Aunt Clair, my father’s younger sister by two and a half years, may be short in stature, but she more than makes up for it with an outsize personality. One of my earliest memories was a weekend where she watched me and my two brothers while my parents were away. As I recall, we named her car ‘Bumpity Morgan.’ I don’t know if that name was a result of its poor suspension or New York’s potholed streets (or both).
I could be mixing different times together, but I recall Aunt Clair driving us in ‘Bumpity’ to the beach in the Rockaways. We were enjoying jumping the waves and collecting shells when the sky grew ominous. Aunt Clair poo-poohed it for a while and we continued to enjoy playing in the water and sand. Eventually it became clear that a storm was rolling in. We gathered up our things as quickly as we could and made a run for it. We got to ‘Bumpity’ just in time to avoid the lightening and fat raindrops. Wet and sandy, we climbed into the car and went back home, having squeezed out the last possible moments of fun. This was a very different approach from my parents. Mom and Dad would have packed up sooner, cleaned the sand off our feet and gotten back to the car with time to spare.
Aunt Clair, 81 years old now, lives in the same rent-controlled studio apartment in Greenwich Village that she has occupied for almost my entire life. When you think of a person who spent over 50 years, living on their own, in the Village, you might imagine someone with idiosyncrasies – you might imagine my Aunt Clair.
She stands maybe 5’2” with curly white hair, there may be remnants of light brown strands from her younger years. Even 40 years ago, whenever I would walk with her, she would remind me that she had to take twice as many steps to keep up – she considered me to be tall! I didn’t think I had a particularly long stride, unless I was next to her.
Like her siblings, she has large, lively blue eyes. Like her siblings, she is razor sharp smart and insightful. She has a hearty laugh – my kids tell me we sound alike when we laugh.
Aunt Clair is feisty. My father loved telling stories about her toughness, even as a little girl. One involved an unfortunate dentist who told the young Clair that the procedure he was about to perform wouldn’t hurt. Well, it did. Clair was indignant, claiming that he lied, so she kicked him in a particularly sensitive spot and climbed down from the chair.
Making your way in New York City as a single woman wasn’t easy. I remember hearing about a mugging where Aunt Clair refused to give up her purse. I’m not sure how that ended up, I think she ended up bruised, angry and minus her pursue. Though my Dad admired her spirit, his message to me was not to do what she did in that case. He advised, if in a similar situation, to not fight back and risk serious injury. Aunt Clair didn’t (and still doesn’t) find it easy to back down.
I learned that I had a bit of her spirit when I had an experience going into the subway. It was 1980 and Gary and I were going down the stairs to the station, Gary was ahead of me. I had a backpack on and I felt it being jostled. Without thinking, I spun and said loudly, “What the fuck are you doing?” There was a young man with his hand on my knapsack. He looked startled and he turned and ran. Gary had stopped, but the incident was already over. I surprised myself, it was an instinctive reaction. I guess I was channeling my inner Aunt Clair.
Some of my fondest memories of time spent with Aunt Clair involved bicycling. Clair biked around Manhattan long before the city made any accommodations for riders. She continued to bike, even to chemotherapy appointments when she was in her late 70s!
When I was college-aged and home for the summer, I joined Aunt Clair for a bike tour of Manhattan. This was no ordinary bike tour. We started in Central Park at midnight! Earlier that evening I went with my parents to see an off-Broadway play. We drove into the city from Brooklyn with my bike was strapped to their car. Aunt Clair met us at the theater when the show was over. We retrieved my bike and went to her apartment to drop my stuff off and then headed uptown.
Hundreds of people were gathered with their bicycles at the Bethesda Fountain which is located mid-park at around 72nd Street. Central Park begins at 59th Street and stretches to 110th, south to north. East to west, it encompasses two avenues across (Fifth to Central Park West). It was odd to be in a place that most people thought of as dangerous at that hour. In those years, I wouldn’t have gone into Central Park by myself in broad daylight. It felt exciting and adventurous to be there amongst so many fellow cyclists.
We rode around the park, stopping periodically to hear about its history. We left the park and rode along the east and then west side of Manhattan. We rode through the theater district all the way down to the deserted financial district. The financial district felt like a movie set, with the skyscrapers seeming like two dimensional facades. It was so quiet, it was eerie. At that time, there were no residential buildings in the area, so there weren’t restaurants (other than those that catered to the lunch crowd) or clubs or theaters. It was a ghost town during off hours. We were able to ride in the canyon of Wall Street without other traffic, pedestrian or vehicular. I got up close and personal views of the architecture and sculptures in a part of the city I had only seen on a rare school trip.
Our tour concluded at sunrise at Battery Park. A hazy sun rose over the mouth of New York harbor. We rode back to the Village, got breakfast at a brasserie and ended the adventure with a nap at her apartment. Midafternoon she drove me and my bike back to Canarsie.
It was not my only adventure with Aunt Clair. We took other bike rides together – on Martha’s Vineyard and in Boston, too. She introduced me to walking across the Brooklyn Bridge – we bought wonton soup and ate it midway across – long before it became a ‘cool’ thing to do. I’ve seen plays, movies and ballets with her. We’ve eaten many meals at wonderful hole-in-wall restaurants in her neighborhood. I learned so much about the city, and about being independent, from my time spent with her.
I was fortunate to grow up in an unusual family – made up of interesting, quirky and intelligent people. Aunt Clair’s feistiness, strong opinions and independent streak could sometimes create friction with other family members, especially my Dad (who shared some of those same qualities). But, I have been lucky to have her.