Although I appreciated her while she was alive, I failed to grasp how much she sacrificed for me and contributed to my life until only very recently.
As I have said previously, Aunt Betty raised me (and even decided that I would be called “Jamie”) and acted essentially as both my mother and father — particularly as I got older. She was the rock on which I leaned and the person with whom I confided my most awkward, embarrassing, private and, more often than not, mediocre musings. Although she had cancer for six months, until she actually died, I could not grasp even the possibility of her leaving me — and even now, more than a year later, I am still frustrated that I cannot pick up a phone and call her. Perhaps that is why she continues to be at the top of my iPhone favorites list.
Without Aunt Betty, I would be a very different person. Quinnipiac works diligently to help elementary, middle and high school students see themselves in college. Everyone from education students to deans at the university have told me on a number of separate occasions that the significance of such cannot be overstated. From day one, Aunt Betty had me thinking about and working toward college. Not earning my bachelor’s degree was never an option. Every assignment from as far back as second grade was in preparation for such, she would tell me.
She worked diligently to read every essay and paper I wrote for as long as I could write. She managed to decipher my chicken scratch and massage my ego enough to convince me that not every word I jotted down as God’s gift to humanity — and made me a stronger writer as a result. She gave me the confidence to apply for an internship intended for high school seniors as a high school freshman and persuaded me to go back after my editor picked apart the first newsbrief I constructed; being an arrogant, all-knowing 13-year-old, I wanted to quit on the first day. She held me in her arms as my ego bled and encouraged me to try again and work harder — and promised with effort, I would get better. She was, like in so many other instances, right.
I miss her gentle tone and generous words.
Without Aunt Betty, I likely would not have gone to Quinnipiac — or, for that matter, Fairfield Prep. Who knows if I would have even graduated high school. Education was never a priority for my parents in the same way that it was for her. Aunt Betty supported her encouragement with her wallet and financed my entire private high school education and as much of my college experience as she could — including the books. She viewed such expenses as a necessary investment in my future and would not even consider me taking out any more loans than I had to. She gave up her plans of spending her retirement traveling the world to take care of my brother and me. What a sacrifice!
I grew up in Aunt Betty’s house. She was my personal Santa. Sans the red suit, she ensured I got everything I ever wanted. Perhaps it was because she was born but four months before the Wall Street crash triggering the Great Depression and was the daughter of immigrants, she spoiled me and did everything she could to ensure I was happy. She was very successful in that. I never wanted for anything — and, in fact, my only regret is not appreciating her for all she gave me while she was still alive.
She also introduced me to music and the arts. For as long as I could remember, she would discuss both fine and modern arts with me — and attempted in vein to get me to be able to draw. As I got older, one of the ways I enjoyed giving back was taking her to the New York Ballet and New York Philharmonic several times each year. She was particularly excited to hear pieces written by Rachmaninoff — or see really any ballet. She glowed like a child on Christmas morning every time we would reach Lincoln Center. She beamed as we would explore the Met or peruse MoMA. Boy, do I miss those moments.
Before each performance, we would try to take in the moment over a glass of white wine at a small restaurant in Avery Fisher Hall. We’d hypothesize about where the other patrons were from and what they did. She would get particular pleasure from seeing young children enjoying the concerts.
Aunt Betty was also my guardian angel even when she lived.
When I was young and my parents were together, my mother and father would often fight ferociously. She would always pull me aside, give them a very pointed glare as if to remind them I was there and then try to make things as normal for me as possible. Aunt Betty always put my brother, Daniel, and me first. My parents tended to be more concerned with themselves — particularly when it came to new relationships. Despite that, she would encourage me to treat my parents with their due respect and try to give them the benefit of every doubt. She led by example and was a better, more patient person than I ever could hope to be.
Although Aunt Betty may not have bore me (or any child, for that matter), she was as much the parent of my brother and I as our own parents — if not more. When her older sister, my grandmother, needed a place to stay after a painful divorce, Aunt Betty took her in. My aunt demonstrated repeatedly that we are not to judge others; we are to rather help them. Thankfully, because she encourage my grandmother to move in with her a few years before I was born, I was able to have another strong and loving influence in my life — and, as a result, a very happy childhood.
It’s fitting that the people she enabled me to meet — at Fairfield Prep, Quinnipiac and the Connecticut Post — are now the majority of the people holding my metaphorical hand through this still difficult healing process.
All of this has taught me a few very valuable and important lessons:
- Life is short. Yes, it’s cliche, but also very true — and something often not appreciated until tragedy rears its ugly head. Value as many moments as you can as you never know if the people or opportunities will be there in your next breath.
- Recognize the small things in life. They will lead you down the path toward the bigger revelations, which brings me to my next point…
- Say “thank you” often, and mean it. I wish I had recognized how much Aunt Betty had done for me while she was still sitting on the couch next to me so I could look her in the eye and say “Thank you” — and not only in response to specific things, but for everything.
- Prioritize. I put work before my personal life for too long, which she warned me about and I ignored. I worked feverishly to get ahead — often more than 100 hours a week between various responsibilities to the sacrifice of my personal relationships. If I could do it all over again, I would have worked substantially less, and spent substantially more time with my family and friends — especially after I discovered she had cancer.
- Don’t put things off. I wish I did more with her. I don’t have anyone to blame but myself for not going to New York with her more — or to the casinos; she loved slot machines, particularly at Mohegan Sun.
- Value the quiet moments. Aunt Betty would often encourage me to not always do, but enjoy. She loved sitting on her covered porch and watch the birds — but I never appreciated those moments. I would always, as she put it, “have to do.” I would give anything to have an afternoon to sit next to her on the porch just enjoying her company.
Fortunately I am still young and am realizing these lessons while I can still make positive impacts on other relationships in my life. I suppose it’s just another lesson she managed to offer.
Leave it to Aunt Betty to get in one more.