My great-aunt Evelyn died today. She was old -- ever since I was little, she was old -- and she lived a good 90 years or so. After a long battle with illness, her death came as a relief, and she died with her sisters and loved ones nearby.
We called her Aunt Evvy, although I've seldom seen that name written down, so I'm not even sure how to spell it. As I said, even when I was little, she was old and wizened. She was a tiny woman, small and trim, with a heavily-styled bloom of white hair and a raspy voice worn by cigarettes, a gruff voice leavened with kindness and reassurance. Like many of the older folks in my family, she carried a smell of cigarettes that was somehow rich and comfortable.
But the remarkable thing about Aunt Evvy was that she had none of the coldness, or detachment, or impatience that you think of when you think "wizened old lady." She was always so kind and thoughtful. When I was little we would go to her house and she would give me my first haircuts. She always had candy in a bowl in the family room, and a painting of dogs playing poker in the basement, near the pool table, which seemed to be Uncle Dan's domain. He carved wooden ducks as a hobby, mallards with brilliant green heads and the females with a more subtle palette of browns and grays. When I would spend the night at my grandparents' on Saturdays, Uncle Dan would always drop by in the morning with the Sunday paper, and we would all sit around the kitchen table and eat donuts, me reading the comics while they all drank coffee and smoked.
Aunt Evvy was known among the family for her pies. She was a brilliant cook, but dessert is when she really flexed her muscle. My favorite was her chocolate pie, but she had plenty of others in her repertoire, and she would bring several to every family event, enough to leave entire pies to be divided -- thick, overflowing, rich and painful pies that would kill lesser men than us -- after everyone had eaten as much as they could bear.
She and my mom seemed to have a special connection. My mother has been utterly vigilant during Aunt Evvy's long illness, and I heard about many visits where Aunt Evvy could barely communicate, or struggled to talk, or just spent her time yelling at the nurse, which was reassuring to see. But there were moments when Aunt Evvy was lucid and able to communicate with my mom, and I heard about times when the old Evvy was shining through -- kind and loving, rubbing my mom's back to comfort her even as she had come to comfort Aunt Evvy. I was so happy Mom got to share these moments with her.
In the last couple of years, she suffered a lot of loss and pain in her life, and death seemed to be a welcome relief at some moments. I wrote about it here, a couple of Easters ago. She was a strong and resilient woman. It seems fitting that as I sit here writing, I can smell the pumpkin pie L baked tonight -- the first pumpkin pie of the season.
For my entire life Aunt Evvy has been a fixed point in my family -- part of the bedrock of men and women who had always been around, whose proximity and reliability and good will and assistance and love were taken as a given. I think about how close she and my grandma were, how much my mother loved her, how much my grandfather valued his friendship with her and Uncle Dan, and that's when I get a better sense of the brunt of the loss. She was a good and beautiful woman, and even after the pain of these long last months, there's nothing to do but miss her.