CarolI’m not sure how this post is going to turn out. Being an amateur writer makes it tough to tackle certain topics. It may be why I shy away from some of the larger, more personal topics of my life because I figure there’s no way I can tell the story and do it justice. But I’m going to take a stab at it for the sake of Aunt Carol, who was one of my favorite people on this earth for most of my young life.

It may be a bore for the average reader. So be it. But she was a huge part of my life, and it’s a story I’ve got to tell.

Aunt Carol was the youngest sister of my mother, and she lived with us when I was very young. She occupied the small bedroom next to ours; the one that would eventually become my sister Wendy’s room, until she moved into her own apartment when I was around 8 or so.

Those early memories are vague ones for me. I remember her expertly setting our hair in pin-curls, a jar of Dippity Doo on the table. I remember her friend Gail, who lived down the street, and would come and visit with her boyfriend Benny. But my real memories of Aunt Carol were after she moved into her own place. I would sleep over her apartment every chance I got, because hanging out with Aunt Carol was just fun.

Maybe it was because she had the heart and soul of a child. She had been in a special school before she came to live with us. That’s all I knew. I’m sure there was some clinical diagnosis to describe her mental or intellectual abilities, but as a youngster, I didn’t know what it was. Parents didn’t share information like that freely, and if they had sat me down to explain it, I forgot or didn’t care. She was just Aunt Carol – simple and sweet – and I loved her.

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The street where Aunt Carol lived

For the next few years, Aunt Carol lived in a series of apartments that were all on the same street about 5 minutes from our house. I know she spent some time in the large apartment building in the background – on the 2nd or 3rd floor. But the times I remember most was when she lived in one of the smaller two story apartments in the foreground.

Her apartment was on the bottom floor, and there was a little back door that lead into the alley behind. She actually had a small patch of dirt surrounded by a wire fence back there – a sort of small garden. Weekends spent here were blissful for me because I got to do stuff that I could never do at home.

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Not the actual Lady – but she pretty much looked like this adorable pooch

For one, Aunt Carol had a dog named Lady. Lady was a of a terrier breed – bigger than a Jack Russel, but not so large that she was difficult for a child to manage. My job when I went visiting at Aunt Carol’s was to walk Lady, and boy did I love that job. I’d walk around and around the block, feeling so cool because I had a dog. We were cat people…

Oh, I loved Lady. She was so sweet and well tempered – always happy to see you, tail wagging, waiting patiently to be scratched and petted. She never bit or growled at me, and she was a wonderful companion for Aunt Carol.

Nights at Aunt Carol’s were spent visiting friends of hers in the neighborhood, or watching television – Saturday nights had a great lineup back then; All in the Family, Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, Carol Burnett. By 11 pm I was droopy-eyed, and we’d climb into her very high double bed. The next morning we’d walk to the little diner on Broad Avenue and eat fried egg sandwiches.

Carol Wedding

The lovely bride and Pop – nice ‘stache…

Then Aunt Carol got married to Uncle Joe, a Filipino dude who made excellent fried rice. I remember the wedding; it was held at our house, and my sisters and I were flower girls. After the wedding, sleeping over at Aunt Carol’s didn’t change much at first. Joe was a custodian in New York City, and worked nights a lot, so it was just Carol and I at her apartment. Then there was the incident.

One night after I was asleep on the little daybed they had in the room off the kitchen, Joe came home pretty drunk. It was a fight between him and Carl that woke me up. Joe had brought home a large metal desk – a cast off from one of the office buildings he cleaned. Carol exclaimed that it was too big to fit in their small apartment. There was some arguing, and then I heard a drawer open and the noisy rattle of cutlery. It got very quiet for a few seconds, and then Carol said, “Are you going to kill me with that knife, Joe?”

I froze. Right then I wished I was anywhere than where I was. I’m not sure Joe was aware that I was “sleeping” just feet away, and I was glad of that. My 10 year old brain ran a few quick escape plans…if I heard screaming, I’d bolt for the front door and run upstairs to Carol’s friend’s apartment.

But there was no scream. Instead, Joe muttered something, threw the knife in the sink, and went back out into the night. Aunt Carol came to check on me, and we sat and talked. She asked me not to tell my parents about this. They would only worry about her, and probably wouldn’t let me stay with her any longer. I figured she was right, and I never told anyone in my family until years and years later. However, I was never comfortable around Uncle Joe again. I didn’t even like him after that, and would only stay with Aunt Carol if I knew he wasn’t going to be around.

