Note: I wrote and posted a piece about my Aunt Diane in September of 2016, not long after I started this blog. I have updated and edited that essay in her memory. She died Monday, April 25, 2022. She was 92. She joins her sister, Clair, who passed away this past November, and her brother, my dad, Barry, who died 17 years ago, in the unknowable great beyond. They were each unique and important to me and I miss all three.
When we met at the burial site for Aunt Diane this past Wednesday, the rabbi told us that death takes us all, no one is spared. He went on to say that the ritual of gathering at the cemetery reminds us to recommit to living life meaningfully. He told us that we were fortunate to be able to leave that afternoon though Diane could not– we should make the most of the time we have. He urged us not to waste it. I stood in the chill wind, somehow it is always colder and windier at cemeteries, I took in the huge expanse of grave markers as far as my eye could see, and I understood the truth of his words.
It’s funny how I hadn’t noticed it before – the likeness around the eyes. The line of the brow. The particular shade of blue, flecked with gray. The first time I saw Aunt Diane after my father died, the likeness unnerved me. During subsequent visits it comforted me. I felt like I got two-for-one: a visit with Dad, too.
My father was the middle child, one sister (Diane) three years older and another sister (Clair) two and a half years younger. They were three of the smartest people I have ever known. It’s kind of amazing that three siblings could each be so sharp. They had different personalities to be sure, but they shared incisiveness, a capacity for insight and intelligence that was as impressive as it 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 (Dad was born in 1932), the son was the prince. 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.
Visual evidence of the family dynamic: photo taken at my dad’s bar mitzvah in 1945: Diane (16 years old) seated in front, (l-r): Clair (10 years old), Selma (my grandmother), Leo (my grandfather), Barry (my dad, age 13).
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 ophthalmologist she recommended, when I was 5 years old and again when I was 21.
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. Dad and Uncle Paul had different sensibilities, they didn’t share interests or humor. They each liked to laugh, but not at the same things. 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 in that building, but since it wasn’t ready, Aunt Diane and Uncle Paul offered to let me stay with them to spare me a 90 minute commute (each way!) 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! I learned about her history, about the challenges of going to medical school as a Jewish woman in the early 1950’s where she faced both anti-Semitism and misogyny. 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 (Queens), 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, her patients were mostly children of immigrants. 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 an adult fully aware of the implications of that decision, I admire it even more.
After Uncle Paul died in 2010, when Gary and I were in Manhattan, we would sometimes meet Aunt Diane for a meal, often at the diner in her neighborhood. She still lived in the same apartment she shared with Paul on the Upper West Side, the same apartment I stayed in back in 1980, and the same one I visited when I was a child. We met her as she walked ever so slowly with a cane, making her way down Broadway. We took a booth at the Metro Diner and chatted. We talked briefly about her health status; she had medical issues, as any octogenarian would. But mostly we talked about other things, she told us stories of her adventures in Israel with Paul in the 1950s. She asked us questions about our lives, discussed advances in medicine with Gary. As one of those meals concluded, she invited us to join her 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 have – her offer was much more appealing!).
Those meals became less frequent as time went on and Aunt Diane’s mobility and cognition declined. I will continue to think back on them, though, particularly whenever Gary and I go to that diner. I saw my father in her eyes while we sat in that booth, especially how they crinkled up when she laughed. I am grateful I got to see them for as long as I did, but also so sad that I will see them no more, a connection to my dad extinguished. I will miss Aunt Diane’s wisdom, her stories, and insights. Her memory is surely a blessing.
Dad with his sisters