Outside of my conversations with The Girl, I don’t talk about our private lives much. I do, however, want to devote some space to a relative from America who died recently, both to explain why I've been distracted from writing this week and because she deserves as public a memorial as I can muster.
Lucky children have not just dutiful parents, but a trusted confidant – someone who will hold a crying toddler and quickly set them right again, who will listen to a seven-year-old talk about dinosaurs or a fourteen-year-old unload their existential burdens. They have someone who will not judge them, who will keep their secrets, who will make everything better. For hundreds of children over three generations – me, my cousins, my second cousins twice removed, and kids of people who used to live down the street -- that person was Imy.
Children pass through the valley of the shadow of death many times in a month; their lives have far more drama than ours, and its cuts them more deeply. On one such day, when no one else understood, Imy put her hand on my back and said, “You know, everyone tells you this is the best time in your life, but they’re wrong, aren’t they? It’s no fun being a child.”
On that day, and on many days before and since, only Imy understood.
In full name she was Imogene, twin sister of my grandmother Normagene – both named, I’m told, after 1920s boxer Gene Tunney. She never married and always stayed close to her twin, often living in the same home as my grandparents. A tiny grey wisp of a woman, possibly weighing less than some of the children she babysat, she was the rock around which the rest of the world revolved.
We laughed affectionately about her many quirks; singing old show tunes in her high warbling voice, sometimes misremembering the words and passing them down to us as mondegreens. One of the last children of the Depression, she hoarded everything, in case she might find some use for it later. She she was allergic to everything, it seemed, although we suspected that included anything she just didn’t like. She loved birds, especially cardinals, and collected knick-knacks with pictures of them. She loved mystery novels and read the end first -- to find out who-dunnit before reading the rest -- and when we protested, she would only respond primly, “It’s my book.” We had to concede the point.
Other things we never found out until we were older, and then by accident. She tutored children at the local Catholic school, and did the same for girls in her neighbourhood. She volunteered for years at a local hospital on weekends – we think she delivered mail to patients, sat with them and kept them company. I say “we think,” because she never talked about these things with us; she just did them.
On our last trip to the USA, I made sure we stayed with them a few weeks, when The Girl was young enough to fully appreciate Imy and old enough that the memories would remain with her for the rest of her life, long after most of us have gone. Since then The Girl and I called them every weekend to chat, and when Imy took sick recently we called her hospital room.
“You called me in the hospital from all the way over there?” she asked, delighted. “Well, that does it – I’m just going to have to get better now.”
On her deathbed, she was still comforting us.
Photo free to use courtesy of http://pixabay.com/en/bird-cardinal-male-snow-winter-94957