Friday, January 20, 2017

Aunt Liz


When I was cleaning out a box of "stuff" on my dresser a few weeks back, I found a bag of Aunt Liz' jewelry. I think the original intent was to take this bag of assorted mismatched earrings, necklaces, and charms to see if they were gold or anything of monetary value. In the hubbub of having a full time job, three kids, a husband, two dogs, and a home, the bag of Aunt Liz' jewelry got pushed by the wayside, into the box of "stuff".
Aunt Liz was my Great Aunt, and she was a GREAT Aunt. The sister of my Grandpa Sol, my father and Aunt Gail's Aunt. and in turn my Great Aunt. However, she was more like a Grandmother to her five grand nieces and nephew. She was briefly married before I was born, but the man turned out to be a no good kind of guy, so the marriage ended. She had a boyfriend named Harry for a while, though I must have been pretty young when they dated because I don't remember him. After Harry, she dated a man named Nick who used to come around when we visited. He liked to bet on the horses, so we would watch the horse races on television, and if the horse I picked won, Nick would give me a quarter.
Aunt Liz lived in a small, one bedroom, rent controlled apartment in Astoria, Queens, with her mother, my Great Grandmother, my Nauna. She worked as a seamstress in a factory and was a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Though my own mother knows how to sew, I remember that whenever Aunt Liz came to our house we would have skirts to hem, teddy bears to mend, and pants to take in. She never minded. She was a giver.
We would drive into Queens to visit, take the elevator to the fourth floor, and walk down to the very end of the hallway to their apartment. Somehow she always knew we were approaching, and the door would unlock and open, and there Aunt Liz would be to take you into her warm embrace. She gave great hugs.
Her apartment was often warm - almost overheated - but always smelled like a home cooked meal. Once you entered the apartment, in her chair, in the corner of the living room, sat my Nauna.
When I think about her, I always remember her sitting in that chair, in a sky blue house dress, gray hair, glasses, and clunky, open-toed shoes. She was a big woman - not heavy, but big boned in the true sense of the word. On the little table next to her chair sat a candy dish with wrapped sticky sesame or Nips or other assorted sucking candies. She would hug me big, like Aunt Liz, say something that I could only one-third understand, and then always hand me a candy. English was not my Nauna's native language, so when she spoke to us, it was partly Spanish, partly Yiddish, and the rest English. Most of the time Aunt Liz had to do some translating between the kids and Nauna, but we felt Nauna's love in spite of the language barrier. Aunt Liz dedicated her life to taking care of her mother. Nauna's real name was Gracia. I always thought it fit her perfectly.
The apartment was filled with treasures. Blue butter cookie tins filled with buttons (I still have a George Washington tin with Aunt Liz' buttons in my basement). Jewelry boxes filled with all sorts of costume jewelry - rings, necklaces, pins. We went through the box every time we visited and went home with something each time as well. In the tiny kitchen right in front of the window sat a step stool, where I would sit as she cooked these extravagant meals for us - breaded, fried chicken, pastelle, red rice, salad with the best salad dressing that still to this day no one seems to be able to duplicate. And we would eat, and laugh, and talk at her small table. All of able to somehow fit around it.
When you looked on the family pictures on the walls, Aunt Liz had placed chicken bones under our faces. I think they were wishbones. It was for good health. When we got a new purse she threw in coins. When we bought a car, she threw in candy. When we had babies, she tied a ribbon to the crib.
Once Nauna grew older, and it was too much for Aunt Liz to care for her, she moved into the Sephardic Home for the Aged. Nauna's sister, whom we called Tia, lived there as well. I think she liked it. Aunt Liz would visit a lot, and I remember going there with my Grandpa Sol (Nauna's son, Aunt Liz' brother).
My Grandpa Sol passed away when I was thirteen. Nauna was living in the Home, and I remember all the family discussions about what was the best way to tell Nauna that her son had died. I remember thinking how it was not supposed to be that the mother outlives the child. I don't think Nauna ever really recovered from that and within two years, she too passed.
After Aunt Liz retired from the factory, she worked as a sales clerk in clothing retail stores. Her pension was not enough to live on, and honestly she was such a social person, I think she also needed the people contact. She was friends with all different types of people - young, old, black, white, male, female, gay, straight. She really didn't care. She was "cool" and loved, and people just wanted to be near her. Once my cousin Alice married, she and her husband Steve lived in an apartment within walking distance of Aunt Liz. Aunt Liz would often go sit in the park with Alice's three kids. One of my favorite pictures of all time is Aunt Liz wrapped up in Alice's kids, sitting on the park bench, a huge smile on her face.
When I graduated from college, my parents held a party for me in our backyard. Family, family friends, my friends - they were all there. As the sun started to set, and the people left in the backyard were mostly under twenty-five, Aunt Liz sat with us, doing shots of tequila. My friends from college still talk about that.
When Aunt Liz passed, at way too young of an age, we were all heartbroken. Especially my Aunt Gail (Aunt Liz' niece). They were especially close. She died on Aunt Gail's birthday. I found that to be so tragic and beautiful in a way. The two of them always had this really special connection, and that seemed to solidify it in some way. In the Jewish faith, you name your children after a family member who is deceased. The reason we spell Ean's name with an "E" is because he is named for Aunt Liz (Elizabeth).
Cleaning out Aunt Liz' apartment was an adventure that seemed indicative of her life. She was somewhat of a clothes' hog. Along with sweaters and jewelry, blouses and stockings, twenty-seven pairs of black pants were unearthed among her things. I don't think she was a hoarder, but she sure knew how to pack it all in.
I believe that I subconsciously never took the bag of Aunt Liz' jewelry to get appraised. I don't think I could have put a monetary value on the memories that the jewelry brought to the surface. The bag is now with Aunt Gail, where it should have been all these years.

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