Good Grief · waxing philosophical

Day 72: Aunty Leah and Me

We finally buried my aunt today. When I say “we,” I actually mean “The ten people who were allowed at the grave, the nearly two hundred people who joined in on zoom, and I, who was standing in a school parking lot on the other side of the fence from the cemetery.” The last time I was at that cemetery was about a year after my grandfather died. At his funeral I gave a speech. As I stood in the parking lot today getting sunburned, I thought about what I might have said about Aunty Leah had I been given the chance.

When I was three months old, Aunty Leah took me down to the ocean just behind her house, and helped me “swim” in the tidal pools.

When I was four (or so) years old, she assigned me the job of pasting the Gold Bond stamps from “Big B” (grocery store) into the stamp book. She left me to it and came back to a garbage pail full of single stamps. “Why on earth are you throwing these out?” she asked. “They didn’t fit on the line, so I had to take them off before I glued the others in,” I responded. Then Aunty, exasperated, taught me that it was, indeed, possible to use stamps that weren’t all in one strip to fill a line, and that the overflow from long strips could be used in the next line. It seems stupidly obvious now, but I truly hadn’t thought of it.

When I was nine, my Mum made some comment about my crooked tooth (yes, singular. They were all straight, except for this one tooth that was perpendicular to the rest.) I was particularly sensitive about it; I ran crying from the Shabbat table. Aunty followed me into the kitchen and told me about how parents sometimes say and do things that aren’t intended to be hurtful, but somehow end up that way. She shared some of her own perceived parenting misses. She taught me that even adults make mistakes and admit them.

When I was eleven, Aunty and Uncle came to stay with us while my parents traveled to Norway and Sweden for a conference. Over those three weeks Aunty taught me yoga (I still think of her every time I do a Sun Salutation) and the importance of doing a “dry run” (in this case for carpool, but it’s applicable to many things.)

Many of these stories make Aunty Leah sound like a sweet, empathetic soul. She was, but you wouldn’t know it at first sight. She was scary. I mean, every kid and some adults were scared of her, probably because she always spoke frankly. If you were doing something she didn’t like, boy, would she make sure you knew it! She opined about everything, including the reluctance of Torontonians to respond to a simple “Good Morning!” Growing up and living in Barbados, which is (or was) a perfect illustration of how the village raises the child, she didn’t hesitate to teach her sons’ friends such things as how to blow one’s nose properly.

Aunty taught me that it’s possible to disagree with someone and still love and be proud of them. When I was twelve, I celebrated my Bat Mitzvah by chanting the entire Torah portion and the Haftarah (for those who don’t know, that’s a lot of material, and many B’nei Mitzvah do less.) After the service Aunty hugged and kissed me and said, “Mazel Tov, Lovey. You were wonderful. But you know, if you were my daughter, you wouldn’t have had a Bat Mitzvah.” Feeling cocky, I shot back: “Guess it’s a good thing I’m your niece and not your daughter then!”

Aunty taught me the importance of maintaining friendships. Every time she came into Toronto, I’d watch as she pulled the stool up to the kitchen counter, opened up her phone book, and started calling everyone she knew in Toronto. It was always, “Hello! It’s Leah. We’re in Toronto and I just wanted to call and say hello…” now it seems like a quaint thing to do — long distance calling is relatively cheap and everyone is just a Zoom call away — but for much of Aunty’s life, that was the way to keep in touch with your long-distance friends.

It wasn’t just when she came to Toronto, either. Aunty had friends all over the world. I suspect it was her tendency to talk to everyone, coupled with her frankness, that let her make friends easily. Once you were her friend you learned how generous, hospitable, and loving Aunty was to everyone in her sphere.

I had many examples of good marriages growing up, most notably my parents’, but also Aunty Leah and Uncle Benny. It was clear to everyone that they adored each other. It was also clear that they argued on occasion and that Aunty would snap at Uncle. And despite the exasperation, you could always see their love underneath everything else. Five years ago we celebrated their fiftieth anniversary with a big brunch party; the looks they gave each other as they danced to “The Anniversary Waltz” are etched in my mind.

I have so many memories of Aunty Leah that I could fill a book. When we were together for Pesach, she showed me how to make raisin wine; Her banana bread was the first food Mr. December and I ate together right after our wedding ceremony; We swam distances together in the ocean and she taught me how to position my tongue so that I wouldn’t swallow salt water. I could go on and on, but for the sake of brevity I’ll stop here.

The last time I spoke to Aunty was on Pesach; I phoned to say Chag Sameach and she told me stories about how the average Bajan was reacting to COVID. She asked about the children. I asked when we would see her next, and she said it was a bit up in the air and depended largely on Uncle’s health. “Goodbye, Lovey,” she said before hanging up, “I’m looking forward to seeing you next time.”

There won’t be a next time, a fact that makes me cry whenever I contemplate it. But there were so very many times in the last forty years that Aunty and I saw each other and laughed, ate, swam, and talked together, and for those times I am very grateful. Her memory will be a blessing, just as her influence in my life has always been.

2 thoughts on “Day 72: Aunty Leah and Me

  1. Hi Sara, I wanted to say thank you’ . You write and bring to life many of the things that have been part of me and my family. Sara, you have been a beautiful voice during this catastrophe and I love you.

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