Wednesday, April 01, 2009
My family buried my Aunt Rosie 24 years ago today. The day we buried her was a typical early spring day in New England, cold, windy, moisture in the air. She was 44. The age I am now.
I recall the moment we heard she had passed. My mother answered the phone. She didn't say a word, but I could tell by the growing contortions to her face that someone we loved was gone. She dropped the phone to the floor. "Rosie's dead" she struggled to say and started crying uncontrollably. My mother never cried. Hardened by divorce, poverty and infirmity she was a rock. She rarely showed emotion and when she did it was usually anger. Her anger was never usually directed at one person she was just angry at everyone and everything. When she did show another emotion like love, surprise, affection or disappointment it was palpable and visceral. Watching her cry was heart wrenching. I too rarely cry. My stoicism similarly born out of a feeling of hopelessness and resignation. As I stood there watching her wail I felt like I was watching a movie about someone hearing about a loved one dying. I became an emotional sponge, soaking in my mother's grief, but unable to feel my own.
I often refer to my mother, grandmother and aunt as my "Holy Trinity". Being a good Catholic boy and a son of Irish descendants I knew from a young age that Saint Patrick used the three leafed Shamrock to teach the pagan Celts the symbolism of the Holy Trinity:the father, son and holy ghost. These three women made up for the lack of a father and gave me all the support and love I needed to make up for many of the holes in my life. My mother gave me strength and perseverance. My grandmother taught me the value of unconditional love and to the appreciation of life's little things. My Auntie Rosie gave me everything else.
Rosemary C. Norton was the first born of John Norton and Cecilia (Mc Lean) Norton. She was the oldest of five children. Her father, "shuffled off to Buffalo", as my grandmother used to say because he literally left his family and went to Buffalo, leaving her to help her mother raise her brothers and sisters. I don't know much else about her childhood growing up in the Mission Hill section of Boston. According to my mother she was very intelligent, artistic, but kind of shy and a loner. Her and I were thrust into very similar roles being the oldest child in a broken home. She probably bore more responsibility than she should have which caused her to become controlling and cautious.
My earliest memories of her are of me sitting in her lap and listening to her read to me. I also remember driving in her car watching her sip coffee and smoke cigarettes. I also remember calling her when my parents were having knock down, drag out, fights. She would reassure me on the phone while my siblings and I would huddle in my room with the door closed.
When my parents divorced she moved in with us. Knowing that my mother was not in any shape mentally to be raising five kids she slept on the couch, in our beds or in a chair for a good part of five years, until we moved 100 miles west from Boston to Northampton. During her time with us she did everything a parent would do and more. She helped us with school work. She drove us to appointments. She comforted us when we woke up from a nightmare. She took us on adventures to Plimouth Plantation, the Museum of Science, Walden Pond and many long car rides around Eastern Massachusetts usually ending up at some Antiques shop or the "Dover Country Store". When I was ten she and my Uncle Mac took my younger brother Mark and I on a two week long trip out west to California, Utah, Nevada and Arizona. We camped, stayed in hotels, visited National Parks and big cities; things I never could have done with a single mother of five. She helped me study every day for two months prior to me taking and passing the entrance exam to the prestigious Boston Latin. We were her kids and she was as much a mother to us as our own mom.
I vividly remember the day my mother got the phone call telling her that we got accepted into a subsidized housing project in Northampton. The first thought running through my mind within seconds of my mother getting of the phone was "what are we going to do without Auntie Rosie". We found out a few months later. Within a year of moving my mother was once again overwhelmed. My mother had a new support system in her sister Carol who lived one town over and her brother Joe and his wife Feno who also lived nearby, but it wasn't the same. Rosie kept my mother in line as well as the rest of us. She had a way of making you not want to disappoint her without making you feel guilty. With out Rosie around my mother spiraled ot of control leaving us hanging in the wind.
After we moved west she did her best to visit as often as possible. Her monthly visits eventually became bi-monthly visits, which became quarterly visits which became holiday visits. She had spent a lifetime bearing responsibility for others mistakes and now she needed time for herself. She explored interests like horticulture; she was president of the American Begonia Society. She traveled around New England particularly up to Maine. She studied meditation and was an avid reader.
The week before she passed she visited us in Northampton. My mother had suffered a burst brain aneurysm a year earlier and was up to help her run some errands and checking for things she needed. She had an eventful visit filled with catching my brother Mark in a compromising situation with a girl, in-fighting between my siblings and me being in various states of inebriation. She was not happy with "her kids", but when she left that Sunday there were no hard feelings. We all gave her big hugs and kisses and chased her car like little kids as she drove out of the parking lot, waving wildly. That was the last time we saw her alive.
A week later, sometime after midnight my Uncle and grandmother found my Aunt in her chair complaining of a severe headache. She had headaches for years, but chalked it up to stress. After my mother's stroke, she paid more attention to her pains and even had scheduled an appointment for a thorough check up. She died later that day.
Very few days have gone by in the past 24 years that I don't think about Auntie Rosie. Whether it be the smell of coffee and cigarettes, a little blue car putting down the road(she drove a Renualt), a pastel colored sunset or the sound of my wife reading to my kids, I think of her.
In August 2002, on the three year anniversary of my mother's death, I was restless. I was drinking heavily. My wife was expecting my firstborn. I had recently had huge marital problems. I was lost and in need of direction. I thought deeply about my "Holy Trinity", the people I could always turn to when I was in trouble. I went out that day and got a shamrock tattooed to my left shoulder to honor them. As I sat in the chair and the artist went to work I started to softly cry. "Are you OK. Do you need me to stop" the dude asked, thinking I was in pain. "No man, its fine. Just thinking about some loved ones".