To My Great Aunt Miriam
Today you are 100 years old, Aunt Miriam. And I am 25, soon to be 26, which means no more health insurance, and it means that I am no longer in my early- or mid-twenties, but rather inching closer to thirty, closer to a time when I should settle down, should figure it out. And I have not figured it out, do not believe in settling. You have lived 100 years, and what do I have to offer you? We’ve long since ceased to exchange letters, trinkets, postcards. Haven’t spoken in years and I wonder if you would recognize me in the flesh, my cheeks hollowed, face leaner, like a woman, and even this body, like suddenly my small breasts and wide hips make sense, separated by a long, slender torso. I have lost my baby fat, broken hearts, taken drugs. And what do I have to say to you? What have I learned? Who have I become?
Twelve years ago you were 88, and I was 14, which I thought was so much, so old, and now the number seems like nothing, inconsequential. Still, you took me seriously enough to invite me into your home, a “monastic” little apartment, as my mother had warned, and I slept in the same room as you, on a firm, compact bed, a twin, with you the other half, just across the room.
Was I nervous? Was I worried about keeping it light or fun or easy, in such close quarters? Was I self-conscious to be sharing such an intimate space, to fall asleep next to each other, our lungs drawing breath from the same sweet Florida air?
I do not remember. The pictures show that I was awkward, towering over you, wearing a thread-bare men’s polo shirt and plastic glitter bracelets. I was a gawky, presumptuous teenager. But you let me in. We shared a room–the most unexpected sleepover–and in the morning we sat down , on the back porch, birds chirping, and talked.
An interview, recorded on tape, for my 8th grade social studies class. We had focused a lot on genealogy that year, on ancestry and personal histories, and now here I was, the special child, flown in from Utah at my parents’ expense with my three siblings left behind in Ogden. All to speak to you, Aunt Miriam. My oldest living relative.
Listening to the tapes tonight, for the first time in the twelve long years since, I am struck by how casual my tone, how forward the questions. Like I thought I had the right. Like I thought we were equals. And businesslike, my goodness! I am just plowing through the questions, not knowing when to leave good enough alone, not knowing when to let your tangents have free reign, as you spin stories and weave anecdotes and share yourself openly with me. I am only interested in getting to the end, filling out my form, getting all of the answers. Completing my assignment. So I don’t even notice, when I ask you to describe your character, and you talk about bouncing back, about how some things are harder to bounce back from than others…and…needing to keep in mind that there is another child to care for. I didn’t even know that you were talking about Rhoda, and Judy, your daughters. That you were talking about Rhoda’s illness, probably the most painful and draining and impossibly cruel and unchangeable circumstance of your life. I was too young, and I was too matter of fact. And nervous, probably, to have been given such power, such responsibility, to hold court with an elder for an afternoon, wielding my tape recorder and pen.
I said that I would become a musician, Aunt Miriam, and I didn’t. So close, but not quite. A bit too distracted, I guess. But I did go to college, like you advised. I went to college, and I was uncertain, and I called you from a coffee shop near my rented room in someone else’s apartment, sophomore year, to ask your advice. Because I didn’t know what I wanted to do and needed to pick a major. Because I was not good at making big decisions, and you put things into perspective. Showed me that my selfish confusion stemmed from a gross abundance of opportunities. And I am grateful for my many opportunities Aunt Miriam, but I am still not good with decisions. My life has not followed a straight path, and things have not been so cut and dry as your decision to switch from French Teaching to Elementary Education, because you got a C in a required class, easy as that, decision made and on to the next thing. I’ve drifted, I’ve backtracked. I’ve doubted and worried and starved and indulged. But I’ve learned some things, Aunt Miriam. I’ve learned French, and I can speak that, can have a conversation, and I can do just about anything in Spanish, which I guess is what we can call being fluent. I’ve lived abroad. I’ve seen Europe, already, more times by the age of 25 than you probably did in a lifetime, though it was the thing you’d dreamt of, waited for, saved up, and for me it’s been more of a chance encounter, repeated, with variations.
I wish I had known how precious a gift you were giving me, Aunt Miriam, but I did not, didn’t even know what to say for the most part, and so simply moved on to the next topic. I was not yet the woman I am now, the woman that I would become, who would know what to say when you tell me that your closest friend passed away from cancer, or your baby sister, 68-years-old, and how you did not feel like celebrating after that, not even your eightieth birthday. Or at least I might have know how long to let the silence linger, an appropriately thick and rich moment, without words. But these things come with age, I suppose. I am still not the woman I will become, Aunt Miriam. But I am getting there. And I hope, still, after all these years, to make you proud.