I spent an hour on the phone tonight with my father's oldest sister. She will be 89 years old later this month.
Aunt Pasqualina is a widow living in an elder care facility in upstate New York. She was the oldest of seven children and the only girl. Born in Calabria, Italy (the toe of the boot), she came to this country as a small child with my grandparents.
She has outlived most of her brothers, including two sets of twins (my father was one of the twins), but still takes a lively interest in the family. Her mind is alert, and she remembered the names of the four great nieces and nephew in my branch of the tree. She is the hub at the center of my father's family: the one who keeps track of all the members and passes news of births, graduations and illnesses along.
My aunt dropped out of school at fourteen to help take care of all her little brothers, who were much younger than she. She's wistful about not completing her education, but not bitter. I've noticed that she mentions my Master's degree during almost every conversation we have, and suspect it's a matter of pride to her that the first person in her family to earn a MS was a female. Her sacrifices helped to make that possible.
The example she and my father set in terms of a brother/sister relationship lives on. Daddy called her once a week until the day he died. I remain as close to my three brothers as she did to hers. Despite the wide distances between us, it's rare that I don't speak to at least two of them every week.
Aunt Pasqualina married an engineer and moved over twenty times during their marriage as his assignments took them around the world. They never had children, but I remember receiving a winter coat from the UK, wooden sabots from Holland, and a set of rosary beads from the Vatican.
She told me in a very matter-of-fact fashion that she has inoperable lymphoma that is spreading--albeit slowly. She brushed away my questions about any pain to announce that her youngest brother, my Uncle Alfred, would be calling me tomorrow.
Since it's been at least ten years since I've spoken to Uncle Alfred, I waited for the explanation. It wasn't long in coming.
"He's your godfather, and you need to talk to him."
I realized then that she was doing what she always did--making sure to keep the connections among her family strong. She is planning ahead for the time when she will no longer be with us; making certain that we won't lose track of each other. I will be the link between my branch and the larger family tree.
Before we hung up, I made certain she knew I understood my marching orders. I also told her that she'd learned a lot more than any school could ever have taught her. She was pleased with the compliment.
Afterward, I emailed or called my three brothers to remind them to send her a birthday card with photos of their children this month.
I live for those who love me,
Whose hearts are kind and true;
For the Heaven that smiles above me,
And awaits my spirit too;
For all human ties that bind me,
For the task by God assigned me,
For the bright hopes yet to find me,
And the good that I can do.