Last Monday was International Women’s Day, and two days after that marked the 20th anniversary of my mother’s death. She becomes harder to conjure up in my mind’s eye as time goes on, but the utter devastation I felt when she died is firmly etched in my memory. It happened on the cusp of March break, so I had over a week to grieve at home. When I got back to work, a kindly EA named Pat, who had lost her mother just over a decade earlier, sat down next to me on a couch in the staffroom. My sorrow was so intense and overwhelming that I felt as if I was literally going mad, and I asked my friend how she had gotten through the initial stages of her grief. She took my hand as she assured me in a low and calming voice that the intensity would wear off, and that the memories of my mum which now felt so torturous would in time become welcome friends. She was a living testament to the veracity of what she said, and I was mightily comforted.
Remembering my mum and Pat got me thinking about the many other wonderful women who have influenced and mentored me over my lifetime, the most important of whom, after my mother, were my grandmothers and my many aunts. My father had four older sisters, all of whom were caring women who enriched my life immeasurably. The eldest Monis sister was Adelaide, whom everyone called Lida. Aunt Lida was definitely the brightest of my father’s siblings. She lived in Brooklyn with her husband and three daughters for about 30 years, and moved back to her home town of Fall River, Massachusetts when Uncle Fred died. She brought her teenage daughter Anne Marie with her, but her two eldest daughters were grown and gone by that time.
The youngest Monis sister, my Aunt Alice, along with her husband, my Uncle Barber, owned a large house and property on North Main Street in Fall River. There were three apartments in the building – Aunt Alice and Uncle Barber lived on the ground floor, Aunt Mary and Uncle Chuck lived in the middle apartment, and Aunt Lida, Anne Marie, and Nana Monis lived on the top floor. Nana Monis was already quite old by the time I was a girl. She was rather shy and self-effacing, and extremely religious. There were images of a broken and bleeding Christ on the cross all over her apartment, which I found distinctly creepy as a girl. Nana Monis was sufficiently old that she went to bed even before us kids, and every evening during our summer visits we were expected to visit her bedside and give her a goodnight kiss. I hated going into her room, partly because it had a weird old person smell, but mostly because of the beaten Jesus that hung over her bed. He gazed out helplessly at his surroundings, his face set in a rictus of pain and suffering with blood streaming down his cheeks. His mute agony was absolutely terrifying, and appeared to me like something out of a horror film.
Nana Monis developed pronounced dementia as she aged, eventually becoming so incompetent and confused that Aunt Lida could no longer care for her. She was consequently put in a home, but her children visited her often. I asked Aunt Lida what it was like going there, and she answered with her usual sly and sassy humour. She said it was kind of fun because you could leave and re-enter Nana’s room several times during the same visit, and since her memory was so bad, she would greet you with a big, grateful smile as if you’d just arrived every time you walked in the room. Nana’s dementia had also caused her to completely lose her ability to filter what she said. Tales of her frequent and varied sexual escapades with my grandfather came up at some point during most every visit, a development which Aunt Lida found very disconcerting. Also, after a lifetime of being a prim and proper Catholic lady, Nana began swearing like a sailor, which Aunt Lida described as sometimes awkward but generally absolutely hilarious.
My Uncle Chuck died in his 50s, leaving Aunt Mary a relatively young widow. Aunt Lida and Aunt Mary had always been friends, but they became especially close after Nana Monis left and they both found themselves alone. Aunt Mary was a gentle and loving soul. She’d had a weak heart since childhood which made her virtually housebound, although I never once heard her complain. One side effect of her condition was that she was constantly cold, and she consequently always had a sweater draped across her shoulders no matter how hot the day. Her medication sent her scurrying to pee about once an hour, and she apologized every time she excused herself to use the bathroom as though it was her fault. Aunt Lida was pretty loud and gruff, but she consistently toned down her personality when she was with her fragile younger sister, as though Aunt Mary were a skittish animal that would bolt if not approached in a quiet and calm manner.
There was only one time I remember Aunt Lida speaking to Aunt Mary at her normal volume and with her usual fervour. I was standing outside Aunt Mary’s door and just about to knock when the intensity of Aunt Lida’s voice made me stay my hand. I listened from the hallway as Aunt Mary kept saying that she simply couldn’t believe it was true, and Aunt Lida kept insisting that such things happened all the time. In fact, the exact same scenario had played out with one of her priests in Brooklyn – he was accused of inappropriate behaviour, and then promptly transferred by the church to another parish. Aunt Mary then protested, “No, our Father John wouldn’t do that,” and Aunt Lida replied, “Yes, our Father John would.” I was about fifteen at the time, and even though it was years before I figured out that Aunt Mary’s priest had probably diddled either one or a series of altar boys, I knew that whatever had happened was leading to tension between two women who had always been the closest of friends. I hoped my entrance would be sufficiently distracting to allow a change of subject, so I gave a quick knock and entered the room. Luckily my plan worked – both women reverted to their normal tone and temperament, and I never heard them exchange heated words again.
