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Starting Point

‘Aunt Rose’ prompts a look back at things familiar yet unknown


She passed away on Tuesday, my cousin Tom said, at home in her favorite chair, with the TV on and a deck of cards in her hands. But it wasn’t until Thursday that a neighbor found her, noticed the light from her living room window flickering late Wednesday night and again before dawn the next day.

Earlier that week my 75-year-old widowed Aunt Rose had clicked on the TV to watch the news or a favorite soap, and on it stayed. Through “Wheel of Fortune,” “Frazier,” “The Tonight Show,” “MASH” reruns, movies, infomercials, “Leeza,” “General Hospital,” “Oprah.” Three days, two nights. Through cheerful weathermen predicting more El Niño rains, a president denying charges, Hawkeye teasing Radar, amazing juicers liquefying carrots and soap opera characters finding love for the 17th time.

But Aunt Rose, her gray head bowed and her heart stilled, was oblivious to it all.

I never called her “Aunt Rose.” In fact, in the last 25 years or so, I never called her anything. After college I more or less lost touch with her, my father’s oldest sister. I moved to California, while she lived in Wisconsin. There was a time I did call her “Auntie Rosie,” back in the days when, sitting on her midnight-blue velvet couch, my feet didn’t quite touch the floor.

No one ever called her “Mom.” Unmarried until her 50s, Auntie Rosie never had any children. I don’t think she liked them much. At family gatherings I remember other aunts leaning toward me and my cousins and saying things like, “So, how’s school?” and “My, aren’t you getting big?” Not Auntie Rosie. Like the Wizard of Oz, her voice reached us through a haze -- in this case, smoke from another pack of Viceroys. Peering up through that cloud, I could see her lips, two cherry-red points, moving with the words “Find me an ashtray. OK, kiddo?”

Auntie Rosie was different from my other aunts, my mom, my friends’ moms. She worked full-time in the steno pool of a local manufacturing company. She wore nylons with a seam, skirts with a slit in the back, hats with beaded veils. Her hair was always short.

At Christmas Eve parties at Grandma’s house when all the other women bustled about the kitchen -- mixing chip dip, slicing cheesecake -- Auntie Rosie held court in the parlor, playing hand after hand of “sheepshead” with her brothers Frank, Jerry, Bobby and Gene.

“Hey, Gene-o, can you get me a beer?” she asked from the far side of the dark wooden table.

“Esther, we need another beer in here,” Gene called to his wife in the kitchen, leaning back in his chair for a view of the Frigidaire. An opened bottle of Schlitz soon materialized. Auntie Rosie tipped her glass and poured so skillfully the foam never bubbled over the side or filled three-quarters of the glass, like it did whenever one of our moms served a beer.

When it was time for everyone to head to Midnight Mass, Auntie Rosie stayed behind. She was the only relative I knew who didn’t go to church -- at Christmas, at Easter or any Sunday for that matter. I suspected she ate kielbasa on Fridays, too.

But I really didn’t know. Actually, there was a lot I didn’t know about Auntie Rosie, things I’ve started thinking about since her death.

That she didn’t go to Mass was nothing less than shocking. In a family like ours, on the South Side of Milwaukee in the 1950s, by God, a person went to church. Was the pope Catholic? Then so were we! End of discussion. I wonder now how Aunt Rose arrived at her decision to skip Mass. Was it a crisis of faith, the courage of her convictions -- or did she just like to sleep in on Sundays?

Was she an early feminist? An original thinker? A woman ahead of her time? Was she lonely? Defiant? A free spirit? Had her heart been broken early on -- or was it simply a harder heart than most? Did she love her work or put in her time? Who were her friends? What did she treasure?

I can’t help but think of her in front of the TV that Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, sitting there through hour after hour of drama, comedy, silliness, heartbreak and triumph, complete with dialogue and music, laugh tracks and news breaks.

Looking back, I see a parallel between my childhood and Auntie Rosie in her chair. Day after day, year after year, there was all this stuff going on, right before my very eyes -- all this life, all these stories, subplots, characters. Like Rose in front of her TV, I was oblivious. When we’re young, the most interesting show is always our own.

With age 50 just around the corner, I regret not knowing my older relatives as people, especially now that they’re fewer and fewer. I regret my vest-pocket definitions of them -- the uncle who golfed, the aunt who sewed, the balding second cousin. Sometimes total strangers are easier to know than the familiar ones who share our last name.

To think I spent at least 20 Christmas Eves in the company of a character like Auntie Rosie, and the image that stays with me now, like some network test pattern in the hours before dawn, is of her final moments -- alone in her favorite chair, the TV on, a deck of cards in her hands.

Sue Diaz writes from San Diego.

National Catholic Reporter, July 31, 1998