It’s funny how I hadn’t noticed it before – the likeness around the eyes. The first time I saw Aunt Diane after my father died, it unnerved me a bit. Now it comforts me.
My father was the middle child, one sister (Diane) three years older and another sister (Clair) two and a half years younger. They are three of the smartest people I have ever known. It’s kind of amazing that three siblings could each be so sharp. They have different personalities to be sure, but they shared incisiveness, a capacity for insight and intelligence that is quite impressive and could be intimidating. They also shared lively, large, blue-gray eyes. I always wished I had inherited those eyes.
In a traditional Jewish family, especially of that era (the 1930s), the son was the prize. Typically the family’s aspirations were tied up in the success of the son. Not so in my dad’s family. While I take pride in the fact that it was the eldest daughter who became the doctor, it seems that my father was overlooked. By his description, corroborated by Aunt Diane, he was not given encouragement or attention by his parents. It is a mystery that will never be solved.
Growing up I didn’t know Aunt Diane that well. We celebrated Passover and Thanksgiving together most years, but those were large gatherings and didn’t provide much opportunity to have intimate conversation. I knew that we all respected Aunt Diane and called upon her whenever there were medical issues that needed to be addressed. I remember her reassuring presence at the hospital when I had eye surgery, by an opthamologist she recommended, when I was 5 years old.
But the relationship between my father and his older sister, while loyal and loving, could also be tense for reasons I didn’t understand. Or maybe the tenseness related to her husband, Paul. It was not something spoken about, just something I sensed. It would take some unusual circumstances for me to get to know Diane on my own.
I was preparing to go to Columbia University for graduate school, but housing wasn’t available when the semester started. It was September 1980 and Columbia was rehabbing a building on 80th Street and Columbus Avenue that would be offered to graduate students. I reserved a studio apartment in that building, but since it wasn’t ready, Aunt Diane and Uncle Paul offered to let me stay with them so I wouldn’t have to commute from Canarsie. I lived with them for almost two months, making the easy trip from 104th and Broadway to 120th and Amsterdam where the School of International and Public Affairs was located. And, I got to know Aunt Diane. I can’t say I got to know Uncle Paul.
I spent any number of hours talking with Aunt Diane about a range of subjects, from national politics (lamenting Ronald Reagan’s nomination to be President) to Israel to health care policy to personal values. I learned she was a lot more liberal than my parents were! I learned about her history, about the challenges of going to medical school as a woman in the early 1950s. She was a trailblazer and a free-thinker; a woman before her time, especially in terms of male and female roles.
One area where Aunt Diane was distinctly more progressive than my parents was in her attitude toward premarital sex. I knew she and Uncle Paul took a more relaxed view of the subject so I asked her if Gary could stay over with me. Gary and I had already been together for a year at that point and he was working at a lab at Columbia Presbyterian, even further uptown (on 168th street). Gary was living at home with his parents in Rosedale, leaving him with a monumental commute to the lab. Aunt Diane explained that she had no problem with it, but was not comfortable allowing something that would go against my parents’ wishes. While it was true that my parents would not sanction that in their home, I thought they would be okay with it if she was – after all, I had been away at college for the four previous years. I think my parents took an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to the subject. I suggested she talk to my mom about it. I was not privy to that conversation, but a day or two later Aunt Diane told me that Gary was welcome to stay over.
Aunt Diane was a pediatrician who worked at a clinic in a hospital on the lower east side of Manhattan. During one of those conversations she told me she didn’t believe money should be part of the relationship between a physician and her patient. As a result, she spent her career practicing in the clinic and working for the New York City Department of Health, organizing continuing education for doctors. I always respected that choice, but today as a mature adult fully aware of the implications of that decision, I admire it even more.
A few weeks ago Gary and I met Aunt Diane for lunch at a diner in her neighborhood. She still lives in the same apartment on the Upper West Side, the apartment I have been visiting since I was a child. Uncle Paul died a number of years ago. She walks slowly with a cane. We sat in a booth and chatted. We talked briefly about her health status; she has a number of medical issues, as any 86 year-old would. But mostly we talked about other things, she told us stories of her visit to Israel with Paul in the 1950s. She invited us to join her that afternoon to see a movie, A Tale of Love and Darkness, based on the book by the same name by Amos Oz. She was meeting a friend to see the movie at 3:00. We would have loved to go, if only we didn’t have another commitment (which we really did, and we really would have preferred to blow off).
It was a lovely visit. I saw my father in her eyes while we sat in that booth, especially how they crinkle up when she laughs. I am grateful I get to see them still.