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Auntie Margo - "My Way"

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A Letter to Gabriel from his Mother ... About Her Aunt Margo

August 11, 2006 Dear Gabriel, This letter has been underway for quite a while now. I promised my cousin Chrisann that I would tell you about her mother, my Aunt Margaret, who died two months after you were born. Although Aunt Margaret had not been in good health for several years and had recently suffered a fall that resulted in surgery to repair a broken hip, her death was nonetheless unexpected and three months later remains beyond my comprehension. I miss her very much, and find it terribly sad that you will not know the thoughtful, loving, fun, wise cracking aunt I loved so much. Indeed, it is one of my deepest regrets that I did not bring you to meet her before she died. I just couldn’t seem to get my act together during the weeks (and months) after your arrival. My c-section recovery was frustratingly long; you hated traveling in the car; the trip to Waltham seemed overwhelmingly far; I thought there would be time. I really thought there would be time. It never occurred to me there might not be time. Unbelievably, the day before Aunt Margaret fell, I told your Grammy I was ready to make the trip. We were going to arrange a visit for the following week. Even after she fell, Grammy and I planned to bring you for a visit when Aunt Margaret was moved from the hospital to a rehabilitation facility. As it turned out, she died the very day she was moved, and I brought you instead to her wake and funeral. To be clear, my regret about not bringing you to meet your great Aunt Margaret has nothing to do with a feeling of obligation that I “should” have brought you sooner. It’s because she was so very, very excited about your arrival, and it would have given her great joy to get her hands on you, and would have given me great joy to see someone loving my baby as much I know she would have been loving you. To her, you were something special before you were even born. She was very particular about wanting you to have a fancy china cup and bowl set for special occasions, which she gave you at my “girl’s day” shower at which she was endlessly amused by my enormous belly. When she called me in the hospital after you were born, she was full of warm wishes for our family as well as some good laughs over the big fat baby they had to surgically remove from her tiny little niece. Weeks later when she received some photos of you in the mail, she called Grammy and Auntie to gush about how beautiful (and big) you were. She was very, very excited about you, and loved you to pieces despite never having met you. You are going to hear lots and lots and LOTS of stories about Aunt Margaret in the years to come, but in the meantime I want to start telling you about who she was and what she has meant in my life. In order to do that, though, I need to tell you a little something about myself. I have a running joke with your dad that I want him to play Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” at my funeral. Oddly, though, it isn’t because I actually believe I live life “my way.” In fact it’s just the opposite. Like many people, I often feel pulled in many different directions, caring about what everyone else thinks, trying to make everyone else happy, and losing myself in the process. Unlike most people, though, I really hate that about myself. I mean, I really, really hate it. I hate that I struggle with things that should be easy, stress out about things that should be fun, and worry about things that don’t matter. I hate it because I know better, and because I believe that my sense of myself is the most important thing I have in this life, and yet I can’t seem to stop myself from giving it away. Constantly. So, I tell your dad to play the song at my funeral not because I believe I do things “my way,” but because I want to, and because I hope that by the time I die, I did. My Aunt Margaret did. And from what I can tell, she always did. Aunt Margaret lived life her way when she was young and stayed out late, coming home to a door she knew would be locked and refusing even to ask that it be opened. (She was never one to give anyone the satisfaction of saying “no,” least of all her mother.) She lived life her way when she ran with the wild crowd, but opted not to drink. (She got sick the first time she tried it; why would she want to do that again?) She lived life her way when she married “bad boy” Uncle Bob and raised three beautiful daughters with him. (She’s the only one who could have tamed him.) She lived life her way when she resumed contact with her parents after suffering a stroke (she was always clear that she had done it for her reasons and on her terms.); when she reclaimed her nickname “Margo” a few years ago (she liked to explain why my cards were no longer being signed Aunt “Margaret”); and when she told me, repeatedly, that she wanted balloons–make those green balloons–at her wake (she wanted to liven things up a bit). And, yes, she lived life her way when she smoked cigarettes, ate chocolate, and did everything else the doctors advised her not to do. (Before Aunt Margaret quit for good, Lisa used to have to clarify to the emergency room staff that when her mother said she “used to” smoke, what she meant is that she hadn’t had a cigarette in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.) Doing things her way wasn’t just