My Aunt Rose Mary has appeared in this column before. She was spotted most recently in a gorilla suit, planning to have a little fun and scare some kids on Halloween. Instead she ended up getting chased down the streets of Douglaston, New York by a mob of crazed sixth-graders – they didn’t realize it was one of their friend’s mothers inside the gorilla costume – while being pelted with eggs. This happened in 1974 and her daughter (my cousin) recalled the story for me last October.
But my aunt also had a cameo in this column ten months ago, because of the incredible litany of art supplies she somehow manages to fit into her purse. On any given day, she is likely to have aisle five – all of aisle five – from her local craft store wedged in there. She volunteers at the elementary school near her home and helps six or seven-year-old children figure out how (for instance) to make the teeth on their drawings of piranhas as terrifying as anything inside the giant maw of the great white shark that was built for the movie, “Jaws.”
She is my father’s younger (much younger) sister and my entire life has been like a second mother to me. She lives in South Florida and last month we spent a few days together when I was speaking on Sanibel Island.
Now, all families have idiosyncrasies. To paraphrase Tolstoy: Happy families are all alike, but every eccentric family is eccentric in its own way. Same is true for the family’s matriarch or patriarch – the face of the family. And my Aunt Rose Mary? Eccentric in all the best ways. Exhibit A? That gorilla suit story. Arguably, my whole family, the Swedish as well as the Armenian sides, were eccentric in (again, more or less) the best ways. My Aunt Rose Mary and my mother were closer than sisters.
When I saw my aunt last month, it had been the first time we had been together since the previous June, when we had sprinkled my father’s ashes at a nearby beach. Consequently, I found myself asking many of the family questions that had gone unasked for. . .well, forever. We had a pair of long, leisurely dinners together, and I learned things I’d never known about my parents and my Armenian grandparents.
But the thread that struck me as she regaled me with tales of dinner parties and family gatherings between the 1940s and the 1980s was the way that she was the glue that linked the generations. I noticed this as well when she was sharing with me stories of the people who came and went in the magisterial house in Douglaston, New York in which she and her husband raised my cousins, or the weather-beaten pile of timber and glass where she and her family built a life in the summer on Fire Island. Now, she would never view herself with such self-important grandiosity. Few things annoy her as much as when people grow pompous or (her term for it) “puffed up.”
But one moment when we were talking about all the Thanksgivings we had celebrated at her home, I recalled how we would link hands around the dining room table – which, in my memory, is the size of a putting green – and sing that classic Thanksgiving hymn: “We Gather Together.” More times than not, most of us were doing our best to butcher the words: “We gather together to pass the French dressing.” But we were still holding hands and we were still together.
And once more we were all awash in her laughter, and warmed by her rare and wondrous nimbus.
Her birthday was the other day. So, I send south from Vermont big birthday greeting to Rose Mary Muench, one of the world’s great, eccentric matriarchs – and still my second mom.
(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on March 23. Chris’s new novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” arrives on July 8. You can learn more about it or preorder it here.)