My aunt died. The ChickieNob was using my phone to watch a movie when my cousin texted me the news, and it came through on the screen. I heard her start screaming and then crying, and she ran into my room, trying to tell me something, but she couldn’t get the words out. I knew she had been watching Lord of the Rings, and I had this crazy idea that she was sobbing because Boromir had died. And I told her, “you’ve seen him die a hundred times. Why is this time different?” But it wasn’t Boromir.
Once I understood, I brought her into the rocking chair and held her for a half hour. In the quiet, I felt my heart crack open in my chest, like an egg that had been roughly smashed against the side of a bowl to splinter the shell. It felt like hands were reaching it and scooping out the yolk forcefully, instead of letting it drip out by its own accord. I felt hollowed. Scattered.
I spent the rest of the afternoon on the phone with my mother and cousins and Josh, sending emails, trying to untangle ourselves for the next few days so we could go to the funeral. I made the crepes I planned for dinner. I drank tea. It didn’t feel real, this untethering. She was the last of my grandmother’s sisters.
The ChickieNob is a little magpie. She collects things; tangible objects that she keeps in bins in her closet, but also stories, photographs, information. She notices everything. She remembers everything. She picks up all the little bits that others leave behind.
She had the forethought to collect my aunt’s stories last spring for an hour. As my aunt looked at the family tree, she told us stories about growing up and meeting her husband and getting engaged and becoming a mother. A few weeks ago, I sent the recording to her sons, and listened to it in full for the first time since we recorded it. In the moment, I felt like I had all the questions I could come up with answered, but what about all the ones that would pop up after the fact? The stories I’d half remember and want to ask her about? She was the only person I could ask who could tell me about my grandmother’s childhood.
I just wanted more. More time. More chances to talk to her.
When I was little, there were three generations above me. And from the time I was the twins’ age until this week, there were two generations. And now there is only one generation above me. The queue is always moving.
My aunt was a fellow mother of twins. When we first found out that we were having twins, I called her from my kitchen, my mother sitting next to me. “Twins!” she screamed into the phone. “Twins are the best.” She was an effusive twin mum, who promised me that I would get through those early years because we all get through those early years even when it feels — in the moment — as if we won’t. And she was right. We got through the early years with the help of my parents just as she got through the early years of her twins with the help of her parents.
My great-grandmother — her mother — used to say, “two is not one.” A simple phrase, not very profound on the surface, but it’s something my aunt gave me while the twins were still gestating that I repeat to myself sometimes when I’m doing things in duplicate. One is not two, and two is not one. I shouldn’t look at twin parenting in the same way one looks at singleton parenting. It’s its own entity, and she gave me permission — no, she gave me an order — to always remember that and to treat what I have accordingly. And it’s served me well, both in getting me through a hard night with two babies crying as I think that two indeed is not one, and it’s gotten me through some sensitive spots when I think about how I need to navigate two unique individual’s feelings.
My aunt sometimes lied to me about the vegetarian state of a dish. The women in my family have a difficult time admitting that chicken stock is from an animal. She didn’t agree with all of my life choices. But she was kind and she loved me. She always took me in when I needed a space.
Before she had her own granddaughters, and she would beg me to wear dresses, to let her play with my hair. One night, when we were little, my sister and I were sleeping over at her house, and after I had been in bed for a bit, she came in the room and woke me up, whispering, “do you want me to brush your hair?” I didn’t want her to brush my hair — you don’t brush curly, Mediterranean hair. I mean, really, I don’t own a brush. But my mother had told me to let her brush my hair because it meant so much to her. So I sat up in the dark and let her brush my hair. It was probably only 9 pm, but it was dark out, and to a child, that is the middle of the night. So she brushed my hair, telling me that she was making it perfect for the next day. Then she put me back to sleep with my halo of hair that now resembled the texture of shredded wheat.
I realized after it was too late this week that I never got to tell her that I now understood that moment; that while it was different — the longing for a child vs. the longing for a female child — I understood what it was like to borrow someone for a moment; to pretend for a few minutes that they are your very own. That I’ve often thought about my tangle of hair in her brush, especially when I need the kids and slip into their room after bedtime to see if they’re still awake.
I’m glad that she got daughters in the women her sons married. She had so many female grandchildren by the time everyone was done building their families. But I wish I had told her that I remembered the hair brushing; when she gathered my hair in a low ponytail and tugged my thick hair through the teeth.
I am obviously writing this for me since you don’t know my aunt. But if the world feels a little off today, it’s because this person who meant so much to me is no longer in it. And it feels like everything is shifting; like the ground in an earthquake. My family, shaking out, learning their new roles, their new places.