“I left in love, in laughter, and in truth.
Wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.”
– Bill Hicks
Much like every teenager, I was a rebellious and moody kid. Which provided a fair amount of tension in our household, especially in the conservative enclave of Centerville, Ohio. Suffice it to say, the ear piercings, underage drinking, pot smoking and overall recklessness did not go over well with anyone, but mostly, my parents. Accordingly, sometime in my last semester of high school my father entered into negotiations, as secretive as the 1971 Paris peace talks, with my aunt and uncle in Chappaqua, New York for me to spend a month with them after I finished high school. Presumably to get me out of the house and maybe slap some sense into the 18 year old.
It’s not that my family, immediate or extended, was, or is, particularly close, we’re not. There is plenty of love just not a lot of chatter. And my interactions with my aunt, uncle and cousins probably numbered under five at that point. Nonetheless, one month after I graduated high school, I went out to Chappaqua to attempt to figure out a future game plan for my life with the aid of my aunt and uncle. I’m not entirely sure I understood that was the objective then. Looking back, it most certainly was, but at the time I suspect my thinking was more of “I’m spending a month with the cool side of my family.”
Now my uncle was an advertising executive and seemed, to me, to be one of the most powerful men on the planet. Watching him enter their home when he came home from work, you’d think he was 6’11” and unafraid to snap you in half, and I suspect in his suit, he could have. But then he’d go upstairs to change and come back down in his blue cords and his red stripped Rugger polo, hop on the counter in the kitchen and have a vodka on the rocks in his juice glass and just be my uncle. Of course, I’d heard horror stories of how stern he could be, but, thankfully, I never saw any of that.
Now my aunt was just about the warmest and kindest person you could ever know. And easily one of the smartest and most intuitive people I have ever known. She was always quick to make anyone feel welcome in her home, your home, ANY home. My aunt was just one of those people that made any house she entered immediately a home. She had the most infectious smile and the most genuine laugh. When she laughed, she laughed with her whole body and her mind and it was real. There was no pretense or falseness in her or anything she did. Being on the receiving end of my aunt’s love was to know that, whatever it was was going to be OK.
Hindsight has taught me that the one-month visit after I graduated was a trial to see if I would drive my aunt and uncle as crazy as I drove my own parents and to find a post secondary school that fit for me…and I could get into. My aunt drove me to a number of interviews at colleges whose names have long since escaped me, but I am fairly certain Columbia University was not on the list. It was on these sojourns I got to know her better and learn a little about my family. More importantly, I learned why everyone called her “lead-foot” and quickly realized that she may have done extremely well as a New York City cab driver. But to no great surprise, all of the college interviews went poorly. It turns out a sullen 18 year old with a high school GPA of somewhere south of 2.0 does not make a strong collegiate candidate. Who knew?
It’s worth noting that I was a pretty rudderless 18 year old and my parents had the intelligence to ignore my high school guidance counselor’s advice of “Well, maybe he just shouldn’t go to college.” I can’t imagine their decision to send me off and live with my aunt and uncle was an easy one, but my parents are pretty good at seeing the bigger picture…or maybe they had just had enough. Probably a healthy combination of the two.
Apparently, I passed the “not driving my aunt and uncle too crazy” test because during one of the nightly kitchen talks during the CBS Evening News, with my uncle on the counter, my aunt cooking and me standing off to the side with a Rolling Rock in hand, I decided that it would be best to start at Westchester Community College and then transfer out. At the time, I was under the impression that this was mostly my decision. Hindsight and maturity have made me realize that my aunt and uncle pointed me in that direction and when I made the decision let me believe it was mine. Brilliant.
So after that month was up, I went back to dull and boring Ohio and waited out the six months until the second semester started in January. I recall those six months being a snapshot of what my life might have become had I stayed there.
January came and I moved out to live with my aunt and uncle and started classes at Westchester Community College. For the first time in my life, I had some educational success and it’s hard to put into words what good grades can actually do for ones self esteem and sense of worth. More importantly, I learned that I had a voice and an opinion and that it mattered. I learned I was capable of having intelligent discussions with adults. I learned that if you work, you will be rewarded. I learned that there is way too much truth to Woody Allen’s classic saying, “90% of success is just showing up.”
Despite the growth I was experiencing, the things I was learning and the positivity, I was still 18 and kind of a moody fella. While I am sure it drove both my aunt and uncle a little batty, my aunt’s positivity and good nature made it almost impossible to stay down for too long. She had a way of luring me into some sort of innocuous discussion that eventually led to me talking about whatever it was that was bugging me. She’d listen, really listen, and help me sort it out. And without fail, every single time, she would say to me “And this too shall pass.” It never really made sense to me then because the problems of an 18 year old are devastating. But now I can think of no phrase that rings 100% true 100% of the time.
The six months I spent with them had as much influence on me as almost anything else in my life. Certainly on par with the jolt I received when first listening to The Replacements “Let it Be” (coincidentally, discovered while living with my aunt and uncle).
I got to see my aunt and uncle in October of last year and was able to say some of these things to them both. I didn’t say all I wanted to, mostly out of my own cowardice, but enough that she seemed genuinely surprised that six months had such an impact on me. Over dinner I said, “I shudder to think what would have happened if I had never gone to live with you guys all those years ago.” My aunt looked at me and simply said, “You wouldn’t be sitting here now.”
Those six months shaped much of who I am today (even if I took one, two or three detours to get here) and my life was changed in ways I’m still figuring out.
My aunt passed away last weekend.
I’m sad and I hurt that my aunt has moved on. But I, along with so many others, am blessed to have known her. And even with this loss and all the sadness and emptiness, I can still hear her saying “And this too shall pass.” These feelings will pass to be sure. The love she showed me, the things she taught me, along with my memories of her, no, those will never pass.
To my father and my other aunt, your big sister was the worlds big sister.
To my uncle and cousins, your wife and mother was the worlds wife and mother.
I am thinking of you all and I love you all.
You need not be a world leader to lead a world. My Aunt Alice led her world and, as a result, changed our world.
Aunt Alice, thank you and I love you.