She was the last of the "Great Aunts" on my mother’s side. My grandmother's baby sister.
She would have been 96 on Thursday, a long life by most standards. Nonetheless, the night my mother said she'd gone, the words tumbled over each other, preventing me from sleep.
Mary, who family lore puts kicking her knickers into the Hudson River once they’d lost their elastic and dropped to the pavement of the Green Island Bridge as she and a beau were walking across. Her grace, it is said, made him none the wiser.
Mary, who, despite a gentle demeanor and slender calves, was herself a brick house beneath tendrils of ivy.
Mary who’d lived through wonderful luck and terrible loss with the same cheerful grace -- a woman who was always "as truthful as kindness allowed" -- was gone.
If anyone could, we all thought, Mary would live forever.
I have many memories of Mary; many more than I have of my own grandmother, who died when I was a child: Her voice, her smile, her devil-may-care but the angels-will-call demeanor. A glint in her eye that was proof she enjoyed the world and the people in it.
I also remember the things that surrounded her: photographs of family members above the fireplace; magnets on the fridge holding up paper milestones from loved ones far-flung; the candy kisses on the coffee table, help yourself; the sodas in the pink ice box, sadly replaced when it couldn’t be fixed; the tea kettle on her pink, push-button stove. ...
Pink was her color. I wanted it to be my color, even as I robotically wore black.
Most memorable for me, however, was one night nearly 20 years ago when my mother phoned to ask if I would get Aunt Mary from the hospital and stay with her the night.
She'd had an "episode" and was alright, but shouldn't be left alone.
Such a request no one had ever made of me, nor would they have had they any other choice. No one else was available.
Great Aunt Mary had been having these episodes of stroke-like effects; and they scared her. She didn’t want to be alone.
I was scared, too. What if something happened to her in the night? What would I do?
When I arrived at the hospital she was waiting, dressed in a robe and slippers. The moment I saw her my fear evaporated. Though noticeably tired, she was the same charming person I’d always known her to be, ready with a laugh and a smile and an "I’m so glad you’re here ... I really hope it wasn’t an inconvenience."
It was the first time in my life when I felt not only needed, but trusted, too.
How could such need ever be an inconvenience?
It was just a single moment in time. A minute. A second. Insignificant.
Many years later she attended my wedding; she held my first child in her arms on the golden swivel chair; she met my second child in photographs after she’d moved away to live with her daughters.
After that I saw her only in photographs.
Her smile hadn't changed.
As news of her final days traveled back home, however, I remembered that night so long ago that I slept in her spare bedroom.
"There will never be another like Mary," I thought then. "I am lucky to have known you," I think now.
Goodnight, Great Aunt Mary.