Aunt Lida and I had a special connection. I have no idea why, but we just really clicked. I remember one time when I was a young woman I went down to Fall River to attend the annual summertime Monis family reunion. I was in my cousin Steven’s house, which was full to the rafters with relatives gathering food and drinks to bring outside where the party was being held. All of a sudden there was a commotion by the door, and people started jumping aside, making room for someone I couldn’t yet see. Then I heard Aunt Lida’s distinctive voice saying, “Where is she? Where is she?” just as she came into view, pushing people out of her way as she made a beeline towards me. She nearly knocked me over as she took me into her strong embrace, and later we sat together for almost all of the day’s festivities.
Aunt Lida, unlike most of her siblings, remained lucid until she died at 96. One time she told me she was determine to retain her “marbles” until the end of her life, and she was such a strong woman that I wouldn’t be surprised if she did so out of sheer will. The last time I saw her she had shrunken significantly, and was sufficiently stooped that she had no choice but to constantly look down. When I asked her how she was doing, she replied, “I’m fine. I mean, all I do is stare at my feet, and I wouldn’t even mind that so much if they were nicer feet.” Not only did she keep her marbles to the bitter end, but she kept her sarcastic sense of humour as well. I miss her greatly and often.
My Aunt Olive was the only Monis sister who didn’t live in the house on North Main Street. She came around when we visited in the summer, but I didn’t know her nearly as well as my dad’s other sisters. Her husband, Uncle Ernie, was a fireman who loved to fish on his days off. One time I asked Aunt Olive if she ever went out on his boat, and she promptly and emphatically replied, “Me? Never! I get seasick when I’m sitting in the bath and see my feet bobbing at the other end of the tub.” The only thing I knew about Aunt Olive up to that point was that she was an excellent cook, and now I also knew that she had a pretty good sense of humour.
I have written about my Aunt Alice before. She was what you would call a character. She regularly danced and sang as though she lived in a musical, and had an infectious joie de vivre. Aunt Alice had a pronounced tic on one side of her face and would regularly say, with her right cheek and eye involuntarily dancing, “Margie, can you see my tic?” I would always laugh in response to her query, assuming that she was joking because it was so very obvious. Now I sometimes wonder if perhaps she wasn’t, but rather was sincerely asking because she was embarrassed by her affliction. Aunt Alice and Uncle Barber owned a corner store, and she allowed us to have whatever we wanted when we visited her at work. She also kept a large bowl of M&M’s on her bookcase at home which we were welcome to dip into whenever we wished. Our mother was fairly strict about what we ate, so Aunt Alice’s indulgences really brought her up in my childhood estimation.
My Uncle Barber suffered a severe heart attack just a few years after he and Aunt Alice had sold the store and retired. His immediate medical costs and those for his ongoing prescriptions meant that Aunt Alice had to go back to work. She took the necessary courses to get certified as a nurse’s aide, then took a full-time position in a local nursing home. Over time they paid off enough of their staggering medical bill that she could go part time, but never once did I hear her complain about how things had turned out. Her outward demeanour was always fun-loving and vivacious, and I like to believe she felt that way on the inside too. She was what used to be called a live wire, and her energy was cheering and infectious.
My maternal grandmother was the Nana I knew well. Nana was never very touchy-feely, but she showed her love in other ways, like with baked goods. She came to dinner every Sunday when I was growing up bearing two cookie tins full of homemade treats, and she’d take home the two tins we’d emptied over the previous week to accommodate the goodies she’d bake for her following visit. There was also a time when she literally gave me the sweater off her back in a show of mute support. I had come to my parents’ house for dinner after visiting my terminally ill, newly ex-husband in the hospital. I was exhausted and drained by all of the upheaval in my life, and had a good cry before we ate. Nana didn’t say anything as I helplessly sobbed on the couch, but I saw her surreptitiously taking concerned glances at me over the top of the newspaper she was pretending to read. She accompanied me to the door as I was leaving later that evening, and just before I headed out she abruptly took her sweater off over her head and held it out to me. I was confused by her offer – I’d never seen anyone hand over a piece of clothing as a parting gift. I looked at her perplexed, but she forcefully thrust the sweater into my arms and said, “I just want to give you something.” It was an unbelievably sweet and extremely welcome gesture, and pretty much sums up Nana’s character to a tee.
