My great aunt died today.
Her heart, I guess, sort of gave out. I didn’t know how old she was; I had heard she lied about her age, but I guess these things come out eventually. My dad told me. She was 91, born just after the end of the first world war. 91 years, and gone.
The last time I spoke to her she thought she was talking to my sister. My dad warned me I should be careful to tell her it was me, but I just couldn’t somehow. It felt rough, to remind her, to say “So hey, it’s Emma, you know. Not Sasha.” She was cryptic, talked about an idea she had, something she was very in favor of, but thought other people would disapprove of, but thought perhaps my dad could get behind. She lived in Amsterdam and I thought she was talking about smoking pot, but it turned out she was talking about leaving her body to science.
I was way off on that one.
She was, in fact, one of the most amazing people I’ve ever known.
She was a concert pianist, and played and played well until just weeks before her death. Her first husband, a virtuoso violinist, succumbed to Parkinson’s a few years ago. The had jointly owned a Stradivarius, referred to in my family only as “The Fiddle,” and I remember for years their talking about selling it. They were always close, when I knew them.
She finally married her longtime boyfriend, a Dutchman some 20 years her junior, a few years after that. There’s a wonderful photograph taken of them, from the top of a staircase they stood at the bottom of, two happy old people in love. He died before her, of lung cancer I think – he smoked beautifully as long as I knew him.
I thought that I hoped to be in love with a man like that when I was watching my prime pass. He was the always in his prime.
The last time I saw her in person was six years ago or so, in Stockholm for the weekend – one of my clever relatives had won one of the big awards they give out there, for a big discovery in Physics he’d made a long time before. Most of the family gathered for a few days to help the Swedes celebrate him and the other laureates, and to be together in a weird and wonderful situation. The Dutchman, still her boyfriend then, was the only one we knew who owned his own tux, being a composer and conductor. It had wonderful ruffles down the front of the shirt. I remember being amazed at how she could talk, unceasingly, constantly. She was never satisfied with anything, and it made her seem so alive. She pulled things apart and criticized and noticed everything and had ideas. She always commented on how beautiful I was. She complained about sitting near one of my cousins and her husband, because they talked too much – which I guess meant talked enough that my aunt couldn’t succeed in saying everything she wanted to say.
My sister knew her better than I did. She went to Amsterdam after college, when my aunt and her boyfriend still ran their brasserie, and worked there and rode a bicycle around and made international friends. My aunt was never satisfied with anybody else’s help; I guess she couldn’t critique her darling niece quite as well. Plus, my sister is a charmer.
I have a handful of other memories of her, much more distant – visiting them in Amsterdam, I made a handful of drawings of her. I wanted to capture her, this amazing person. That must have been just a year or so before, when my parents took me on an ill-advised trip to the south of France the summer after high school. I mostly missed my boyfriend and thought about things.
I remember hanging around and listening to her play, worrying I would get in the way but wanting to hear, looking to the other adults for some guidance, wondering how they could possibly have gotten the beautiful black grand piano up the tiny stairs to the apartment. In pieces? Or through the window, by a crane?
And visiting her in Amsterdam, some other Europe trip, before that (we always went through Amsterdam, to see her, and because it was the major North West/KLM hub). A special meal in the brasserie, Cafe Rondo, a stew in a quiet, dim room with tile floors. Nobody else was there, just family. I think I remember hot cocoa with whipped cream, and her sharp voice complaining about the Dutch and talking about music and people she had known, playing concerts in the Berkshires decades before I was born. It’s mixed up with Amsterdam, canals and red geraniums and house boats and being a child.
Once, when I was maybe twelve, just starting to look like a woman more than a girl, the whole family gathered in California. I remember walking around the big fancy hotel and talking with the Dutchman, playing ping pong, watching him smoke, clearly so much younger than her, but still old, still dignified, so European. That was when I thought about falling in love with somebody like him. I don’t remember much of her that trip, except that she was there, and picking my way around a big table to come over and talk to her, and being told, the way relatives tell you, about much I had grown, how much I had changed, how beautiful I was.
It’s strange to be loved by people you don’t really know, to forget people that remember you, to get to know them as stories and people who are distant, and to love them just the same. It’s strange to know that across the ocean from you somebody who is the last in their generation is living out their last weeks, and it’s too late to get to know them any better, too late to learn more of them except from other peoples’ stories.
I wonder what she knew about me, before she started to forget things. I wonder what sort of picture she had of me, how much she could pick me apart from my sister, so much more familiar. I wonder how she and I might be similar.
I’m glad she went when she did. She lived in her own house her whole life, she never had to go to a nursing home, she never had to succumb that much to being old, which I think she didn’t like very much.
I wish, of course, that during the past several months I had called when my dad urged me to. But it’s so hard, to reach out across an ocean to somebody who you love, who loves you, who might forget you’re not your sister, your cousin, at any moment. Somebody who you know of, know about, but do not know.
She was amazing. She could talk a blue streak. She held her convictions strongly.
I can’t say anything more about her because I don’t really know. I’ll learn more, from stories, when people have recouped enough to tell them again.
And in the way we miss people that is really actually just missing opportunities, I miss her so much right now. And I will probably keep missing her.
It’s Valentine’s Day, I guess, which is a time when even drugstores put little “massagers” up with their cruddy candy and fabric roses, and everything in this country is about love, real and forced, and about sex and getting lucky. Last Valentine’s Day I held a shouting match in a public place because I couldn’t do what I had promised somebody. This year I thought I had done a little better, a friend kept a not-so-much-a-promise-and-here’s-hoping-nobody-felt-forced to sneak into my acting class and toss a stalk of rhubarb at me, and later we giggled on the phone over how confused everyone had been, and I did not say that I had death sitting in the back of my head.
Love and passing. People say to tell people, on this stupid Hallmark holiday, that you love them. And ok, it’s always good to say it.
Edith I love you. I loved you. I wish I had known you.
Play piano forever and ever. Don’t let death or anything else stop the music.