Leesburg, FL was on my map from the beginning of my planning. My very favorite aunt (Mama’s oldest sister) and uncle have lived there for 23 years and I visited them every time I’ve ever been in Florida. Aunt Pat was 92 and this Spring fell into some very bad health. I was desperately hopeful that she’d still be healthy when I traveled to Florida, but it was not to be. She passed away on May 5, peacefully and in the wonderful care of hospice.
As I was growing up, Aunt Pat and Uncle Bern lived in a lovely little brick house on the South side of Chicago. It was passed on to Uncle Bern by his uncle. I still remember the address: 11050 Avenue C. They had no children of their own. As a child, I was terrified of Aunt Pat. She was an intimidating and stern presence to me; always impeccably dressed and accessorized, and very particular about her house and belongings. My brothers, who are older than I, had a much different relationship with them and I was envious of the friendship they had. As I grew older, that fear quickly dissipated as I realized that Aunt Pat was the furthest thing from scary. She was one of the kindest, most generous and loving people I’ve ever been lucky enough to know. She and Uncle Bern attended most of my graduations, recitals, and other milestone events through the years. When my-ex-but-now-dear-friend Patti and I were together, we traveled to Florida once or twice a year and always made a point to visit them. One year we made plans to visit Aunt Pat and Uncle Bern, and then surprised them by bringing my sister Renee along. Mama and I traveled down together for a visit in 2009, and last year I was vacationing in the Orlando area and drove up to Leesburg for a wonderful visit, which turned out to be the last time I saw Aunt Pat.
Aunt Pat did not have an easy life growing up. My grandfather kicked her out of the house when she was just 16 and she had to make it on her own. Her first job was in a chili parlor right there on the East side of Chicago. She continued to support herself as a waitress and then worked as a “26 girl.” 26 was a dice game which originated in Chicago; the 26 girls rolled the dice and kept score. She worked in the very affluent Hyde Park neighborhood at a club called Buzz’s, thus many of her customers were wealthy businessmen. Aunt Pat, who my mom always said was no dummy, would listen to the business chit chat among these men, and asked what they were talking about. They told her they were playing stock market, and she asked, well, tell me how you play it. They did, and Aunt Pat quickly caught on and subsequently showed quite a knack for picking stocks, doing quite well for herself!
As a young man, Uncle Bernie was one of the strong muscle men who would work out on the beach on the Chicago lakefront. My mom was a swimmer, and often had practice at the lakefront, and there she met Uncle Bern. They had a mutual interest in working out, and dated a couple times before deciding just to be friends. After that, Uncle Bern went out with Aunt Ali, the middle sister! I think it was at this time he went overseas to serve our country. He served as a paratrooper, who because of their dangerous profession were paid $50 for every jump they made. He had always wanted a car, and when he returned from the war, he bought himself a black Cadillac. One day after returning from the service, he just happened to go to the bar at which Aunt Pat was working. Everyone was still under the impression that he was dating Aunt Ali, but he said, nope, not anymore. And apparently he and Aunt Pat hit it off, and thus began one of the longest, most loving marriages I have ever seen, 60 or so years strong. Aunt Pat and Uncle Bern worshiped each other. I never witnessed anything but loving devotion to each other. Never a cross word, never anything but love and respect. Aunt Pat told me that the secret to a long, loving, healthy relationship was trust. She said, you have to have trust.
Aunt Pat had pet names for all of the girls in her family…her sisters and nieces. Mine was Sweetface. I can still hear her saying that to me now…”Hi Sweetface!” in her unique voice. Thanks to the wonders of smartphones, I saved several of my voicemails from her so I can hear her say “Hi Sweetface!” anytime I want. When she’d write me, she’d draw a little smiley face right next to Sweetface, and when I’d write her, I’d sign Sweetface with a smiley face and a heart. Aunt Pat had the most unique handwriting, to say the least. It was beautiful, but extremely difficult to decipher! Even as an adult, I would read her letters very slowly and out loud, trying to make out her intricate cursive. My mom was pretty adept…she could read Aunt Pat’s writing at a normal speed, without any slow sounding out. Aunt Pat’s letters and cards would be filled with tiny shiny graffiti like stuff. Until I got used to it and remembered in advance, I’d pull her card or letter out of the envelope and spill it all over the place, and then kick myself! Aunt Pat got me!
