a shade I can only describe as "Merlot." Leopard print was one of her favorites, and I distinctly remember getting a kick out of a tasteful, but very pleather, skirt she sported with some regularity.
Growing up, not a morning went by that my grandmother didn't have a lengthy phone conversation with Murlene. Some of the conversations were in preparation for a day of beauty, as the two sisters religiously gave each other perms and rolled and set each other's hair once a week. On these outings to Murlene's house, just a few streets over from the house where I grew up, I could explore a treasure trove of antiques. To my young heart, so full of longing for all things pink and froofy, her formal living room was a dream come true. I loved playing princess on a rose-colored chair, holding her music boxes like jewels, and carefully exploring her china cabinet. And she loved that I adored her things. I think she wanted to be a princess, too.
But there was another side of Murlene that I didn't fully appreciate until I got some years under my belt. She left an unhappy marriage and raised two sons on her own when it wasn't so chic to do so. People talked, I'm sure, about her brashness in getting a divorce, her unwholesomeness for her love of dancing at the VA on Saturday nights, and she didn't give a damn. More than once she told me of the whisperings she heard, but that ultimately she did what made her happy, she was content, to hell with gossip.
My aunt was a gifted artist, and perhaps that's where we felt our mutual adoration for each other blossom most. Landscapes were her forte, and I've never seen anyone capture, so vividly in oil paint, a sunset or a field of bluebonnets. When I moved back to Texas from North Carolina a few years ago, I found myself scurrying to stay busy, and I joined her at a few meetings of the local art league, of which she was a member for over 40 years. Her paintings were regularly displayed in banks and government offices. I don't think she ever thought they were very good, and she mainly painted because she loved it and for our family. Upon graduation, marriage, or the birth of a new baby, one could expect to receive a landscape, cartoonish painting of Betty Boop or maybe a fuzzy puppy with a football in its mouth. And they were good. All of them. Whether she realized it or not.
Until I moved back to North Carolina in May, I would stop and see Murlene from time to time. We would sit at her kitchen table, surrounded by brass letter openers, paintings propped up to dry, and sundry artifacts of everyday life. We would talk and laugh and she'd detail the previous weekend's happenings...dancing and meals and time with friends, or "motorscooters," the casual men in her life. Although, in her later years, though she never married again, she devoted herself to a very nice man who treated her with care and loved our family and who is taking her death terrifically hard.
I learned something distinctive from Murlene, and I learned it over and over again. One should always revel in uniqueness and enjoy life in spite of anyone's expectations or imposed standards. Murlene was such a character, but that's what made her so vividly real and affecting.
It seems that some people assign importance to their relatives by titles, and maybe that's why I've never referred to her as "great aunt," although she was a great aunt. In my family, the hierarchy of titles means little. I was much closer to my great aunt than I've been to some of my other aunts, uncles, and even my father, and that's what makes it so hard to be so far away now. I'm very happy and content here in North Carolina, but I would love to be with my family at this moment, helping out in any little way that I could, or just being a presence to honor her.
Instead, I'm filling my day with her. It sounds silly, but I chose a new lineup of music for my drive to and from work today. Some sad songs because I need to feel the sadness. Some happy songs because she would've loved those. And some musicians that can tell a great story because she loved, and could tell, a great story. I'm doing what I want to do today because she did exactly what she wanted, she lived her life on her own terms, and it's a lesson that needs to be driven home periodically. I will read what I want to read, I will write, and I will do it all with her in mind. Her great presence and her influence and her love.
It just seems wrong that the world doesn't have her anymore.