Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Cool Hip Aunt from America (repost)

Aunt Winnie died last night. She was 95 and at 4:55 p.m. she simply stopped breathing. As I told a friend this morning, she went very peacefully. She was trying to tell her home attendant something, but couldn't get it out, and then she let out a breath and just departed, eyes steady and glass-green, the light slowly going out. She had just finished a meal of pumpkin soup and apple pie, and her home attendant had just given her a sponge-bath. I think she was trying to say "Thank you."

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Repost from May 14, 2009:

That's my Aunt Winnie, in a portrait made around the time she got married in 1949. She will be 91 this September. I'm sitting here remembering her as she was, the funny, opinionated, energetic woman who used to visit us from New York in the summers, with her curly gray afro and piercing green eyes. We loved her madly. She was the cool, hip aunt from America who understood us better than our parents.

And she was a feisty. Once, when my son was three and came home from preschool with a scratch on his face, she bent all the way down and put her nose to his and said, "Did you hit him back hard?" My son, parroting his parents' instructions, told her, "I don't hit!" She straightened up, looked at him with a frown and said, "So how do you plan to defend yourself?" Her sisters say she was always like that. Figuratively, a brawler.

She was the oldest girl of nine children, a gifted pianist who left Jamaica because she got tired of having to give all her little brothers and sisters piano lessons. "They never practiced," she complained to me once. "My mother cared for them to learn music, but they didn't."

She was the fourth in our family to migrate to America. The hoards came after her. She eventually sponsored all eight of her brothers and sisters, and the multitudes of their children. We have a joke in our family: If the U.S. government had known how many of us would follow Aunt Winnie to America, they would never had let her immigrate back in 1947.

She was officially the first Black employee of Barnard College (she says she was the second, that there was one woman there before her, but she was passing for White). My aunt rose through the ranks and eventually ran the college's Department of Office Services. She was the only director who did not have a college degree.

On her annual visits to Jamaica, she lectured her nieces on the importance of getting good grades in high school, and on the value of attending a women's college, and one by one, as we came of age, she had us apply to Barnard. She stressed that our grades would have to get us in, but if we made the cut, she would help to get us decent financial aid. Eventually six of her nieces migrated to New York and enrolled. 

She employed us all. After classes, we xeroxed hundreds upon hundreds of pages of professors' lesson plans, sorted mail, made deliveries of printing plates downtown, and ran the addressograph machine. My years at the college overlapped with three other cousins', and my aunt made sure our work hours seldom coincided, because she didn't want us chatting and socializing on the job.

One cousin and I did manage to work together in my aunt's office one summer. We'd hang out till late at night with our friends on campus, then head off to work each morning. We were living with my aunt. One morning, after a night of particularly spirited carousing, we didn't wake up on time. My Uncle Charlie, watching my aunt gather her things for work, said, "Aren't you going to wake the girls?" My aunt responded, "Let them sleep. While they're asleep, they still have a job. When they wake up, they'll find out they've been fired." We laugh about that now. But she didn't fire us. She just lectured us and made us work that day for no pay as punishment. Work was serious business.

Ironically, my aunt is the reason we are all here in America and able to take care of her. Two of the six nieces she helped get to Barnard now act as her power of attorney and health care proxy. And when it became clear that her daughter's troubles were putting her 6-year-old grandson in jeopardy, a third niece took him to live with her family in Virginia. The truth is we would all do anything for my aunt, because when she could, she did everything in her power for us. She was so generous to a fault, loyal and true. Every one of us is who we are today because of who she is and what she taught us and how she has lived her life. She is our big sister, mother, aunt, advisor, champion, friend. She is our beloved matriarch.

19 comments:

  1. A wonderful story and a truly incredible woman. This story makes me wish I had known her. Love to you and your sweet family.

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  2. What wonderful loving homage. I'm sorry for your loss and very happy you knew and loved as long as you did.

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  3. I never cease to be amazed at the amazing strength and bonds and love within your family.
    I am certain that your Aunt Winnie's legacy will absolutely never, ever die.

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  4. Beautiful -I'm glad she is at peace, although even after all these years, I'm sure it's still not easy.

    A wonderful tribute.

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  5. What beautiful post about your wonderful Aunt! She was beautiful! love this line.."She was the oldest girl of nine children, a gifted pianist who left Jamaica because she got tired of having to give all her little brothers and sisters piano lessons. "They never practiced," she complained to me once. "My mother cared for them to learn music, but they didn't." Our piano teacher fired us after years of trying to teach our kids to play, think they will really regret it later. Good on Aunt Winnie for making a stand and moving on!!!

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  6. I always really enjoy the stories of your family. The women intrigue me. All of them (yourself included) are so strong and centered. What a wonderful family to be born into.

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  7. What a beautiful post and what a beautiful way to go.

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  8. She sounds like a wonderful mentor. You were so lucky to have her.

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  9. Such class and determination and generosity. You will surely miss her. Of course you will.

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  10. Angella, I remember this original post, and I have loved meeting your aunt Winnie in this virtual way. She was quite a woman, and she really made a lasting positive difference in the world. I am glad her passing was gentle, and I hope it's not too hard on the many relatives who loved her so. You took such good care of her.

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  11. What a beautiful tribute to a beautiful soul. I think she died a perfect death if there can be such a thing.
    love.

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  12. Oh Angela, I am just reading this. All my condolences. I am so sad for you yet relieved she left peacefully. She had a good life and she deserved to go in peace. I know the next few days, weeks, will be hard, no matter how old our loved ones are, it's very painful to let them go.
    Take care of yourself.
    A

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  13. Oh my, what a lovely tribute. I think my mom and your aunt would like one another. My condolences on your loss.

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  14. She was a strong, generous woman. I am sorry that you have lost her, but so happy that you had her in your life for so long. Sending hugs. x0 N2

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  15. Wow...95 years. There is so much she has seen and done. You are SO blessed to have known your Aunt your entire life. How is your mother? We are sending prayers and many hugs to you. Thank you so much for allowing us a quick glimpse of your Aunt's life.

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  16. 95. A good innings. And she did more than just occupy the crease. Sounds like she anchored things and made a way for the rest of the team to score. A standing ovation for her as she enters into the stands. Well done Aunt Winnie. Well done.

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  17. Oh Angella, I am so sorry for your loss. She was an incredible woman. May she rest in peace. Keeping you and your family in my prayers.

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  18. A beautiful tribute to your beloved Aunt. I'm so sorry to read of her passing. Sedning love to you and your family.

    Kathleen

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  19. I am a new follower and reader (via Finding Eliza blog). I am sorry for your loss earlier this year, like you I suffered a bereavement and it has been a tiring and exhausting year. This post was beautiful - a true loving tribute to your Aunt and I love the joke about the migration.

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