Aunt Pat LOVED cashmere. Cashmere sweaters, cardigans, tees, turtlenecks…her drawers and closets were filled with cashmere. Uncle Bern calls their house “The House of Cashmere.” One would think that quite non-essential living in Florida, but Aunt Pat was always cold and I’m sure the cashmere felt great in the ever-present Florida air conditioning. From time to time through the years, she’d have no more need of certain sweaters and she’d send many of them to me. They were beautiful, and they always smelled of her signature perfume, Opium. I cherish them all to this day.
When Aunt Pat and Uncle Bern moved to Florida years ago, they became very involved with The Ice House, a community theatre in nearby Mt. Dora. Uncle Bern has worked as a carpenter there to this day, assisting with building the sets that are used for their productions. He has been recognized by the Ice House many times, and even has appeared onstage for some performances! Through the years and through many an Artistic Director, they remained loyal and supportive to this theater, and are beloved by the local community. Ah, that reminds me of an important story! Aunt Pat did not like her given name, Grace. She had it legally changed to Patricia when she became an adult, and when she moved down to Florida became known as Trish to all those there.
Throughout my adult years, my relationship with Aunt Pat grew closer and closer. Through many trials and tribulations of life, including those of my career and relationship challenges, I could call Aunt Pat and pour out my heart and soul to her. She would listen as only Aunt Pat could, and lovingly yet assertively give me sage advice, whether I was ready to hear it or not. Over the past ten years or so I realized that, despite a large age difference, she had become one of my closest friends.
This week my adventure brought me to Leesburg. As I turned into the subdivision of Aunt Pat and Uncle Bern’s home for probably the 15th time in the past 23 years, it hit me hard that this time, she would not be there. Overcome with emotion, I pulled over and called Patti in tears, knowing that she would understand the immensity of this visit as she’d accompanied me so many times before. She listened to and comforted me, and I gathered myself and pulled into the driveway of their home. Uncle Bern opened the door, with a big smile and sporting his ever-present scruffy beard. I walked in, and the smell of Aunt Pat’s perfume still filled the house. It felt like she’d walk out of her bedroom and into the room any minute. I brought my bags into her room, everything was just as she’d left it. Uncle Bern came in, and he showed me her handwritten note with detailed instructions of which belongings to leave her loved ones. She left me a beautiful emerald ring, a lovely yellow jade necklace and matching bracelet, and her baby locket. Uncle Bern and I picked out a few more cashmere sweaters for me, so I set those aside with the little bags of cloves that keep the moths at bay. He offered to give me anything else I would like, and I desperately wanted to take every single thing there – every sweater she’d ever worn, every purse she’d ever carried, every bracelet she’d ever worn, her perfume, her lotion, her little books, her collection of turtles, her writing accessories….as if that alone would keep Aunt Pat with me. But it’s not the material things that I need…it’s the legacy of her love and generosity and kindness that I will keep in my heart by which to remember her.
The rest of my two day visit with Uncle Bern was wonderful. We went to the Ice House and I met Darlin, the Artistic Director, who was busy planning July’s production. I met David, who is the Set Designer and his little dog Patrick Murphy. Uncle Bern gave me a tour of the newly remodeled lobby and brought me backstage and proudly showed me the set in progress. We went out to eat, we watched tennis and old movies together, we looked at old pictures and he told me numerous stories about the past. He admitted that it’s hard for him, especially when he gets up in the morning and Aunt Pat’s not there, and when he gets home from the theater at night to the empty house. He often stays later and later at the theater, watching the rehearsals in the evening, even though he quipped to me “You know rehearsals are like watching the grass grow.” I’m grateful to Darlin for giving him the opportunity to stay involved and busy.
When I left, I hugged his still-strong but very thin frame as hard as I could. I struggled with every bit of my will to keep my tears from spilling over, trying to stay positive and strong and hopefully giving him strength as well. I told him how much I’d enjoyed the visit, and reassured him that my travels would be safe and that everything in my life was going to work out as it should. I drove away, carrying with me the mementos Aunt Pat left me, along with the treasured memories of my most beloved aunt.