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Monday, January 26, 2004 

Yesterday evening I went to visit my eccentric old Great Aunt Renee. A year ago she was diagnosed with, what she euphemistically calls "female cancer" (I'm a bit leary of the details, but I believe it is either uterine or ovarian). For years my Great Aunt Renee has been the brunt of many a joke. She's a rather large woman, who always caked on just a little too much make-up, and could yammer your ear off for hours, if you let her.

Common family stories revolve around some of the crazy things my Aunt has done. I remember as a child listening to my Aunt Renee tell me about how she never saw just one movie when she went to the theatre. After viewing one show, she'd push her squeaky walker, half the width of her body, across the lobby to see another movie -- without paying. She seemed to believe she was getting away with some clever plot to sneak into movies, but my family always joked (behind her back) that the clerks likely knew what she was up to, but were afraid to approach her.

Then there's tales of all the odd gifts she has given people. One year my Aunt Renee had given a box of chocolates to my Aunt Melinda for Christmas. But, when my Aunt opened the gift on Christmas morning (my Aunt Renee was not there), she discovered the box of chocolates had been half eaten! And another time, quite a few years back, when VCR's were still relatively new, my Aunt Renee purchased a number of odd video tapes from a thrift store, and gifted them to my grandfather for Christmas. My grandfather never really liked my Aunt Renee, so this was just one more nail in the coffin for him. Of course, the rest of the family made light of the situation, and continues to laugh about it to this day.

In her younger days Renee was thin and very beautiful -- a woman well on her way to having a position in high society. She was intelligent, powerful, and highly social. Her marriage to my Great Uncle Gordon (who is my grandfather's brother) was marked by a lot of difficulties. Uncle Gordon was a scientist for the Livermore Lab. His job was often stressful, and my Aunt Renee's forceful and domineering nature took its toll on my Uncle Gordon as well. He often turned to alcohol to self medicate, which led to disastrous results. Abuse was rampant in their marriage, and both seemed to be unhappy with each other. Yet, I don't think either of them could have lived without each other. I think my Great Aunt's obesity was partly a result of the abuse she suffered, though she herself is not without blame.

Her obesity however is playing a large role in her current situation. Being that she is so overweight, every doctor she's seen thus far has refused to operate for fear that her heart will not be able to withstand surgery, and that she would die on the operating table. The risk is very real, yet my Aunt is not giving up. Perhaps she sees it as her only chance for survival. Without any treatment, the cancer will surely ravage and take her. With surgery, perhaps she will die, but perhaps by some miracle she will survive.

My Aunt Renee played a crucial role in getting into college. While my parents always seemed to "expect" good grades out of me, and thus didn't give me a lot of praise and fanfare when I brought home my report card, my Aunt Renee took a keen interest in how well I was doing. At family events she'd gush over how "intelligent and bright" I was. I too was a talker, and she'd delight in holding conversations with me for long periods of time -- well after others had shooed me on. My Aunt Renee was herself a highly intelligent, and well educated woman, who was also an incredible pianist. As a young child she attempted to teach me how to play, and for a few years I was enthusiastic about it. But eventually my interests turned elsewhere, and I stopped.

From a young age she encouraged me to try my hardest, and to do what was necessary to get into college. She promised that if I kept up my good work, that I could do and be whatever I wanted. As I got older, she provided guidance in the way of advice on how to get into the best schools. Neither of my parents went to college, and while I know my parents hoped I would go myself, they didn't know how to help. So, my Great Aunt Renee stepped in when and how she could. I largely credit her with the fact that I went to Berkeley. Had she not encouraged me to go there, I probably would have ended up at a lesser school. She even encouraged me to apply to places like Harvard and Stanford, but cost held me back. My parents had little money, and it was up to me to find ways of funding my education.

A part of me dreaded visiting my Aunt last night, for fear that I would get stuck there for far longer than I wanted. But, honestly, I enjoyed the time I spent talking to her and my Uncle Gordon. My Uncle Gordon recently published a book of stories about his childhood, which is for sale at the Historical Society near the town where he grew up. They gifted me with a copy of the book, and a selection of the stories on CD. This morning as I rode to work I found myself getting really into these stories of my grandfather and Great Uncle's childhood. And quite frankly, I also found myself jealous of their adventures and experiences -- nostalgic for a time I never knew.

I'll probably go back and visit with my Great Aunt at least once more before she passes -- if for nothing else but to offer her comfort as a way of saying thanks for everything she did for me.

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  • I'm Dani
  • From San Francisco
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