Today is my Aunt Gladys’ third yartzheit—the anniversary of her death on the Jewish calendar. I miss her because she was funny. I miss her because she looked so much like my grandmother. But mostly I miss her because I love her. She would have been 97 this past October and one of the last things she said to me was, “I’m not sure who you are, but I know I love you.”
A few years back my aunt gave me a life-size portrait of herself. She was packing up her condominium to move into senior housing. She had been widowed for several years and one day the condo became just too big, too daunting for her to maintain it. There were too many stairs. And there was too much of everything in it. Furniture, paintings, dishes. So much memory-laden stuff strewn about can be exhausting.
Aunt Gladys decided enough was enough and she sent everything off to be auctioned. I asked her if the portrait was for sale too. It was. I made an offer. Instead she tried to buy me out with a pair of grape shears—silver inlaid with the fruit of the vine. These were the same shears she wrapped my knuckles with when I tore the grapes off their miniature branches with my hands forty years ago. Back then I was pegged as my mother’s daughter—a loud, fibbing, heart-on-her-sleeve wearing mini-me. My father’s family was proper, fancy. Aunt Gladys had a housekeeper, a grand piano and leather furniture in her den.
Aunt Gladys’ portrait hung for years in the living room of her stately home in New Haven, Connecticut. In its gilded frame, the painting looked like John Singer Sargent had had a formidable hand in its creation. A portrait light illuminated the picture.
A friend once told me that she thought painting or photographing someone was morbid. She refused to own a camera. I’d think about her comment when I visited Aunt Gladys and snapped her picture with my children. I worried that she thought I took the pictures because it was my last chance to have her huddle with my kids. Maybe that was my intention, but I can’t say for sure.
Another find from the condo move was the treasure trove of black and white photos. My aunt, so young and pretty. Young women in old photographs are always beautiful. My daughter, 11 at the time, stared at the pictures, trying to reconcile the Aunt Gladys before her with the Gladys Bolton in the pictures.
Aunt Gladys told me that the summer she sat for the portrait it was very hot and she was very cross. She was also newly married and the last thing she wanted to do was to sit still for a month. But her mother, my grandmother, insisted. And so the portrait was painted. I love that my daughter heard the story directly from my aunt.
Intergenerational relationships are essential to me. Aunt Gladys was also a direct link to my father who died several years before her. She told my kids that their grandfather was her goofy kid brother who had a genius for trivia and numbers. She also told them how much my father and I looked alike.
I’ve stored the portrait in my attic. Her children and grandchildren didn’t have space for the picture. My cousin said that I was the best person to keep it for now. Aunt Gladys said that she was glad I had the portrait. When she gave it to me she wished aloud that I would give it to one of my children someday. Maybe they won’t exactly remember who Aunt Gladys was, but they’ll sense that they loved her.