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Aunt Barbara's Legacy


Soon after my aunt Barbara (my mother's sister) died, we learned that she had left all her belongings to us, her five nieces and one nephew. When something like this happens, you walk a fine line between being properly sad about the death, but excited about the stuff you're going to get. While the possessions were ours, Barbara had not specified who got what. Her spacious house was crammed with objects, and it was up to us to divide them fairly. Everyone hears stories of families who fight bitterly among themselves over a dead relative's possessions, and I think we were all prepared for the worst.

We met at Barbara's house one Saturday morning, the six of us, planning to spend the weekend dividing the property. We were nervous and edgy, and glad to be finally getting this over with. We all agreed at the outset that fairness was paramount. We had gone this long without Barbara's sofas and chairs, coffee tables, end tables, carpets, etc. We told each other that anything we ended up with was great, good fortune, a bonus, it didn't really matter, they're just things.

My youngest sister Lindsay's friend Emily had just gone through this kind of thing with her brothers and sisters. Emily had written down her fair-property-dividing method for us, and she promised to be on call for us if we had questions.

We sat in the living room, on furniture soon to be our own, and began. In the first round, we all got our first choices. This was fortuitous. I had my heart set on the china cabinet, and now it was mine. Mairi Pat got her Sarouk rug, Anne her piano, Lindsay the lady's desk, Tom his kitchen table, and my sister Deirdre the car. This was fun. OK, so I had the kitchen table on my list too, but big deal. We all knew we wouldn't get everything we wanted.

It went on, round after round. We'd congratulate each other on our new things. "Oh yeah, I like that love seat too, I had it a little farther down on my list. That'll be pretty in your apartment." We became relaxed, and we realized that we weren't going to end up fighting or resentful or bitter. We were kind of proud of ourselves.

And then we began to think about what we were really doing. Going through my aunt's house, rooting through her drawers, commenting on her taste, almost forgetting about her. What would she think of this scene being played out under her roof?

My mother has a silver-framed, sepia-toned picture of herself, her three sisters and her mother when she (my mother) was a baby. She is sitting on her mother's lap. The other sisters are standing around them, Anne and Barbara on either side, Patty, the eldest, behind. My grandmother's face was sad then, sadder than it was when I knew her, deeply set eyes severe in someone so young.

I have always loved this picture. As a child, I was especially fascinated with it. I would look closely at my mother's baby face, at her bald head, searching for hints of the face that I knew. This picture was proof to me that my sisters and I would grow up, become adults one day. If it could happen to these four girls in their cotton summer clothes, gathered around their stern, sad mother, it could happen to the three of us.

All of us cousins know that picture by heart, this picture of our mothers, my cousins' mother the eldest, my mother the youngest. The only two sisters left now. Bookends, as someone recently, oddly, put it.

Their childhood, from what we have learned piecemeal over the years, was not an especially happy one, or maybe it's more accurate to say it wasn't easy. Their father, my grandfather, was an artist. He loved to draw ships more than anything else. He didn't earn his living that way, though. In fact, he didn't earn a living at all. My grandmother did. Four little girls, a job as a nurse, an artistic husband who was also alcoholic. As I said, it wasn't easy.

When you're going about daily life, working, grocery shopping, cleaning your apartment, it's easy to forget about your connections to all of this. But then you're going through your dead aunt's house, and you open a drawer in a spare bedroom, and you find drawings of ships that your grandfather must have done. You see street scenes drawn by your aunts. Then you find a pastel drawing, done by one of your aunts, of your mother at about 20. The face is easy to recognize now. In fact, it is also, with a few variations, the face of your youngest sister. And your awareness of the connection couldn't be stronger. Unmistakably, you are connected to the eccentricity, the artistic talent, the sadness, the creativity, the alcoholism. The parts you are proud of and the parts you fear all reside, in some combination, within you.

The artistic genes passed on to my aunts and my mother. Sensitive, creative people they were and are, full of whimsy, delighting in breaking the rules. Barbara was only 61 when she died, an isolated, lonely, agoraphobic alcoholic. The day before her death, very ill with the cancer we didn't know she had, she was being admitted to the hospital and was asked her occupation. Her oldest sister told the admitting clerk, "Just put housewife." But Barbara, sick and weak, answered, "No. Put artist. Everyone has something they can do."

She must have been feeling her connections too.

Pamela Tanton is a free lance.

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