My mother lost her younger brother Paul Keveney Howe early on. He died of kidney failure in 1969 at age thirty-eight. The night she got home from helping her parents through the loss of their only son, I remember her saying, “It’s the oddest thing. I never really knew my brother. I don’t have very many memories of him.”
She didn’t recall doing things with him. Nothing he said had had any impact on her or left an impression. She looked sad and slightly baffled.
“It’s almost like – he never existed.”
My mother had a chummier relationship with her younger sister Martha Louisa Howe. Because Aunt Martha never married, she spent a great many holidays with us and as she and my mother aged, they talked every week on the phone, took trips together and grew even closer while death claimed mutual childhood friends and the last of their blood, the Howes and the Mohrs.
And then suddenly, there was just the two of them.
Even so, when Aunt Martha’s health failed and there seemed little hope of recovery, my mother said something eerily similar to what she had said about her brother.
“Marty was always so pleasant, she was always so nice. She never complained about anything. She never criticized. She never discussed her private thoughts or feelings. Did she have any? And now, the way she just lies there in the hospital, with nothing to say, well, it’s like she’s just not there anymore.”
That same wistful, baffled expression.
“The problem is, I’m not sure that she ever was there.”
This was something my brothers, sister and I had been pondering for years.
Aunt Martha lingered sixteen months, bed-ridden and unable to swallow. She was fed intravenously. She had lost so much muscle tone that she couldn’t even sit up on her own. She had books but she didn’t read them. She had a television, but she rarely watched it. My sister-in-law got her a cell phone, but she never used it. My mother made sure she had a CD player and plenty of music, but she never listened to it. (And she had been a great lover of music, an active participant in the choir and the Bell Ringers at the Prince of Peace Presbyterian Church in Crofton, Maryland.)
The only time Aunt Martha showed signs of life was when people came to see her – and she had a great many visitors – mostly the members of her church, all of whom adored her. Clearly she loved and she was loved, but in that final year there seemed to be no evidence that she had ever possessed an inner life except in relation to someone else. It was difficult to see what of her self or selfness actually existed.
After well over a year of bedridden atrophy, she asked that the intravenous feeding be stopped. She died within a week, just a month shy of her eightieth birthday.
It was true, she never complained. She never criticized. I don’t recall that she ever expressed an opinion. We figured Aunt Martha must have discovered at an early age that she had no taste or capacity for conflict. Or that she had lost the capacity due to reasons now impossibly buried in the past.
It appears that, conscious or not, part of her strategy in avoiding conflict was to become pleasant, oh so pleasant, unfailingly pleasant, courteous, kind and considerate, with her soft-spoken, faint Southern drawl, her plastered smile and awed admiration of others. She was an appreciator. She loved her camera and took multiple pictures at any and all occasions. We used to joke about rigging her tombstone with a hidden camera so that she might continue through eternity taking candid shots of anyone who came within three feet of her.
My complaisant, compliant, fawningly sweet and slightly daffy Aunt Martha died three years ago this week.
When someone you love dies, grief sheds a brilliant light on your memories of the person lost. But grief can also throw shadows. In the midst of remembering things, you realize how much you may have forgotten – or worse – how much you never knew.
When it comes to writing a public eulogy, you tend to minimize the gaps. Three years ago, this is what I wrote and read at her graveside service:
I don’t remember the year exactly. It was 1959, 60 or 61. I don’t remember if it was chilly or warm or whether the sun was shining. What I remember clearly is the sensation that we were doing something special – my mother and her only sister, my only sister and me – strolling down Fifth Avenue with hundreds of other females in fabulous hats in the Easter Parade.
The four of us – two sets of sisters, one set in the prime of life and the other set just girls – walked smartly in our linen dresses, beribboned straw bonnets and white cotton gloves until we could walk no more, then stopped at Stouffer’s – or was it Schraft’s? – for a hot lunch before heading home. What I remember clearly is the air of excitement, the hint of glamour and the effervescent feel of the moment. The moment was acknowledged not only as something rich in and of itself, but also as the making of a memory, an occasion that would be captured by Aunt Martha’s omnipresent camera and stored up with other fine memories into a life well lived.
