My Great Aunt died on Friday. I don't have anything witty or clever to say about that. She lived in the same house in Brooklyn since the early 1960s. It was a refuge to me as a young child living not so far away in New Jersey. I felt at home there, safe and accepted for who I was in a way I never really felt back home in the burbs. She was my grandmother's sister, I guess you could say she was a surrogate grandmother at the time since my real grandparents were all back here in Illinois. She encouraged me to read and write and explore music. When I was very small, we had a book and an accompanying 45 record she made of children's songs - she had been an elementary school teacher before leaving the field to pursue acting. You may have seen her on TV - she did some recurring guest spots on several soaps, did a recurring sketch portraying the mother of a late night talk show host, and once did a commercial with Sean "P. Whatever" Combs. There were supposed to be more spots, but after the first one she heard some of his music and did not approve.
Back in the day, my aunt worked to integrate New York - she and a white friend would go to a restaurant and make reservations, then a black couple would show up later to claim their seats. You don't think of New York as a place that had restaurants that refused to serve black people, but that's because you don't really understand how much times have changed. Nobody young really does, I guess.
Although a young radical, in her old age she was the first person I ever heard describe herself as a "neocon" which she defined as "a liberal who's been mugged." While I don't agree with everything she ended up buying into, I completely understand her support for Giuliani. A longtime New Yorker who depended on the subway to get around, she felt intimidated by the lawlessness of the late 80s and early 90s and felt it limited her mobility and thus her ability to accept roles in the theater that kept her out late at night. Whatever you want to say about some of the methods used, by the late 90s everybody felt safe taking the subway home again. My values of tolerance and diversity do not extend to armed thugs and gangbangers either.
Even when we disagreed about stuff she was always interested to find out where I was coming from. If it weren't for her I wouldn't value my own mind enough to write about stuff. I wish I'd spent more time with her as an adult. I'm glad I got to see her several times the past decade since my brother's been in New York too.
Anyway, she was a big influence on me and now she's gone. The circumstances were awful and the way our society treats old people is often a disgrace, but honestly it wouldn't make much difference to me if she'd died under the "best" circumstances. Death sucks. I hear that healthy people are able to integrate death into their understanding of life, accept it and move on. I want no part of it. The human condition is a tragedy. The only way to understand it is through art, the thing itself is an incomprehensible mess.
She was strong. She was funny. She is gone, and the world is poorer for it.