Two weeks ago, my husband's guitar player died in a house fire. Tragic, stupid circumstances, and his surviving girlfriend (that word sounds stupid when referring to over 50s) will have to deal with the karma on this one - she woke in the middle of the night, and took off her oxygen mask to smoke a cigarette (I know, I know) and then fell asleep. Fire started, she got out, he didn't. The end. Bad story. Bad thing. Bad week for my husband and his bandmates. Chuck was a founding member of Sosumi, and these guys had been together since the 80s. There are gig pictures with weird hair and weirder clothes to prove it. My husband took it hard, and the 'memorial service' last weekend turned into a drunken weepy hugfest for the remaining band members. Extremely drunken, extremely weepy. It was a good thing for them, and helped all of us mourn the passage of a truly gifted and kind human being.
Then, my daughter calls, late, asking if I saw the message on Facebook from my cousin's daughter, Mandy. It turns out, my godmother (and first cousin) Audrey has died. She had lung cancer and stopped her oxygen this week. Done. No funeral. No family & friends celebrating her life. At least none that anyone told me about. But that's somehow right.
My mother's family was close-knit. Her mother and two sisters were always talking, visiting, having family things. They regularly saw the dozens of cousins and their assorted offspring - my grandparents had more than 2 dozen siblings between them, many surving into adulthood and spawning many immigrants to the Great Lakes - and the big family picnics at water parks were unending blurs of "you remember your cousin Peggy? Aunt Stella? Uncle Stan? little Cathy?" I didn't appreciate the closeness, the feeling that family trumps all, the standard passive-agressive conversational style, the criticism disguised as niceness, that was the core of all family get togethers, whether a simple dinner with one of the aunts (and the granparents, and the cousins, and probably the other sister and her family too, just a small family dinner for 12 or 16) or the big summer picnic for 200. I was different. I was adopted.
Audrey was different, too. She wasn't adopted, she was the eldest of her generation. The youngest sister was the first to have children, and Audrey was the first. All the other cousins of our generation fit right in to the family dynamic, following the paths laid out for them and having the same mindset as all the other family members. Audrey was different. She went away to college at OSU, majored in Chinese Studies, and moved to Taiwan for 3 years. When she returned to America, she stayed in San Fransisco, a city she fell in love with on her way to Asia. She stayed away from the family dynamic, which was toxic for anyone who disagreed with them. They knew best; they knew you better than you did; they knew what the world was like; they knew where you'd fit best in it. If you decided to make your own path, go your own way, you must be crazy. Or something. So Audrey moved halfway across the world the first chance she got.
That probably wasn't the whole reason, or even most of the reason, but that's how I see it, in mythology of my godmother. My godmother, who was also my first cousin and only 13 years older than me, was my babysitter and carer, my teacher, and my idol. She bought me my first Beatles album for my 4th birthday. She took me to all the Beatles movies the weekend they opened, until she went away to college. Her parents lived in the apartment above my dad's butcher shop (we lived behind it), so she was always there. Then we moved to Seven Hills, they moved to Warrensville, we both had nice brick ranches to live in and only saw each other on the weekends, and then only during the summer, when Audrey would come back into town. The summer before she moved to Taiwan, she taught me how to use chopsticks. The summer she came back from Taiwan, she was with a strange Austrian guy named Randy, who had long henna-ed hair, because he wanted to drive across America, and they took me to Coventry and bought me beads, and I had my first vegetarian lunch at Earth By April. It was one of the coolest days of my life.
We almost never saw each other. By adulthood, I was only doing the bare minimum of family stuff, and only because I possessed my mother's only grandchild. If I could have, I would have liked to moved across the country, or across the world, to get away from these people who loved me and only wanted the best for me, and only they could see what that was. so I should just do what they wanted. But I had other ties, other responsibilities, and I was in my 40s before I came to peace with them. In my mind. I never came to peace with them in person, because they wouldn't have that. That would be alien to their minset. That's okay. They're mostly dead, now, anyway, and I don't have to worry about accidentally insulting them through my choice of clothes, or saying the wrong thing, or just being belittled in the nicest way ever.
Note: if you are fortunate enough not to come from a family like this, and can't understand what I'm talking about, watch a few episodes of "Everybody Loves Raymond." Marie, the mother, perfectly portrayed by Doris Roberts, is like an Italian amalgam of the women in my family. You may find the show funny. I can't watch it - too many triggers. Really.
I always thought I should look up Audrey, maybe send her an email, maybe visit, something. I was always put off by my thinking that she worked so hard to stay away from the family, and made no effort to reach out to me, I should just leave her alone and let her be. So I did. The family gave me an address for her, when I got married, but I don't even know if she got the invitation. I never heard from her.
And now she's dead. I can't tell her how I appreciated that she got out, that it was possible to escape the family smothering. I can't tell her how she was one of my role models of Independent Woman, that I hoped someday to have the fascinating life I imagined she was living.
She was born and raised in Slavic Village, above a butcher shop. From there she moved to the suburbs for high school, and then to OSU. Then 3 years in Taiwan, teaching English to diplomat's children.Then to San Fransisco, where she shared a Victorian on a hill with 5 other people, and became part of the group of docents who helped researchers teach sign language to orangutans. Then she went on to being city manager in cities all over the US, from northern California to near the Atlantic shore in North Carolina, back to the Great Lakes in Michigan, where she ended up.
I hope her life was as fulfilling and exciting as I imagined. I hope she had friends and loved ones on her journey. I know she usually had dogs.
I'm going to miss her, my godmother, who was resposible for my spiritual upbringig. She gave me the Beatles, and she gave me the hope for freedom and indepence. What more could a kid ask for?