The woman in the picture wore a smart suit jacket with a white blouse. A white handkerchief poked out of a left breast pocket. She wore a hat cocked rakishly to the right side.
She was slimmer, younger than I remembered her. But that was definitely my Aunt Margaret in that seemingly ancient black-and-white photo.
The picture was on the front of a funeral program that read "Celebrating the Life of Margaret E. Brown, Sunrise: May 29, 1916, Sunset: August 25, 2007."
My Aunt Margaret was 91 when she died after a lengthy illness. Her death means that Helen Smith Floyd, my maternal grandmother, has only one of her six children still living.
"I'm the last one," my mother said after she told me my Aunt Margaret had passed. Three of her six siblings died in the past two years. Nathaniel "Nate" Gulliver, my mom's oldest sibling, died in August of 2005, eight months after his nephew and adopted son, Nathaniel Gulliver, was murdered in a recovery house.
"I never thought we'd lose both Nate Gullivers in the same year," I told my mother after Uncle Nate died.
Derrick Taylor, the man charged with killing my cousin Nate and two others in that recovery house, was tried in February of this year. Jurors in the trial had deliberated for four days, and my brother Michael and I were certain a hung jury was imminent. Then, the very night before the jury came back with a guilty verdict, my uncle, Leon Gulliver, died.
My Uncle Leon was my cousin Nate's biological father. He was pushing 81 when he died. My Uncle Nate was 94. My mother turned 85 in May. Her generation, which went through the Depression, seems to be checking out at a slower rate than mine. The baby boomer generation of unlimited freedom, minimal responsibility and a bad, sometimes terminal case of "me-first-itis" is checking out much earlier. At least it is in my family.
The number of my siblings, first cousins, nephews and other relatives who died before 50 or in their early 50s will soon be in double digits. Some of those deaths came from bad choices, the ones my mother and Aunt Margaret tried so hard to keep us from making. Margaret Elizabeth Brown wasn't just an aunt to me, my siblings and a host of cousins; she was more like Mom, Part II: The Bigger and Badder Version.
Most of my childhood memories are about the time our family spent living at my Aunt Margaret's house in the 500 block of N. Schroeder St. It was a three-story rowhouse that had four or five bedrooms, and we needed every one of them. When my mother needed housing for herself and her six children, Aunt Margaret never failed to take us in.
Even when we didn't live with my Aunt Margaret, somehow we would always live within close walking distance: the Lexington Terrace and Murphy Homes public housing projects; the 1000 block of Edmondson Ave.; the 600 block of N. Carrollton Ave.; the 900 and 1000 blocks of Bennett Place. (Those are the only two blocks of Bennett Place. Ruth Kane and her brood might be the only family with the distinction of having lived in both.)
Such proximity allowed my mother to work her nine-to-five in a dry-cleaning business while my Aunt Margaret multi-tasked as baby sitter, care giver and disciplinarian. When my mom showed up after work, it was Aunt Margaret who gave her reports on which of us had acted like we had sense and which ones dear auntie had had to induct into the Royal Order of the Tanned Fanny.
I remember my mother and my aunt splitting time taking me to the doctor's office - I had a problem with frequent earaches, for some reason. Usually those visits involved walking from the 500 block of Schroeder to the clinic at Provident Hospital, which was then located on Division Street. On one of those treks, I walked around a telephone pole as I trudged along beside my aunt.
"Go back around that pole," Aunt Margaret ordered. What I had done, she said, was bad luck.
She was an incredibly superstitious woman and, I learned later, lots of fun. (It was fitting that her homegoing service was held at First Corinthians Baptist Church, where Henry J. Turner is the pastor. Turner injects a wealth of wisdom and humor into his sermons, which means he's my kind of pastor.)
As she got on in years, illness forced Aunt Margaret to live in a nursing home. Her deteriorating health didn't diminish her wit one iota. She kept coming up with one-liners and corkers that left me in stitches. There is much to celebrate when a woman like that dies at 91. Turner put it best in his eulogy.
He told a parable of a pig who was jealous because the cow got more appreciation and love from humans, even though the pig gave more food products while the cow gave only milk.
"You have to die to give what you give," the cow told the pig. "I give while I'm still alive."
"She gave while she was still alive," Turner said of Margaret Elizabeth Brown.
Oh, you have no idea how much, Reverend Turner.
Find Gregory Kane's archive at baltimoresun.com/kane