|Aunt Clara and JPiC at the Philadelphia Zoo, August 1964.|
When I was little, my Aunt Clara was a fixture in my life. She was very, very close with my mother, who was her little sister. So, she was regularly at our house for dinner, for holidays and, sometimes, for no reason at all. She would often accompany my family on short trips to Atlantic City. She came to birthday parties. She went along with us on visits to the zoo. She was around so much that I would refer to her as my "second Mommy." And, since she had no children of her own —boy! — did she love and relish that.
She did some strange, inexplicable and surprising things, too. One year, at Halloween, when I was too old to go trick-or-treating, I decided to don a costume and scary make-up to frighten to kids who came to our door. Aunt Clara was staying at our house that night. When I spotted a group of costumed kids approaching our front door, I'd hit the lights, cue the eerie music and open the door, letting them behold my horrible visage. Aunt Clara popped in and asked the kids, "Are you scared?" — totally breaking the illusion and ruining the moment. A few years later, at a party for me in lieu of a formal Bar Mitzvah, Aunt Clara made off with a copy of Stevie Wonder's Fulfillingness' First Finale that was supposed to be a contest prize for one of my guests. I'm still not sure how she managed to sneak around a bunch of thirteen-year-olds and cop that album.
As I got older, I started to see things in my Aunt Clara that, perhaps, were always apparent, but I may have been too young to understand. For one thing, she treated my father like shit. Sure, my dad had his share of faults, but Aunt Clara took a "disgruntled mother" role towards her sister's husband. She criticized and belittled my father, perhaps in misplaced retaliation for her own failed marriage. After Aunt Clara divorced my Uncle Sal, she was romantically linked to a mystery man, referred to only as "Dee." For twenty-plus years, no one ever met him, although Aunt Clara talked about him often.
I believe that Aunt Clara had a difficult time accepting the fact that I grew up. She continued to treat and talk to me like I was a child well into my high school and early adult years. When I got married, I began to see behavior from Aunt Clara that I'm sure existed previously, but I guess I just ignored. She was invited, as a part of my family, to my new in-laws' house for dinner. My mother-in-law was serving buffet-style and Aunt Clara pulled a chair right up to the buffet table, tucked a napkin in her blouse and began eating. It was embarrassing, to say the least.
When my mother died, Aunt Clara gave an Oscar-worthy performance as the grief-stricken mourner. She dramatically sobbed and wept at the funeral, loudly proclaiming, "I'm all alone! My sister is gone!" This, in front of my father, my brother and me and after she had been living in Florida and not seeing her beloved sister for several years. When my father died, two years later, she asked my brother, via a late-night phone call, "Should I come up to Philadelphia for the funeral?" I stood next to my brother, as he answered that the decision was totally hers, that she should do what she felt was right for her. The next day, she called to tell me that she would not be coming in for my dad's funeral, explaining, "I wanted to come, but your brother insisted that I shouldn't make the trip." As she lied to me, I felt betrayed. I wondered what else in my life she had lied to me about.
I did, however, invite Aunt Clara to my son's Bar Mitzvah because (as I was told by my wife) it was the right thing to do. Although Aunt Clara did not attend, she once again surprised us by sending a gift.
Over the years, my brother remained in touch with Aunt Clara. I, however, did not. He and his family made annual visits to her retirement complex in Florida. I did not. Upon his return, my brother would give me a brief rundown of the trip and Aunt Clara's current status and day-to-day activities. I feigned interest.
At the end of December 2014, my brother returned from his most recent journey to Florida. It was to be his final one. Aunt Clara had passed away after months of declining health. My brother filled me in on details and I politely listened. Then, he told me the two of us were named as beneficiaries of an insurance policy Aunt Clara had purchased from her employer decades earlier. I was shocked that my name had not been purposely stricken from every piece of Aunt Clara's inheritance. After providing specific information and a month or so of processing, I received a check for a thousand bucks.
I have to hand it to Aunt Clara. She was full of surprises right to the end.