how Aunt Margaret was; it was who she was. And it’s what I loved most about her. It’s not the only thing I loved about her, though. There was much to love about Aunt Margaret, like the fact that she drank coffee even while sitting on the beach, and would let us keep the change after fetching her a large cup from the corner store, and then would save us some coffee so we could concoct elaborate sand drinks. Or, the fact that she loved camp songs, Bingo, poinsettias, the “Footprints” poem, and sun burns (or so it would seem, given her tendency to sit in the hot sun for hours with nothing protecting her fair Irish skin). If there was one thing Aunt Margaret decidedly did not like, however, it was amusement park rides that spun. What else did I love about my aunt? She had the gift of gab. I don’t just mean that she liked to talk, though certainly she did. I mean she was quite good at it. Aunt Margaret told great stories– wonderfully detailed (perhaps embellished), funny, and endearing stories about growing up and about relatives I knew well, had barely known, or had never even met. My favorite stories, of course, were the ones about me. She had a colorful and generous memory of me. Her recollections of my childhood antics always left me feeling that I was highly amusing, quite interesting, and rather special. I imagine she left a lot of people feeling that way. My other favorite topic of conversation with Aunt Margaret was my father, who she could talk about in passing or at great length in a way that no one else ever has. She talked about him in exactly the way that I needed someone to talk about him: as someone who had known him well and loved him deeply, but ultimately had been disappointed and hurt by his irresponsible behavior. Within the same conversation she could laugh about the many good times they shared while acknowledging the inexplicable turn in his character. She always told it like it was, neither sugar coating his mistakes nor forgetting his many good qualities. She was perfectly comfortable letting him be the kind, generous, infuriating, selfish man that he was, and perfectly comfortable letting me be the conflicted daughter. She bore witness to my profound confusion without complicating or compounding it. Yes, Aunt Margaret was a good talker. And she loved to laugh. Oh, how she loved to laugh. My Aunt Margaret had the warmest, most mischievous laugh I ever heard. Even when she was laughing so hard no sound came out, you could see the warmth and the mischief in her eyes. Usually, she’d laugh hard enough to jostle her whole body; when she really got going, her body would shake and she would lose her breath. And there was never any fake or half-hearted laughing from her. She always meant it. Always. She even (or perhaps especially) meant it at my father’s wake, where I saw Aunt Margaret and Lisa waiting in the receiving line, sort of leaned in toward each other with faces hidden from view, and Aunt Margaret shaking a bit. If you didn’t know her, you might have thought she was crying. But I knew my aunt, and although I knew she had loved my father and no doubt had cried when she learned of his death, I knew that’s not what was happening in that moment. I took one look at my aunt, and another look at the giant plastic golf ball and matching giant golf tee that were displayed prominently among the flowers and directly in her line of sight, and I knew my aunt was having a good laugh for herself. I mean, really, what else can you do when confronted with a giant golf ball at a wake? Pretend you don’t see it? Pretend you don’t think it’s weird? Wait until you get back outside to comment on it? Maybe that’s what you do if you’re one of the other people who filed through the line that night, but not if you’re Aunt Margaret. If you’re Aunt Margaret, and you see something outrageously tacky at a wake, you laugh. You really, really laugh, especially if you happen to know that the deceased was not even a very good (or honest) golfer. And then you whisper some comic relief to your nieces. And then they laugh, too, in a moment of terrible grief and for years afterward. She was a good aunt. She was the aunt of road trips and Christmas lights and ice capades. She was the kind of aunt who didn’t hesitate to reach her hand down my throat to retrieve a very cheesy bite of pizza that wouldn’t quite go down. She remembered my birthday every year, and celebrated every major milestone in my life, going to great lengths to attend my wedding and my baby shower despite her physical challenges and the fact that she generally preferred to be at home. She even celebrated the less obvious milestones, like my first Mother’s Day, for which she directed Lisa to buy a card when she was in the hospital shortly before her death. At every stage of my life, she was one of my most faithful and enthusiastic cheerleaders. I loved all of these things about my aunt, and more, but most of all I loved her independent, incorrigible, irrepressible spirit. That’s why I gave her a copy of “My Way” for her sixtieth birthday with a note declaring it her theme song. It’s why I arrived at her funeral wearing a polka-dot dress and carrying a bouquet of green balloons. It’s why, for the rest of my life, I will smile when see a green balloon, and why, every now and then, I’ll set one free... a little wink and a smile from an aspiring free spirit to her irrepressible aunt.

Linked to  Margaret Ann Olsen 

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