A Life in Black and White

Aunt Sally

Everybody has to have an Aunt Sally in their lives. Without one, life is less.

My Aunt Sally would have been 97 today if Parkinson’s disease hadn’t taken her in 2001. 

Unlike my mother, who quit school after the eighth grade, Aunt Sally was a high school graduate. She carved a life-long career for herself as head of Personnel for the IRS headquarters in lower Manhattan.

And she was such an influence on me that my mother was jealous of her.

I had inherited Aunt Sally’s severe overbite, and she must have known that this malocclusion would adversely affect my self-image as it had hers. So she took me to an orthodontist while I was still in middle school and paid for braces to straighten my severely buck teeth.

She took me on an eight-grade graduation trip to DC, encouraged me to study for the priesthood and visited me in the seminary every parents’ day because my mother and father never did. When I determined that I did not have a calling to the priesthood, she steered me toward Fordham to complete my university studies.

Like the movies that were the dominant cultural centerpiece for so many people in the 1940s and 50s, she was a woman who lived her life in black and white. Decisions, choices, directions were easy, and to this day I cite Aunt Sally’s many aphorisms as worthy and relevant guideposts along life’s journey:

“You never want to look chintzy” …

“Don’t act hoity-toity around people” …

“It’s God’s baby, not yours …”

The “Aunt Sophie” character in my novel-in-progress, Down the Edges, is drawn in part from the real-life Aunt Sally:

“Jenny was sure her Aunt Sophie would hate the house. After all, she had appointed herself arbiter of what in Jenny’s life was good or bad. Aunt Sophie wasn’t coming to Cape Cod to eat clam rolls and lobsters, but to pass judgment on Jenny’s new place. Presuming the infallibility of the Pope, Aunt Sophie proclaimed ex cathedra on the range of life’s decisions – Colgate is the only toothpaste to buy; beds should be made up immediately upon rising; Milky Way candy bars are preferred to Snickers; Martinis may commence precisely at noon, earlier if you have company.”

Unlike fictional Aunt Sophie, though, real Aunt Sally was a reverent woman. You would find her at the first Mass of the day every Sunday, occupying the same pew in church. During her long commutes to work, she read and re-read the essays of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen as if they were divinely inspired. She even had a schoolgirl’s crush on the handsome pastor with the beautiful tenor voice.

After spending her prime years alone, she fell in love -- at 54 -- with a co-worker. A divorcee and an irreligious Protestant, he was far from her type. But he was a Yale man, and that counted for a lot to the high school graduate that Aunt Sally was. It was not a good marriage -- not the congenial relationship she had anticipated and deserved. Alone again after her husband's death from advanced alcoholism, Aunt Sally’s latter years were sad ones. 

French Novelist Simone de Beauvoir said: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

My Aunt Sally didn’t know she was strong, wasn’t aware she was an inspiration. She thought she was, simply, a woman.

In my next blog, “The Fat Guy in the Fat Boat”

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  • Peter Yaremko
    published this page in Blog 2014-10-27 12:13:11 -0400