As Christmas Eve approaches, I think about my Aunt Irene.
She was blonde and bubbly, what the show-business columnists of the day called a “chantoozie,” singing in clubs on the East Side of Manhattan, when there was still quite a Mitteleuropa presence in that neighborhood.
Irene worked late, slept late, and was always about nine hours behind the rest of us.
“I do remember going with Mom and Dad to a Hungarian restaurant in Manhattan, where Irene did stand up and sing a song to the accompaniment of a violin player,” my kid brother Chris recalls. “She had such a big voice, full of flashy highlights and vibrato, and she gestured dramatically with her hands.”
That was Irene. At this time of year, she would hum snippets of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” around the house, but she launched into high gear only on the afternoon before Christmas.
My family would crowd into Grandma’s modest row house in the Jamaica section of Queens, every inch covered with ornate decorations. Grandma would serve us sweets, maybe even a sip of Tokay wine for the adults, and we would wait for Irene, who had embarked in late afternoon, heading to Gertz or Macy’s in the hub of Jamaica.
Finally there would be a bustle in the narrow hallway, and Irene would burst into the crowded living room, tossing her fur coat in a corner and distributing packages, exquisitely wrapped, for all of us. The packages had just been wrapped by exhausted clerks, eager to go home to their own holidays, and now we were tearing into them, barely half an hour later.
I cannot remember what gifts she gave us, only that they were elaborate and expensive. She must have spent every dime she had made for months of singing in some smoky club.
Irene is long gone. I regret that I never saw her perform, but when I hear the strains of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” I know I caught the best of Aunt Irene, in her own sparkling living room.
More and More, I Talk to the Dead--Margaret Renkl
NASHVILLE — After my mother died so suddenly — laughing at a rerun of “JAG” at 10 p.m., dying of a hemorrhagic stroke by dawn — I dreamed about her night after night. In every dream she was willfully, outrageously alive, unaware of the grief her death had caused. In every dream relief poured through me like a flash flood. Oh, thank God!
Then I would wake into keening grief all over again.
Years earlier, when my father learned he had advanced esophageal cancer, his doctor told him he had perhaps six months to live. He lived far longer than that, though I never thought of it as “living” once I learned how little time he really had. For six months my father was dying, and then he kept dying for two years more. I was still working and raising a family, but running beneath the thin soil of my own life was a river of death. My father’s dying governed my days.
After he died, I wept and kept weeping, but I rarely dreamed about my father the way I would dream about my mother nearly a decade later. Even in the midst of calamitous grief, I understood the difference: My father’s long illness had given me time to work death into the daily patterns of my life. My mother’s sudden death had obliterated any illusion that daily patterns are trustworthy.
Years have passed now, and it’s the ordinariness of grief itself that governs my days. The very air around me thrums with absence. I grieve the beloved high-school teacher I lost the summer after graduation and the beloved college professor who was my friend for more than two decades. I grieve the father I lost nearly 20 years ago and the father-in-law I lost during the pandemic. I grieve the great-grandmother who died my junior year of college and the grandmother who lived until I was deep into my 40s.
Some of those I grieve are people I didn’t even know. How can John Prine be gone? I hear his haunting last song, “I Remember Everything,” and I still can’t quite believe that John Prine is gone.
Jan. 30, 2023