Monday, November 9, 2009

My Great-Aunt Minnie

I’ve been thinking a lot about my Great-Aunt. I’ve been meaning to write about her ever since starting this blog, as I mentioned in this post (I gave my great-aunt a water buffalo.), but for some reason I never have. She’s now 95 years old and sadly, her health is finally fading and she won’t be around much longer. Maybe this is a good thing, in a way– it must be hard to live so long and feel the pain of losing so many people before your own time comes. My Dad was her nephew and I’m sure she never thought she’d outlive him. But she’s never lost her strong spirit, and she’s actually been a great financial role model in many ways.

Minnie has always been a great aunt, and a great great-aunt, probably because she never had kids of her own and never married. (Perhaps she was discouraged from doing so by seeing her sister pop out six babies in ten years!)

Minnie would have been referred to as a “career girl” in her youth. After graduating from high school, she started working. I don’t know the full details of her early jobs, but I assume they must have been more or less secretarial, as that would have been the norm for that era. At some point she must have shown that she was very capable and not on the marriage track, so she started to be given more responsibility. I remember her telling me she’d worked for a large corporation in the 1940s and was sent to live in New York for several months to set up a new office there. She spent the last 25 or so years of her career working her way up to the position she held until she retired, a very prestigious job that she was the first woman to hold.
I remember visiting her in that office when I was about 8 years old. Minnie always dressed very casually when I’d see her on the weekends, so it was funny to see her wearing a formal skirt suit, with rea! ding glasses on a gold chain around her neck, and I was very impressed to see her doing these important, business-y looking things. Everyone in the office called her “Miss B.” rather than using her full last name. This was back in the days when people tended not to call the boss by his or her first name, so this was actually quite informal, but I think Minnie was the type who could allow that kind of cheekiness while still seeming very authoritative! She is a very warm person, always cheerful and easy-going, but she has a certain sporty toughness about her too– she always used to like to pretend we were boxing right before she’d grab me into a big hug.

I didn’t think much about it at the time, but in retrospect, I think it was quite important to me to see a woman running things as someone’s boss. She wasn’t anyone’s mother, she wasn’t a teacher or a nurse or a doctor or a store cashier– I came of age at a time when women already had a lot more options for careers, but other than Minnie, I wasn’t close to anyone who went beyond those roles.

Though Minnie worked hard, she never let the job become her life. She had a group of friends she would take vacations with, spending a week each summer at the beach and traveling all over the world, always bringing back little souvenirs, some of which I still have. She always loved sports, and used to swim and play tennis and golf, and I remember her being really good at bowling too! She also went to Red Sox games and got tickets to the Olympics a few times. Every other weekend, she’d be at my grandmother’s house when my family visited, and every Christmas, she’d be have to be dragged out of the kitchen and forced to eat instead of serving everyone else. She moved back in with her elderly parents to take care of them at the end of their lives, and ended up staying in that apartment, which was rented, until a few years ago. I sometimes wonder why she never bought a house or a condo, but I suspect there was so much history there that she never wanted to mo! ve, and the rent was quite low. The apartment was full of things that my great-grandparents had owned, including a few items I now have in my own home, like a little handmade stool, and an old Saltine cracker tin.

Minnie, of course, grew up during the Depression and like so many others, never lost that frugal mentality. I have no idea what her salary ever was or how she might have invested, but she retired with a pension and I know she must have saved quite a bit of money. Every birthday and Christmas, I’d get $20 or $25 from her, as my many cousins must also have, and I know she gave my father and his sisters larger amounts. When I was in college, I remember her taking me aside once just to give me a $10 bill, “for some pizza,” she said. And another time, when I’d gotten a $75 speeding ticket on my way to visit her and my grandmother, she again cornered me secretly to give me the money to pay the ticket– not that she wanted to encourage me speeding, and not that she was ever the type to spoil anyone– I guess just because it made her happy to do odd little things like that when you wouldn’t expect it.

About 10 years ago, Minnie moved in with my grandmother, and one of my aunts moved in with them. After my grandmother died, her house was sold and my aunts helped Minnie find an assisted living facility. At first, she didn’t want to do it– she was still quite spry and she was horrified at how expensive assisted living was. But as she herself admitted, she was “deaf as a haddock,” and she didn’t want to become a burden to anyone, so she ended up moving to a lovely community where she dove into every activity that was offered: shopping trips, lectures, concerts, fitness classes… Even a few weeks ago she was still going to tai chi regularly because she knew the instructor would be disappointed if she didn’t show up. And here’s another thing one of my aunts told me: Minnie recently said that maybe this coming year, she’d finally give up doing her own taxes and have her lawyer do them instead!

As I grew older, Minnie was always interested in my progress. She was very proud of me when I started to work, and when I got my first business card, she was thrilled when I gave her one. Every time I’ve gotten a new card since, I’ve always given her one. She has always been far more interested in my career than my own parents, and now that I know her time is limited, I find myself wishing I could reach one more big career milestone, just so I could tell her about it. She also has loved hearing about my travels, and whenever I see a sporting event, I tell her about it– she’s even quite tolerant of my having turned into a Yankees fan! In our family, I am pretty much the only female of my generation who followed in her footsteps as the single “career girl” and it’s become a bond between us, something I feel very lucky to have had.


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