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Farewell, Aunt Marcia

July 4th at Aunt Marcia's

July 1st at Aunt Marcia's

Today my family buried my dad’s sister-in-law, Aunt Marcia.* This was the first time I’ve been around for the loss of an active matriarch. When my Bubbie died, she had been at a nursing home for many years, and my mom had already taken over that role.

My Aunt Marcia, on the other hand, hosted a family get together just this year on July 1 (pictured at right). Fifty people descended onto her house, and just like every other July party I can remember, my aunt managed to feed them all without breaking a sweat. It’s amazing enough that she did this regularly when she was younger. It’s more amazing that she continued doing it in her senior years. And it’s completely mind-blowing that she did it this summer, at age 75, in the end stages of terminal cancer. Frankly, I half expected her to cater her own condolence dinner.

She died this past Wednesday, and not three days before she had put on high heels to attend an engagement party. My aunt was diagnosed with her cancer about four years ago. At the time she declared that it wasn’t going to beat her, and in the short run it didn’t. She bought herself four years to attend three family bat mitzvahs, to travel extensively, and to witness the birth of her first great-grandchild. She paid for this time by enduring several rounds of radiation and chemotherapy and no doubt suffered greatly, but in public at least she had the most amazing game face I’ve ever seen. As my cousin Richard told us all at the funeral service today, she refused to say she was ill. Her regular line was, “I’m not sick, I’ve just got cancer.”

Besides being stubbornly optimistic and an amazing hostess, my Aunt Marcia was cool. When you’re a kid, even if your parents are cool, you rarely think of them that way. So you look to aunts and uncles or cousins to fill that role. My Aunt Leona’s coolness is/was a given. She married my mom’s younger brother, and by virtue of being younger than my mother and very into fashion, just about any young girl would latch on to her. And I did.

But funnily enough, despite being older than my mom and not much into fashion at all, my Aunt Marcia was also very cool. While many of us suffer through the whims of fashion, Aunt Marcia knew what worked for her, stuck with it, and had a signature style. The clothes were simple, the jewelry came from her world travels, and, until cancer struck, the hair was worn in a dancer’s chignon. As I grew up, the chignon went from nearly black to salt-and-pepper, to white, but it remained a constant-and a constant reminder of her lifelong interest and participation in dance.

Then there was her amazing needlework and can-do attitude. My aunt created the most amazing needlepoint seat covers, wall hangings, and tallit bags I’ve seen. It truly transcended craft and went straight to artistry. But she didn’t stick with girly past-times. One of my fondest memories of her, when I was about 10 or so, was watching her order my Uncle Sam to go take a bath so she could get him out of her hair while she worked on repairing the kitchen plumbing. I must have looked surprised, because she flashed me a conspiratorial smile and said, “sometimes you have to give men a project to get them out of your way.”

I think all of us go through life and pick up ideas, habits, and tips from those around us. Sometimes we do so unknowingly, as when we mimic the expressions of those we spend the most time around. But other pieces are consciously adopted. With my aunt, I sincerely hope to pick up at least some of her fearless, can-do attitude and a dollop of her ferociously stubborn optimism. At a more literal level, I plan to finish her last piece of needlework, a knitted afghan she began for a nephew’s engagement present and worried about not being able to finish before she passed.

When I heard about this piece-also during her euology-I could only think two things. First, that I had found a way to help continue her legacy. And secondly, that thank God it wasn’t a needlepoint project.

Shalom Aleichem, Aunt Marcia. You’ll be missed.

* It is a traditional part of Jewish funerals for the mourners to each put at least a shovel or two of dirt into the deceased’s grave. It’s part of closure, and it’s also considered one of the last favors you can do for someone. Well, my cousins decided to take this gesture a step further. So while most people went home or headed to the house after the grave-side ceremony, the pallbearers, her children, and her grandchildren stayed behind, had the cemetery deliver all the dirt necessary to bury her, and finished the job.

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