“Oh, how is she doing?”
“Well, she and The Doctor are headed off on some cruise again.”
Growing up, my great-aunt Marie was a shadowy, mysterious glamour figure in my life. All I knew was that my grandmother and great-aunts envied both her beauty and her money. She was the eldest of my grandfather’s 9 siblings, and the only one to have moved away from our little corner of New York state – all the way to exotic northern California! Occasionally a present for me would arrive, accompanied by a scented note in Aunt Marie’s spidery handwriting. When I’d ask about it, my mother said presents came because my grandfather was Marie’s favorite baby brother.
What no one spoke about was that Marie and Pops (eldest daughter and youngest son) were the only two siblings who had broken out of their lower middle-class upbringing. They’d taken very different, gender-based paths to success. My grandfather worked hard to slowly rise up the corporate ladder. Marie “married up.” As a young woman, she worked in our new hospital and caught the eye of one of the founding doctors. I learned later that it was quite the scandal at the time, the rich older doctor leaving his wife to marry the beautiful girl from the other side of the tracks. Such a scandal, in fact, that when The Doctor was offered a job in Oakland, he took it and away they went. This left the rest of the family to imagine Marie in her furs, living a life of luxury with a wealthy man 20 years her senior.
As a young woman, I found out. I was accepted to a graduate program at Holy Names College in Oakland, California. I went to meet the famous Aunt Marie. At this point, she was in her 90s, childless, and The Doctor was long ago deceased. I had no idea what I would find. Expecting a mansion, I was shocked when the taxi pulled up in a shabby neighborhood of small 1920s one-story bungalows. Was I in the right place?
I was indeed, and Marie was delightful. She made us tea and regaled me with stories of her many travels with The Doctor. They’d done very well for their day, but the picture of flaunted wealth my grandmother had painted was clearly not true. They’d lived in this little house since it was built. Sadly, drugs were changing Marie’s neighborhood for the worse. She was fearful, but she had good neighbors who remained to take care of her. I visited her several times during the year I lived there, and it was always the same – the frail, birdlike woman who had married for love and moved away to create a new life, happily sharing stories and tea with her great-niece from afar.