It was short for Filomena, a name you don’t hear too much anymore. It was very Italian, and very popular at one time. She was Mom’s older sister, and for a good portion of my early childhood, she lived with us on Twelfth Street. She was like a second Mother to my brother and I, and we were closer to her than most boys were to their aunts.
Mornings I would sit and have breakfast with her, and it always started the same: one half of a Grapefruit, a sprinkle of sugar and a cherry at the center of the half. Then coffee (not for me however) and toast. For some silly medical reason I have already forgotten, I am not supposed to eat Grapefruit anymore, and it’s a shame. For one, I love the flavor and for another eating one always reminded me of her.
She did everything with the family, helping with dinners, taking us for walks through the park, reading to us at night. She and Mom had an easy comfortable relationship and we couldn’t imagine a time when she wouldn’t be with us. That time would come of course, like all things you dread do, but for the time being, she was there as if she would always be.
She played golf, something Mom and Dad never took up (certainly not Dad), she swam (Mom was deathly afraid of the water) and she traveled. She would go to Bermuda, or Florida or Europe and bring us back tales of strange places and of course cool souvenirs. She always said she wished she could take us with her, and we were certainly on board with that, but we had to go to school, and Mom would probably worry too much anyway. She was a natural at math, being able to add a list of numbers accurately by just glancing at them. She never liked to cook very much; didn’t like all the work that went into making a large dinner; she would be content with a Stouffers frozen box if she had her way. She loved simplicity and strove to keep tension and worry at bay; and here she differed from Mom quite a bit. Mom was a world-class professional worrier. When Don or I would come home with a request to sleep over at a friend’s house or go on a class trip, Mom would start fretting immediately, imagining all sorts of bad things that could happen to her boys. And Aunt Fil would stand there, hands on her hips, frowning at her and say “Would you stop being silly and let them have some fun!”. Mom would usually relent, though she never stopped worrying, and Aunt Fil would give us a wink as she walked out of the room. She was a friend as well as an Aunt.
She eventually met someone who was to become our Uncle Jim; a co-worker at the Post Office where she worked. He would come over for dinners as we all got acquainted with him and I remember asking him, now worried myself:
“Are you going to Mary Aunt Fil and take her away?”
Everybody at the table laughed, but I wasn’t laughing and I didn’t think it was funny. I knew what was coming and I didn’t like it one bit. Of course things developed as they would and sure enough one day she came into my room, sat down on the bed next to me and explained that though she was moving out, she would always be close, would always love us as much as anyone could ever love anyone and I cried. She hugged me and let me cry. I cried for a long time.
It turns out that she did stay close, visiting once a week; never forgetting us, never allowing us to feel for one moment that we weren’t in her heart every day. And Uncle Jim turned out to be a very cool Uncle and we loved him too and heck I even forgave him for falling in love with Aunt Fil and taking her away.
There were many times in the following years that reaffirmed how close we were, but one that, for obvious reasons, sticks firmly in my head, was that horrible day we lost our Mom at a very early age. I remember sitting on the bed in our old room on 17th street the afternoon of the day Mom died. She left the earth at 2:30 that morning, and we were all gathering at the apartment to be with Dad, and do whatever needed to be done at that point. Les sat next to me, holding my hand; I was still in shock. I hadn’t cried, I hadn’t gotten angry, I was numb. I heard the knocker at the door to the apartment, and Dad opened the door to let in Aunt Fil and Uncle Jim. The first thing I heard her say was:
Dad must have nodded in my direction as she came into the room ashen faced and sat down next to me on the bed on the other side from Les. She didn’t say a word. I looked up at her and she met my eyes. And then we both broke down. I mean really broke down.
I had lost my Mother, she had lost her little sister, and all we could do was cling to each other and sob. I remember her saying:
“I thought we would have Helen forever…there were so many more years…so many more things we wanted to do together.”
I could barely breathe I was in such sorrow. I felt so sorry for her, losing her younger sister, that for a moment I forgot my own pain at losing my Mother. Dad watched for a moment and then couldn’t take it anymore. Leslie, bless her, somehow silently joined him; Uncle Jim waited in the living room. And Aunt Fil and I cried together, never letting go of each other. After a bit, we started to talk about all the things we had done as a family, and she told me how much Mom loved us and I told her how much Mom had loved her big sister, and then we cried again..
“Well” she said after a while “We still have each other…and I will never leave you”.
And she didn’t.
Oh yea, she went to be with Mom some years later; that was natural I suppose, but she was right. She never broke her word.
She has never left me.