But Joe didn’t last long anyway. I don’t think they ever got divorced, but he stopped coming home after a while. I wasn’t sorry to see him go.

And then Aunt Carol moved. At first it was a huge disappointment for me, because she moved much further away. Rather than living a mere 5 minutes away, she was now a 20-30 minute drive from our house. She also began taking care of my grandfather who had suffered a stroke, which left one side of his body paralyzed. That might be why she moved; I think she needed a bigger apartment with a spare room for grandpa to stay in.

I never really knew my mother’s parents. They lived in Lockport, New York, which is way out there – near Niagra Falls. They only came down to visit it once or twice a year. My maternal grandparents held a sort of mystique for me. I’d heard tales of my grandfather’s musical abilities both on guitar and banjo, and my grandmother had played the drums. My grandfather had also worked for a candy company, and when he came to visit, he brought us mass quantities of candy coated peanuts, and Ford gum – that square, colorful gum found in the penny gumball machines.

I got to know him better during that time he lived with Aunt Carol, but I don’t think it was him at his best. He was cranky a lot of the time – frustrated that his body wouldn’t function properly after the stroke. I remember him pounding his bad arm with his good one, cursing bitterly. I always tried to cheer him up when he was in those moods, but sometimes he didn’t want to be cheered up.  That’s when I’d go out and play.

One of the good things about Aunt Carol’s move to the new apartment was the kids. There were a ton of kids to play with – her apartment was part of group of buildings that took up the whole block. I became friends with a particular group of kids who were always excited to see me when I came to visit. We’d run in and out of each others apartments, play tag, hide and seek, and kickball from sun up to sun down. Nights were spent hanging out with Aunt Carol, listening to ABBA albums, and watching bad Saturday night movies on TV. Those were some of the best Aunt Carol years for me.

But, I was growing up. By the time I was in middle school and then high school my weekends at Aunt Carol’s grew less frequent. We had her over our house every holiday, and once I began to drive, I’d head out to see her as often as I could, and spend the afternoon with her. My grandfather had died some years before, and with the exception of her friends in the apartment complex, Aunt Carol was pretty much alone.

By the time I was finishing college, Aunt Carol had moved back to her old neighborhood that was near our home. She had a job working in the store around the corner, had a new little group of friends, and seemed to be happy. I remember one time when my dad came to pick me up from at the University of Delaware, he brought Aunt Carol along for the ride. She seemed so happy to make the trip, even though it was just a boring 2 hour drive down the turnpike, and then back up again. We filled the trip back to Jersey talking and singing along with the radio. It’s one of my last good memories of her.

I don’t remember the exact year – you’d think I would – but I’m going to guess 1987. I had come home from work in a sour mood. It was my birthday, December 1st, and the day had not gone well. I stomped into my house yelling, “Don’t even bother to wish me a happy birthday, because I have had one crappy day.”

My family was sitting in the living room, somber looks on their faces. Something was very wrong. “We’re so sorry to tell you this today Tracy, but Aunt Carol is gone.”

My favorite aunt, dead. On my birthday. She’d died alone of a heart attack in her apartment. When she didn’t show up for work, her boss went to her home and found her. That bothered me the most. I wished there had been someone there with her.

Her funeral was a nightmare for me. I could not make myself go up to her casket. I figured if I never went up and actually looked at her face, I could make believe that it was all a mistake – some hideous misunderstanding. But, my friends dragged me up there – said I had to go for my own sanity, and out of respect for my Aunt. Oh, and I lost it. Big time.

I wasn’t the only one. Dad had managed to track down old Uncle Joe, and when he approached the casket, he began to weep and wail loudly. He stroked Aunt Carol’s face, and tried to lay down beside her – my dad had to pull him away. Guilt can do strange things to a person.

Holidays weren’t the same for quite a while after that. Each Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, I’d expect to see Aunt Carol at the end of the table, eating a turkey leg or slices of ham, happy to be a part of the family, and catching up on the lives of her nieces and nephew. I still miss her.

She was like no one I’d ever known…sweet, loving and generous, always looking at the bright side. Anything and everything made her happy, and in turn, it made you happy just to be around her. I’m so thankful for the time I spent with her. I hope she knows how much I love her.

Carol & Me

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