Note: Aunt Clair, my father’s sister, has been included in this blog many times, including a post that was dedicated to her ( this one). She was a unique person who had a major impact on my life. As my cousin Ilana so aptly put it: Every teen and young adult should be lucky enough to have an adult who cares about them and exposes them to new experiences who is not their parent. We were fortunate to have Aunt Clair. The family gathered this past Friday to celebrate and honor her. These were my remarks.
Thank you for coming – or participating via Zoom.
I’m Linda, one of Clair Brody’s nieces. Aunt Clair communicated her last wishes to me, and I hope this gathering reflects her intent.
From the time she arrived on March 5, 1935 until her death on November 2, 2021, Clair, far more than most, did things on her own terms. It is something I have long admired, though I’m not sure it always worked to her benefit.
Aunt Clair was Brooklyn born and bred. Arriving while the Great Depression still had a grip on this country, she was the beloved daughter of hard-working parents, Leo and Selma Brody. She was the younger sister, by five years, of Diane (now Gareen) and 2 ½ years younger than Barry, my father. She was so proud of her older and very accomplished siblings. Clair went to New York City public schools and graduated from Brooklyn College, with a major in photography. She was a talented photographer and some of her work is on the table here. (I am including other photos below to show her work)
Clair went on to write code for computers – for TWA (which allowed her to travel far and wide), Bendix and Avis among others – she worked in that industry when it was in its infancy and when there were few women.
My brother Mark and I went to her apartment in Greenwich Village on Wednesday. There were a couple of reasons we went, but a major reason for me was to find some mementos of who Aunt Clair was and the legacy she leaves us. I think what we found does just that.
We were greeted by one of the long term doormen, who recognized me from my prior visits. He immediately asked, “What is happening? How is she?” Mark explained that she had passed away and his face dropped. The weight of the loss was clear. We thanked him for being so helpful to our Aunt Clair and continued on to pick up her mail and go up to the apartment.
Her mail gives another glimpse into our Aunt Clair. She has likely donated to every social justice and charitable organization in the world. The ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the Nature Conservancy, the City Mission, the Simon Weisenthal Center….the list could go on. Though she was never rich, she was generous with what she had.
We went into her apartment. First, we have to acknowledge that organization and neatness were not strengths of our beloved Auntie. Aunt Clair loved gadgets and tools and she had lots of them. She loved a good deal from Costco – so there was evidence of that, too. She enjoyed cooking and eating. – though she had a tiny galley kitchen in her Greenwich Village studio apartment – it was well-stocked with pots, pans, dishes….and gadgets.
There was a lot of dust. Aunt Clair accumulated things and saved everything. Medical reports from decades ago, instructions for exercise, letters. I found the original lease to her apartment – from July 1, 1960! She paid $80.40 a month. Think about that…she lived in the same place for 61 years. What does that say? As much as she was a free thinker, and she was as insightful and intelligent as they come, she did not embrace change.
As I looked around her apartment, I saw her love of art and music. Her taste in both could be quirky. She had lovely pieces of pottery. She also kept a plastic ring with a smiley face.
She loved biking. She had a compact stationary bike set up in that studio apartment. She had lots of tools and supplies to take care of her other bicycle, the one she kept in storage. I had great adventures with her biking.
There is much more I can say – and I will say a bit more about my personal relationship with Aunt Clair – but first I will turn to her other niece, Ilana. Then her nephew Mark will share his remembrance and I will come back.
Before I share my personal memories, I want to say on behalf of my mother, that she is devastated by the loss of her sister-in-law. They may have been fractious at times (as Aunt Clair was with those near and dear to her), but they maintained a close and devoted relationship long after Dad died. Mom will miss their late-night telephone conversations and just knowing Clair was there for her.
I’d like to share some specific memories:
Aunt Clair was 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, 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 isn’t easy. I remember Dad telling me about a mugging where Aunt Clair refused to give up her purse. She fought back and ended up bruised, angry and minus her pursue. Though Dad admired her spirit, his message to me was not to do what she did.
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 think I was channeling my inner Aunt Clair.
Some of my fondest memories of time spent with her involved bicycling. Clair biked around Manhattan long before the city made any accommodations for riders.
I joined her for a bike tour of Manhattan. This was no ordinary bike tour. We started in Central Park at midnight! This was in August in the late 1970s when the park was a haven for drugs and violence. Hundreds of people were gathered with their bicycles at the Bethesda Fountain. It was odd to be there. 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 down Broadway, passing the neon signs of the theaters, all the way 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. It felt like a ghost town. 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.
It was not my only adventure with Aunt Clair. We took other bike rides – 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 saw plays, movies and ballets with her. She introduced me to Alvin Ailey, not the man, the dance troupe. I have gone back to see them many times, and brought Gary and later my children. We ate 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. Thank you, Auntie.
Finally, I want to say that I am so saddened by Aunt Clair’s final months. I wish it had gone differently. She struggled – in so many ways. She was just celebrating her 86th birthday when she found out the pancreatic cancer had returned. She fought it. She so wanted to maintain her independence, but she really couldn’t. Her body was failing her. So was our broken medical system and our country’s flawed elder care. I tried to help and so did others in the family, but we could not fix it. The inevitable was going to happen – and it did this past Tuesday.
I take comfort in several things, my memories, of course. But there is something else. When Gary and I visited her last Saturday, while she was still in the hospital, she was quite talkative. In between language that was indecipherable, she shared something important that I want to share with you. She said she had no regrets – she acknowledged that though she never had a spouse or her own children, she felt loved. She said she knew she was loved by her mother and father, and she felt like she belonged – her words. That’s more than many can say.
The last six months brought Aunt Clair a lot of anguish and discomfort, but I am heartened that she felt loved. I will miss her, as I know many of you will too, but she isn’t suffering anymore – I am grateful for that. There is a traditional phrase in Judaism, and though Aunt Clair was not religious, I think she would appreciate it: May her soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life. I hope her soul is bound with those she loved who left before her – her parents, her brother, her cousin Carol, her dearest friend Phyllis and other family and friends who were important to her.
And may she rest in peace.