My Aunt Gail


Today my father called me to let me know that my aunt, my mother’s sister and only relative from that side of the family that we had any remaining connection to, passed away.

My aunt Gail was the younger sister, and they grew up in what I believe to be relative poverty at the time. My mother and Gail would occasionally mention how little they had when they were kids; my mother told us that they used to make, deconstruct, and re-make their doll clothes because they couldn’t get newer ones. I guess when the level of resources hits a person in the doll clothes budget, then you could say that financially, things could be better.

When I was younger, though, I had no idea of any of this. She lived on the middle floor of a three story apartment building in Pawtucket, RI. Her cousin’s family lived above her, and her cousin’s parents lived below her. Oddly enough, my father’s aunt Lillian lived with her, and for a while, my grandmother on my mother’s side lived with them as well, until she passed. my mother’s father had died early of a heart attack — he was a truck driver and didn’t have the best of diets as a result; he died on Christmas Eve, at a diner, away from his family

We would visit the relatives in RI frequently when I was a kid, because my other grandparents lived down there as well. My brother and I would split where we’d stay, with one of us staying with our father’s family and the other staying with our mother and Gail. We liked staying with our father because his mother was a great cook, but we would spend most of the days at Gail’s during the summer because they had a pool there, and we would swim with our cousins Kara and Erin. We would spend all day outside, back before I hated the outside for its sun and bugs and fresh air.

When I was old enough to understand, I understood that Gail had worked for a company called Dutchmaid, which was a clothing manufacturer — a connection which I’d never made until right this very second — and wholesaler. She was a regional director or somesuch; she was important in the organization, and apparently made a good living. She had a timeshare condo in the 80’s, and pretty much all of the vacations I went on I went on because of her. We went to the White Mountains and Cape Cod, and the only time I went to Florida before I was financially self-sufficient was because we went with Aunt Gail.

She was a very personable person. She had no problems talking with others and maybe had a problem not being the center of attention. When she worked for Dutchmaid she would organize fashion shows for retailers and buyers, and on more than one occasion my brother and my cousins and I would walk the runway and model the children’s clothes. Yes, I was a male model. When she was older and moved into an assisted living facility, she always had her door open and her apartment became the de facto hub, and she the de facto problem-solver. People would come to her for help with their geriatric paperwork or just to talk about their situations.

Gail was also strong willed, which was often times a problem. She got into a feud with my father’s sister which resulted in them not speaking for years. At some point, she also got into a feud with her cousin, the one who had lived above her, and I don’t think they ever reconciled. My mother’s side of the family is apparently all like this.

Sadly, after my mother passed we didn’t go to visit Gail much. We did at first, because she sometimes needed us to move furniture or assemble something. When my daughter was born Gail loved to see her, so that was also an excuse. But over time we noticed weird things. Gail’s apartment was small, yet she never seemed to get rid of anything. Every visit centered around re-orienting her stuff so she could move around the place, which was already difficult for her because for as long as I had known her, Gail had always been morbidly obese. In her later years she was having a hard time getting around at all, which certainly didn’t help her situation.

We learned that at some point that Gail was broke. At first, we didn’t know how this was possible, but we quickly learned that she had fallen victim to a scammer who promised her a return on her cash investments, cars, and other wonderful things which never materialized. With her health deteriorating and her savings and investments tapped out, she was forced to move out of her apartment, and at that point…we lost track of her.

My father had been listed as her executor, but he abdicated the responsibility and put it onto a more distant relative who lived close to where we expected she ended up. I don’t think that my father and Gail ever completely saw eye to eye, and you know how the elderly can be about people that they like, sometimes. We got updates here and that Gail was in a new facility, and then a hospital, and then “missing”, and then at another hospital. We hadn’t seen her in years, and I suppose we’d consigned ourselves to the fact that we’d never get around to seeing her again.

We dropped the ball in the worst way, I feel. I had selfish concerns, with a family and responsibilities of my own. Like my father and my brother, I felt that I didn’t want to put myself in a position where I’d be “on the hook”, especially if there were financial obligations that could circuitously find their way to the doorstep of whoever accepted responsibility for her.

This was a case of out of sight, out of mind because although we received occasional updates and even asked my father about her status, we never factored into the equation that, based on the current trajectory, she would pass on and we’d have done nothing in the interim. We abandoned her to die alone. We suspect that in the past few years she was suffering from dementia, and it’s a pathetic excuse to think that she might not have known we were there or who we were anyway. That doesn’t make anything right.

We let Gail down, and I feel that we’ve let my mother down as well. Gail took excellent care of us and always shared what she had with us. We didn’t grow up as poor as she had, and whether or not her good fortune was a driver behind her personal success, I don’t know; I do know, however, that she didn’t want to selfishly keep it to herself, and her generosity helped me to have a pretty good childhood.