By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published February 22, 2018
She was my backup mom. I was only 29 when my mother died, and Aunt Rita stepped in as nurturer, confidante and friend.
We both loved reading books, walking on the beach, swimming in her condo pool. After my husband died, we had even more in common, since she’d been widowed twice—and helped me navigate grief.
She was active into her 90s—playing bridge, going to concerts and plays, taking water aerobics, attending Bible study classes and knitting items for family members—so I thought she’d somehow escape death and live forever.
But when the doctors put her on oxygen about a year ago, I started mentally readying myself for Aunt Rita’s death. When the news came on Feb. 7, I still found it hard to believe.
Whenever we talked about dying, she expressed anxiety—and fretted that her faith wasn’t strong enough.
I pointed out evidence to the contrary—how she attended adoration and Mass weekly, read her Bible and had her trusty rosary beads by her bedside.
When she was hospitalized for heart trouble and her roommate was undergoing a painful procedure, Aunt Rita immediately began praying for her.
To me, this showed she had a strong faith and turned to God in times of trouble.
When I was a little girl, Aunt Rita rescued me when my parents couldn’t afford to buy me a Halloween costume. Thoroughly dejected, I wandered around the house, wailing piteously.
She invited me to her closet, where we selected flowery scarves and shiny jewelry, which transformed me into a fine gypsy.
After I hit the sidewalk hard while roller skating, Aunt Rita painted a flower on my bruised knee with a bright orange antiseptic—and my screams subsided.
Like other women in our family, she had a love-hate relationship with food. She relished talking about the next surefire diet, even as she was dipping her spoon into a sumptuous dessert.
And whenever my husband, Jef, and I visited her, her first words were, “Are you hungry?”
No matter what we replied, she began unearthing food from the fridge—fruit, bagels, cream cheese, cookies—and once we’d filled our plates, another question arose.
“Is that all you’re eating?”
Once a year, there was a family reunion at her condo, where Jef became famous for preparing huge, mouthwatering salads with homemade dressing.
She couldn’t resist sneaking into the kitchen, when his back was turned, to pilfer a few toasted pecans, which he’d carefully meted out as garnish.
Over time, I’m pretty sure he caught on to her and prepared extras to account for her snitching.
She confided to me that she feared being forgotten after she died. And no matter how fervently I assured her we’d all remember her, she seemed unconvinced.
The night before her funeral, there was a video collection of family photos, and in nearly every one, she’s seen with an armful of beaming babies—her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Watching it, I thought, “Aunt Rita, you’ll always be in our hearts.”
After Christmas, she came down with pneumonia and never fully recovered. She was hospitalized multiple times, and became especially anxious about the thought of dying.
Toward the end, I prayed she’d experience a gentle death—and God graciously granted this petition.
Her daughter Julie said her mother was at peace in her final moments. Julie asked her, “Are you ready to go home and be with Jesus?”
“Yes,” she replied, without hesitation.
In my mind’s eye, I picture her and my beloved Jef together in heaven. Perhaps they’re in a celestial kitchen and she’s watching him construct one of his elaborate salads.
And because old habits die hard, I also envision Aunt Rita waiting for the precise moment when his back is turned, then sneaking into the kitchen to pilfer a few toasted pecans.
Artwork by Jef Murray. Lorraine’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.