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At the age of 80, my Auntie Lil died peacefully last month, with her family surrounding her.
She may just haunt us for that. Because for her, peaceful equaled boring.
Lil lived life out loud — all day, every day. She was an opinionated, strong-willed woman, with a voice that could crack concrete.
And she was funny. She only wore purple sweatshirts; she carried plastic flies in her purse and answered the phone like this: "Ahh-dough?" She adored the attention she got for this quirkiness, most especially because it made her family laugh.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, she was at her most entertaining recently, as she faced the harsh reality about the cancer she’d been fighting for more than a decade: It was finally going to get her. And soon.
All my Italian aunts were characters: Three sisters, joined at the funny bone, who mostly chose hilarity over hysteria. It was a great lesson to us cousins who do our best to crack each other up every chance we get.
Auntie Dorothy was the funniest; a natural-born entertainer always dolled up in colorful muumuus and jewels. If Lucille Ball and Joan Rivers had a baby, it would be her. She did impressions, invented and acted out skits, and could cut you down with a brilliant, searing one-liner as fast as she could throw a bedroom slipper or Corelle dinner plate at your head. When her husband died, she greeted people at the wake with: "Have you ever seen such a great looking guy dead five days?!" You had to laugh. It was her way of saying, “I’m ok. I’m coping.” When she died suddenly four years ago, we lost our leading lady and some of our familial joie de vivre.
And this is the last thing I remember her saying: "Oh, Doctor. I’m sorry, but we have to laugh. Because if you don’t laugh, really, what’s the point?"
Auntie Josie, on the other hand, never really set out to be funny. Where Dotty was edgy and sharp, Aunt Josie was soft and round. The sweetest sister, she was always mangling or making up words, and her lovable daffiness was the source of many laughs. When she died unexpectedly 13 years ago, and her beautiful light went out, I looked at her in the casket and said, “What are you doing in there?’’
And I thought about her replying, “Shopping at Caldy’s, what does it look like? ’’
To which I'd say, “Auntie, don’t you mean Caldor?’’
“Whatever.” She’d have said. “Now, give me a kiss!’’
Auntie Lil was the maiden daughter, the caregiver to both her parents and the second mother to all her nieces and nephews. She was also the family historian, who chronicled — through photos and photographic memory — the milestones and mayhem in the lives of her brothers, sisters and their respective families.
As my cousin so eloquently put it, Auntie Lil “remembered all of my whens.’’ She was who you went to and asked “remember when…’’ And she would take the story from there, detail by hilarious detail.
During the final months of her life, hospitals and nursing homes became her performance venues. And as always, it was no holds barred. If it was in the head, it was out the mouth. As she was being wheeled into the operating room one day she shouted, “Chinese take-out for everybody if I make it!’’
Just a few days before she died, her remarkably handsome doctor came into her room to discuss her condition. He wore tight scrubs and a little hospital beanie covered his hair. His muscles bulged and his smile dazzled. When he left, we all looked to Auntie for her reaction to his rather sobering news. She raised her eyebrows up and down, the facial expression equivalent of hubba-hubba, and said, “You should see him without the hat!’’
Later that afternoon, when we all re-grouped with Dr. McDreamy, she interrupted him to dramatically note, with rolling eyes, that he was “reeeeaaaaaalllllly talking a lot today,’’ which he instantly and correctly interpreted as, “OK, cutie. I get it. I’m going to die. Now shut up already!’’ We again howled and the doctor joined right in.
And this is the last thing I remember her saying: “Oh, doctor. I’m sorry, but we have to laugh. Because if you don’t laugh, really, what’s the point?’’
At her wake, just before the casket was closed, we gathered close and sang, as our final tribute to her — and to Dotty and Josie, too — the theme from “The Carol Burnett Show”:
I’m so glad we had this time together
Just to have a laugh or sing a song
Seems we just get started and before you know it
Comes the time we have to say so long….
Goodnight, funny Aunties.
This program aired on June 20, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.
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