I didn’t understand her when I was a small girl. My great-aunt Catherine seemed elusive but wise, removed from the rest of the family somehow yet deeply connected at the very same time. Something always seemed a bit off, missing. I could never put my finger on it.
She wasn’t a rare beauty on a pedestal nor was she fragile, mean, haughty or giving off an air of being “better” than the rest of us, yet she seemed to always be an object in the room with an infinite well of charm, and knowing. She was paper-thin and tall with a mighty strength that came not from muscles or stamina but beamed from her in a strange delicate manner. Strength, yes. Strong and wise. Sad. Even when she would laugh while telling stories. She never married in all of her 80 years of life. She worked hard, she was extraordinarily organized and graceful, financially sound and just – together. That was a big part of her charm to me-she was together. In control. Something I longed for… and do still.
There was a romantic air about that togetherness, that security she seemed to have within her control. A romanticism that coupled with her love for travel, took her all over the world. No one else in my family traveled like my Aunt Catherine. I dreamed of traveling as she did. Dreamed of exploring and of having magnificent journey’s to share with my children.
Catherine herself had no children of her own. That worried me I believe when I was young maybe because I feared the choice meant she didn’t like them, wouldn’t like me because I was one. Although she wasn’t outwardly warm and loving, I never felt that she didn’t like having me around. On the contrary I always felt she wanted me there, hoped I would watch her and learn from her. She invited me to spend a week with her every summer, taking me to nice restaurants, to the theater, things I didn’t get to do back home. She instilled a love for those things within me, as well. It has only just occurred to me that I, was in fact to a degree, her child. My brother, cousin and I were the only children she would have in her life. Sitting here now thinking of that I hope very much we did not disappoint her as such.
Living in the middle of Texas, the deep south, a strong woman without a man and who had no children was indeed – odd. Sitting here now I realize, too, that this characterization of her in my mind seemed so strange I thought of it all the time. “Why,” I would always asked myself, did she choose being alone in this world? With no one else to share life with, a home with, the holidays….? Today, the choices she made don’t seem so strange, but yet….the curiosity of this issue refused to leave me. I was missing something, I knew it.
As long as I can remember I’ve imagined myself “with” someone else. Playing house in kindergarten, chasing boys on the playground, marriages, divorces-no matter how many times my heart has been shattered and broken it has risen from the ashes, even while in tears, hoping against all hope that I would not be so unlucky as to live a life *gulp* a-lo-n-e. (shudders)
My Aunt Catherine Mitchell was very much a Scot. Full of the strength, temperament, humor and stubbornness of most with a Scottish heritage. Her father, Robert D. Mitchell Sr. sailed to America with his mother when he was an infant. Her brother, Bob Mitchell Jr, my grandfather, watched over her his entire life. They fought. A lot. Yet they still loved, cared for and depended on each other. Something my brother and I struggle with to this day, failing miserably as they did not.
Like a perfectly written mystery book from the library, so easily lost inside its pages, I remained perplexed and intrigued with my aunt in all her elusive eloquence, living out her days independently and secure.
There were parts of her life, the way she lived, the way she dared to explore, the way she commanded her own small yet wonderful world that I wanted to have for myself. Like her magic with flowers and plants-her gardens were impeccable. At her funeral the minister joked that her thumb was “so green she could stick a pencil in the dirt and it would take root.” Yet I never once saw myself living the parts of her life that I admired – alone. I could not, for some reason, let that go. It bothered me, like a tickle in the back of your throat that drives you mad and won’t let go.
I have many gay friends and it never occurred to me that she might be, as well, and that this was perhaps why she was alone. It wasn’t that, I knew. I knew that there was once a man in her life. That they lived together for many years but never married. I remember him very, very vaguely as a toddler. I knew he passed away. I knew that the details were tragic and hushed and it was never spoken of around me. He was a ghost of a memory, just simply not there any more and I was never privy to the “why.” 40 years went by after his passing and she, too, is now gone.
When she passed away there were a number of items she owned shared with the family. I, as a surrogate daughter or granddaughter of sorts, took some very meaningful items to save for my family and hopefully to pass to my own children someday. Irreplaceable items of great beauty and meaning, like china given to my great grandparents at their wedding–actually made and shipped from China, delicate works of art. Crystal. Silver. Some furniture.
A side table.
The side table sat in my living room for 10 years. As I was dusting one day, a tiny metal clasp I’d always considered a decoration came off. As I tried to reattach it, the piece of wood where it resided for more than 40 years, came loose and suddenly revealed itself as a drawer.
I carefully dislodged the drawer from its previously stuck position and slowly pulled it open. It smelled old and dusty and the cool air of intricate secrets spilled onto my face where goosebumps followed. It was full of papers and trinkets.
My heart sank as I began to carefully read each item. Meaningful bits of writing and clips. Birthday cards from my cousin, brother and I when we were very young-we were, after all, her children. Then, Love letters. Newspaper clippings. An obituary. All unraveling a mystery, a story of a love that ended in tragedy by a choice the man she adored made to leave this world by his own hand so he wouldn’t be a burden to her in illness. There were bits of a newspaper article indicating questions about the shooting being related to a possible robbery. This was not the case in the end. He took his life, no one else. Not before making sure she knew how much he cared for her though. Sweet notes to his love, cards from flowers, tokens of his care for her hidden in a tiny tucked away drawer. He adored her. And she him. He supported her quest to explore and be who she was yet, being older than she and very sick, left my beautiful aunt so bereft that she, I know now, carried her love with her throughout her life. He was always there beside her. I just couldn’t see him.
I smile every time I pull out her treasures and trinkets and secrets of that love. I know that I was not meant to have the table as a material thing but as a moment when she would share with me the reason I yearned to understand “why are you alone?” The answer, she never was really.
The answer came, too, just months before my oldest step-son whom I adored also took his own life the same way that Catherine’s Bill took his. As if not only to say to me that it was time for me to know why she lived the way she lived but also to share with me her pain in a way that would keep me strong knowing she was there. She knew what it was like and that I could, we all could, endure this horrific pain and continue on. It wasn’t just a gift of learning a secret I’d longed for…it was a message of strength and understanding sent to me from a place that I didn’t yet understand in that moment. A place that my aunt, ever the explorer, would reach out to me from over and over as one of many guides leading me on an adventure I never dreamed I would be on.
I understand, now, the missing element of my great aunt. I understand that she always felt connected to him and had no need to find another to replace him-he was there, she could feel him, that was good enough until she could be with him again.
I have arrived at a place in adulthood where I identify with many things I admired about her incorporated into my own life. I travel, explore, question, organize and control what I can …and argue like a true Scot. And I plant gardens. Beautiful flower gardens. That last a WEEK. *sigh* Her green thumb eludes me.
But not her sense of adventure. Nor her commitment to true love that knows no bounds.