Then there was Aunt Carolyn, my mother’s only sister. She and my mother were both emotionally damaged when they lost their father as girls. My mother responded to his death by losing all self-esteem, while my Aunt Carolyn withdrew into herself and became loath to show warm emotions or neediness of any kind. She was also extremely judgemental and kind of snobby. She regularly took me to see the Boston City Ballet when I visited – they were a competent enough company, but definitely not world class. Every time someone in the corps made a mistake of any kind, no matter how small, she would sharply intake her breath through her teeth making an unmistakeable hissing sound which carried throughout the whole theatre and brought the hapless offender’s mistake to everyone’s attention. I always felt bad for the dancers when she did that. Aunt Carolyn was a nursing supervisor and often worked nights, meaning she got home from work at seven in the morning. It turned out that I was visiting when Charles and Diana got married, and she was already watching the nuptials when I woke up and came into the family room. I had barely crossed the threshold before she turned to me and said in her most disdainful voice, “Well, the dress is just a nightmare!” The comment was so quintessentially Aunt Carolyn that all I could do in response was laugh.
There was only one time in all the years I knew her that I saw Aunt Carolyn drop her emotional guard. She and Uncle Bill came up from Boston when my mother died. My Uncle Bill immediately started sobbing as they entered my parents’ house where we were all gathered, and it was clear from his red nose and eyes that he had already been crying. He embraced all of us kids in turn and said he remembered well how devastating it had been for him when he’d lost his own mother. Aunt Carolyn, on the other hand, was dry-eyed and aloof as ever. We all sat and talked for a few hours until it was time to go and see Mum at the funeral home before she was cremated. Nana could not bear to see her dead daughter, so my eldest brother David stayed with her while the rest of us went off to the viewing. We all took our turns saying goodbye except for Aunt Carolyn who stood apart, silent and still. It wasn’t until someone from the funeral home came in and said our time was up that Aunt Carolyn moved to her dead sister’s side. She broke down, so much so that Uncle Bill had to support her, and began repeatedly saying through her mournful sobs, “I can’t leave her. I can’t leave her here all alone!” It was absolutely heartbreaking, but also revealed the fragile, all too human core of my aunt which I had suspected was there but which almost no one ever got to see.
My mother, Jean, was the woman who had the biggest impact on my life. I have mentioned that my mother had very little regard for herself or her own worth, but she was hugely impressed by, proud of, and fiercely loyal to her five children. She sat to the bitter end through every mediocre school play or musical performance in which we took part. She calmed our fears, kept us safe, encouraged our dreams, and fed our bodies, minds, and spirits. She was very particular about language, and a real stickler for proper usage and grammar. My large vocabulary and advanced abilities in speech and writing are entirely due to my mother’s exacting standards. I often visited my mother in hospital in the weeks leading up to her death. One time I mentioned a story I’d just read concerning Sati, the Hindu practice of widowed women killing themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres. I mispronounced the word Sati and my mother, who was intubated at the time and could not speak, rapped her wedding ring on the metal frame of her bed to get my attention. I looked at her and immediately said the word correctly in response to her disapproving expression. She then smiled and nodded, letting me know that all was forgiven and I could continue with my story.
My mother was extremely impatient. She had an explosive temper and yelled a lot, but she also calmed down almost immediately and would become solicitous and loving again. She was the kind of person who was scary until you got to know her, being someone who, to use a common expression, was all bark and no bite. Mum was extremely smart, and I owe the lion’s share of my intelligence to her DNA, example, and influence. She learned to drive, trained to be a nurse, and then went to work in the mid 1960s with five children at home, placing her well ahead of the feminist curve which would only begin to emerge at the end of that decade. She also gave excellent hugs and called me every Sunday just to make sure I was okay.
I didn’t have to say a single thing to her about why my marriage fell apart when it eventually did, she just assumed that my husband Douglas was at fault and was instantly in my corner. She had liked Douglas well enough, but she immediately started referring to him as “the prick,” leaving no doubt whatsoever that she was entirely on Team Margaret. Mum also insisted on paying my tuition when I went back to university to get my Bachelor of Education degree after Douglas died and I was left to raise two young children on my own. When I was 19 I totalled my father’s car the day before I was planning to move out. Not only did my mother not get mad at me for wrecking the car, but she also took me to the hospital to get checked out just in case. I clearly remember resting my weary head on her shoulder as we sat in the waiting room, enveloped by her familiar scent and relaxing into the soothing sensation of her strong hand stroking my hair. We were at the hospital where she worked as an emergency room nurse, and whenever people she knew stopped to say hello, she would introduce me as her baby. Even now I feel a glowing sense of warmth, safety, and gratitude at how special and singular that made me feel. Her baby.
You never really get over losing your mother, and it makes me sad to think that all of these other wonderful, important women are gone as well. I recently had a video chat with one of my nieces, and when I hung up it hit me that now I am the aunt who will be remembered. I’m a mentor and example to my daughter and my nieces, and I’m the one whose help and support is needed to guide a new generation. It is a humbling responsibility, but one I gladly take on. I can only hope to be half as good at it as the older women in my life were.