Today's post and Monday's are excerpts from a family history project that Romaine wrote for a class she's taking.
Fly Homeward, Little Bird
My aunt Mary was my mom’s little sister. She came to live with our family when her father, who had been taking care of her and her wheel chair-bound mother, died suddenly of a heart attack. I was 10 years old at the time. Aunt Mary was mentally disabled. She had the mental capabilities of about an 8 year old, which was pretty good, but not enough to really know how to take care of herself. On top of that she also suffered from mental illness. She was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when she was a teenager. Aunt Mary was in and out of mental institutions for most of her twenties and thirties until it became apparent that the therapy she was receiving at these places was not helping and probably doing more harm than good. This all happened over 60 years ago – during the dark ages of mental health when the treatment of mental illness was mostly experimental for conditions that were poorly understood. Eventually Aunt Mary moved back in with her parents. She lived with them up until her father died after which her mother was unable to take care of her. As there was no one else to take care of her my mom and dad took her in.
When Aunt Mary moved in it was like having another child for my parents. A child that never grows up. I am the youngest of 5 and Mary made number 6. She was in her early forties when she came to live with us. She continued to live with our family and then with just my mom after all the kids left and our dad died. She lived with my mom until her death at age 85.
Due to her mental illness and mental disability Mary lacked the social filters that we all take for granted in our politically correct and polite society. She was honest to a T and wasn’t capable of lying. With no social filters and no ability to fib, Mary was prone to blurt out the brutal truth and give her forthright yet unasked for suppositions at the most inappropriate of times. She had no problems saying what everybody else was thinking, which could lead to many awkward yet hilarious situations. She never expressed herself to be mean or vindictive, she just wasn’t able to hold in her thoughts or state them in a tactful manner. Once her truth meter went off, there was no stopping it.
Mary unintentionally let loose one zinger after another on a regular basis - many of which have made it into the Rupp Family Hall of Fame of Funny and Embarrassing Stories. For instance: One time when I was just 13 years old I was modeling for my sister and mother a new beige and brown one piece bathing suit I had just got. It took a lot of courage for me to show myself in public with the suit on because I was overweight and very embarrassed to be seen in such skimpy attire. After much encouragement from my mother and sister I shyly walked into the dining room with my new one-piece on. They both showered me with compliments and said every nice thing they could think of to help me improve my bad self-image. They were doing a great job of building my self-confidence to the point where I was beginning to think that it might be OK for me to show up with this bathing suit on at the pool where my girlfriends where hanging out and where there might also be boys – God Forbid! Then Aunt Mary walked into the room. That was end of any false flattery. She took one look at me and proclaimed: “That suit fits you like skin on baloney. You look like a sausage”. At that moment I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and all I saw was a kielbasa in a bathing suit staring back at me. I took that thing off and never wore it again. As bad as it was to be told I looked like a sausage at age 13, 40 years later I can see the humor in the situation and now I burst out into a big belly laugh every time I think about that incident.
Aunt Mary was built kind of like a hobbit. She was short and pudgy and had very long finger nails and toe nails which she took impeccable care of. She had short curly blond hair, bright blue eyes and round apple checks. Her voice was deep and raspy and she had a Scranton accent – which sounds a lot like a mid-west accent.
Aunt Mary’s voice didn’t really go with her hobbit body, but it was her most defining trait. If imitation is the highest form of flattery then Aunt Mary could be one of the most flattered people on the planet. All members of my immediate family including my siblings and their spouses and children and even some of our close friends can all do an Aunt Mary imitation on demand. I have a friend on the West Coast who has never even met her who does one of the best Aunt Mary impersonations in the country. He’s heard me do it enough that he’s picked it up on his own. When any two or more of us Aunt Mary mavens get together it’s not too long before someone starts channeling her. Before you know it everyone is hurling around Aunt Mary-like salvos. They are usually not directed at any one in particular, they just slip out. If you didn’t know us you would probably think we were all nuts, well you’d probably think that if you did know us too. Once we start we just continue to crack each other up and the Aunt Mary-isms can go on for a long while. If you were a fly on the wall you might here some of the following catch-phrases bandied about in deep crackly voices:
“You eat like a pig.”
“That shirt makes you look fat.”
“If you would stop sh*ting around we could finish our prayers”
“Them French talk funny”
Not everything that came out of Aunt Mary’s mouth was bad. As much as she would fire off her bluntly harsh observations she was just as likely to fire off a nice compliment too. She called ‘em like she saw ‘em. Aunt Mary-isms are part of our family culture now. For most of the time Aunt Mary was a benign and pleasant person, it’s just that these bon-mots would slip out at the most unexpected times in the most inappropriate places – like at a funeral or a church luncheon or during a dinner party when my parents were entertaining the dean from the medical school where my father taught.
To be continued on Monday...