For me, it always felt that way when Aunt Martha was around. There was always that glimmer of excitement and touch of glamour in the air. There were several reasons for this, reasons that changed over time.
To begin with, she was always, and I mean always, well dressed, blond and beautifully coiffed. She wore more makeup than anybody I ever knew. She was never without her makeup train case and never without her “face.”
Another reason I considered her so glamorous was that we only saw her on holidays. When I was very young, I associated her with family gatherings, gorgeous gifts, elegant dinners and spectacles like the Easter show at Radio City Music Hall, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or the glittering, silver-and-gold window displays at Christmas.
As I grew older, Aunt Martha retained her mystique by traveling and residing in distant places like Germany, South Korea and Japan. I had never been anywhere outside the US and I was fascinated by her familiarity with faraway places, a familiarity communicated to me through gifts of silk scarves, painted fans and lacquered boxes, Dresden china, beer steins and dozens of photos, including a picture of my bubbly aunt posing with Ricardo Montalban at an army base in Vietnam (see above).
As I grew older still, old enough to consider my options in life, Aunt Martha remained a source of wonder. Marty Howe was a career woman. She worked almost forty years for the American Red Cross attached to the Armed Forces, providing company, cheer and recreation to sick and wounded servicemen.
She lived alone. She lived abroad. She took care of herself. (And many others.) She lived an independent and self-sufficient life.
But in the final analysis, what made her wonderful was who she was: gracious and amiable, always loving and lovely, a true gentle woman. It was very simple. She appreciated who you were. She made you feel like the most wonderful, most accomplished person in the world. Her love was unconditional. There was no judgment in her. She had the ability to make you feel special. But she was the one who was special because that was her gift.
I suppose it was inevitable that her adoring nieces and nephews would attribute a secret life to Aunt Martha. We imagined that in reality she was an audacious international woman of mystery whose travels for the Army Red Cross camouflaged vital clandestine operations and whose ever-present makeup case concealed a radio transmitter that connected her to contacts in Moscow and Washington late at night after we’d all gone to bed.
It got to the point where the mere sight of her makeup case could break us up. It’s possible that we invented an alter ego for Aunt Martha because we feared there were so many things we didn’t know about her and never would. We saw only her sunny side. We found it difficult to believe that that could be all there was of her, that in this world there could actually be a person of perfect temper, perfect love and perfect grace.
In the eulogy I neglected to mention the fact that while clearing out Aunt Martha’s apartment, my mother discovered a stash of love letters addressed to Marty in 1969 while she was on leave from her post in Vietnam for her brother’s funeral. The author of these letters was a major stationed at Cam Ranh Bay with the Army’s 1st Radio Research Company, an outfit known as the Crazy Cats.
“I miss you so darn much. It’s just like part of my body is gone. You are a part of me, darling. You always will be.”
His letters gush and overflow with affection and longing. When my mother showed me the letters last summer, I asked if Aunt Martha had ever talked about him and she said no. Not a word. Although my mother knew enough to know that he was married.
“I’ve been completely lost without you. I love you, honey. I love you and need you. Please hurry back.”
It’s clear from his letters that Aunt Martha returned his feelings. But what happened? And whom did she tell? Anyone? What else did she keep locked up behind her “face”? Did he, too, see only her sunny side? Who witnessed her sorrow when the affair ended? Who ended it? Who began it? What angel or demon propelled a woman who habitually avoided conflict into an affair with a married man?
The mystery deepens. And can never be solved. Even these letters, with all their possibility, tell me nothing of her private thoughts, passion or pain. As far as we could see, Aunt Martha, like a camera, reacted only to the moment and merely reflected her world, which reduces me to concluding this post with the same sincere but nebulous words I spoke at her grave.
I wish I had known her better. I wish I had known her longer. The fact that I knew her at all is one of the great blessings of my life. And yes, she was a woman of perfect temper, love and grace and I will miss her every day.
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