A few weeks ago, my aunt died. She was my mother's elder sister and, owing to my family's complicated history, one of the few members of the extended family to which we were all genuinely close. Like my mother, she was a proud, force of nature of a women. Based, in part, on the fact that like my mother, she was more or less on her own from a young age.
My mother's mother was born in 1900. She died six months after my birth. My mother was the youngest of all her cousins (on her father's side, she had six aunts and uncles, so there were many cousins). And I, born 83 years after my grandmother, am the youngest of her grandchildren. My eldest cousin is more than 20 years older than me. My mother's cousins (those she was still close with) were grandparent aged to me. I saw them once a year, and though our relationship was pleasant, it was never close. They were part of the holidays. And besides, when they got together with their youngest cousin, they talked of family mostly long dead, and memories long past. I learnt a lot from them about how the world had changed, and about my history, but mostly through listening to the stories they told each other.
My aunt was different. She never missed a birthday or Christmas to call us. None of us would consider going to Paris without visiting her. My mother and she did not have the easiest relationship, but they have never waivered in the affection they have shown each other's children. Perhaps sometimes, that was easier than speaking directly.
I miss my aunt dearly. And beyond her, with her passing I have lost the closest thing I ever had to a physical home in France, her holiday house in the Alsatian Vosges mountains, to which my mother always had a key. Now that I will no longer take the train to her little Paris suburb for dinner or lunch when I visit that city, it will become a little less friendly to me. I am thankful my husband got to meet her twice. I am thankful she adored him (despite the language barrier). I am thankful for the beautiful cross stitch sample she made for us, despite cancer and chemo and caring for her husband as dementia and ill health weakened him. She survived him by less than six months.
But as hard as loosing my aunt is for me, for my mother the sense of loneliness is vast. In the past years so many of her old friends have become weak and frail, have started one by one to take their leave of us. When they started weakening, my mother, who has the energy and physical fitness of a woman twenty years younger then she is, was irritated at them for not going on walks with her anymore, for no longer staying up until 2am to talk. Now she understands; she is resigned; and talks with her old friends, though more important, no longer bring levity and joy to her. She returns from trips to France drained, and needs time with her younger friends, her children and grandchildren to regain her energy.
With the loss of my aunt, only one person, a friend from Kindergarten, is left who remembers my mother's childhood. And the first five years (which for my mother were defining to her life story) are now remembered only by her. She has entered a period where, increasingly, more and more of her life can be confirmed by no one. And, as my brother points out, there is now almost no one left with whom she can speak the dialect her own grandmother (born in 1870) taught her. Strands are being cut, and my mother feels it.
Of late, she has begun to speak more of her own passing. Not in a morbid way, but in a pragmatic way. She is counting down. She knows she can no longer count on an endless bounty of more time. She senses both the urgency of doing what can still be done, and the knowledge that less is possible. In part, this is because of what is happening around her. In part, and I know my mother enough to know this, it is because of what she has read. She is preparing herself, training herself for a new phase of life. I know this because the same thought that is animating her has returned to me: the French philosopher Montaigne's famous aphorism:
"que philosopher, c'est apprendre a mourir"
"Doing philosophy, is learning to die"
To which I would add, it is also learning that others die.
With my aunt's passing, and my mother's words and stories, a new presence enters my life: the Moirai, the three sisters of Greek mythology. In the past, they have visited suddenly, and departed. But now I see they are here to stay. They are in my house, and it does not do to deny the Gods. Clotho is spinning thread more slowly, and Lachesis casts a more judicious eye on how much she draws out. And Atropos, having just used her scissors, has put them down. But they hang from her belt, always within hand's reach.
The Moirai are here, and their presence is a warning, but also a gift, in the manner of Greek gods. They are here to tell me I can no longer ignore them, and I must act accordingly in what I do.