Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Aunt Carol

When one thinks of the typical family, and you begin to picture what an "aunt" looks like, one might picture floral couches, a female version of your father, with a similar lifestyle. Or a kooky, eccentric version of your parent. For my generation, your father's older sister might bring up images of a lady, wearing dresses, gardening, etc.

As a child, when I would talk with classmates about my visits to Aunt Carol's house, I'd describe the barbeque Uncle Elliot would make, how my parents would joke and tease that the meat was overcooked, though I liked it, playing with some of the other nieces and nephews in the backyard - wiffle ball was a favorite, with one of my golden retriever cousins chasing the ball, and Aunt Carol's strawberry rhubarb pies made with rhubarb grown in her own garden.

And then I would talk about the piece she had made that was a collage of homemade paper, string, rusty wires and her dog's tooth that looked like a shriveled human heart. Or the sky-high black paper sails she constructed made out of her homemade paper. Or the frustration my father felt when he learned she had cut apart original family photographs again for a collage. Or the trip to NYC to the art gallery to see her uncharacteristically sleek sculpture that looked like a pyramid with geometric shapes hollowed into it, but were really painted illusions.

My Aunt Carol was an artist. She was a contemporary artist. She was talented beyond description. She had an obsession with morbidity that I dug as early as I can remember. And my father was oblivious to said obsession until, not that long ago, I asked Aunt Carol why she was obsessed with death, and my dad said, "No, she's not," and Aunt Carol and I answered, "Yes, she (I) is (am)," in unison.

15 years ago or so, Aunt Carol survived breast cancer. I thought she was amazing.

Aunt Carol and Uncle Elliot didn't have any children of their own. Instead, they had golden retrievers. One at a time. They were my cousins. It isn't that they didn't like children - they did - from afar. But Aunt Carol seemed to dig me. I was a child just like any other, but being around her and Uncle Elliot, and around her work, I somehow instinctively connected and "knew my place." Immaturity was left at the end of the driveway after the long drive down to Califon. My parents never had to remind me to "be on my best behavior." I didn't have to be told.

"Colonial elegance" comes to mind when trying to describe their home. I imagine their home is what it would be like if an artist living in SoHo inherited their grandmother's fully-furnished farmhouse and decided to move in. From the exterior, it's a charming, red country home, with a stepped garden. And when you enter, at first, it looks like a dark, wooden framed farm home as one would expect to find in Califon. But as you venture further in, behind the quaint, cushy "aunt-like" sofa, hangs the earlier mentioned collage reminiscent of a human heart, with hairs woven into the paper cluster. In the dining room, with an innocently patterned wall paper, sits a bassinet, an antique bassinet that has an eerie look about it. It looks too antique to be "normal."

Climbing the staircase by the innocent yellow guest bathroom, you would expect to walk into a storage room. Instead, usually at the end of our visits, Aunt Carol would lead me and my father into her vast, white studio, to show us her latest pieces - finished and in process. Aunt Carol, for some time, would have to get regular tetanus shots, as her work led her to local dumpsites to retrieve the heaviest, rustiest, gnarliest pieces of wire and metal. She and Uncle Elliot had to have the side of her studio above the garage cut open, and have barn doors and a hoist installed because Aunt Carol's art drove her to construct work that was simply impossible to get out of the house without the need of serious equipment and being hauled out of the side of the house.

Of course, she and my father were Jewish, and I recall them coming to a seder once, but she and Uncle Elliot weren't "overtly" Jewish in their presentation. I honestly don't know what their worship or observance was like, and while they had travelled all over the world, it wasn't until after I'd visited Israel for the last time that they went to Israel. This surprised me, as my father, mother and I had gone multiple times. But I would tell Aunt Carol all the time to go. When she surprised me with sending spending money while I was there, I wrote her letters and postcards about what she was missing.

So imagine my surprise when I learned that her last major collection, which started several years ago, was centered around the Holocaust. She began with collages, which led into collections of poetry and her pieces and she created art books - some of which are now housed at the world's most renowned Holocaust museums, including Yad VaShem. Those pieces then led to stone engravings, where she had to engage tombstone makers to be able to etch her work into the stone.

I facepalmed myself when I heard she decided to bring one of the artbooks and lecture at Oberlin College - after I'd graduated, and after the fact! I called her and said, "Aunt Carol! Why didn't you tell me! I'd have visited campus!" and she replied, "It wasn't that big a deal. No biggie."

But that was typical of Aunt Carol. Nothing ever seemed to phase her. She had a reserve about her. She wasn't uptight in the least- she was very relaxed. You knew you were speaking to a lady, so she wasn't crass, but she was relaxed. Aunt Carol had a lovely laugh and sweet voice, when you were blessed to see that break in her usual friendly, but poised conversation.

My dad brought that out in her the most. Dad could bring that childlike twinkle to her eye. He could make her giggle. I don't even know if he meant to do that. Being her younger brother, it was natural. Underneath the grey-speckled bangs, was the face of a 12-year old observing her goofy, baby brother. I even witnessed the occasional eyeroll as she would say, "Oh, Richard."

I loved my Aunt Carol. Seeing her was such a treat. She was so uber cool. I remember, when I was more actively studying art in high school, she kept pestering Dad to take me to the Guggenheim. My dad isn't exactly a big modern art buff, a trait she couldn't tolerate. We'd go to see her joint exhibits, and we spent half the time teasing the work of her peers (quietly, of course. I thought it was for my benefit, but looking back, it was likely to ensure Aunt Carol didn't scold him later). Finally, Dad gave in, and we went to the Guggenheim. In retrospect, we probably should have looked up who the featured artist was, because, let me tell you, it was an exhibit that embodied everything he and I loathed about contemporary art. Just approaching the Guggenheim, the taxidermied reptile and neon lights sketching out the Fibonacci series along the side of the building prompted us to stop, stare blankly, look at each other, and bust out laughing. Aunt Carol would have been utterly horrified and beside herself had she been a fly on the wall as my father and I cracked jokes about how stupid the stuffed desert critters with florescent numbers shooting out of their butts were, with the crowning jewels of the exhibit being a faucet stuck into a wall called "Mother" and a room full of huge wire igloo-domes made out of what looked like sheets of earwax and dripping snot.

While my father and I probably never laughed so hard for so long, my Aunt Carol was not amused when we recounted the day over the phone. I know I heard her yell, "Richard!" a few times over the phone while she gave my dad an earful. Hence, when I got the phone, I feigned interest and waxed philosophical with her, impressing her with my maturity, while I stuck my tongue out at my dad.

I suspect that's why Aunt Carol seemed to like me, even though I was a kid. I knew how not to act like one around her - sometimes, even at my father's expense.

There is nothing twinkling, or charming about today, though. Early this morning, around 6:15, I had a sinking feeling in my heart. I posted on Facebook for friends to pray for Aunt Carol, as last night I learned she only had days left in her battle against pancreatic cancer. I was just about to start baking cookies and cakes for her (if she could eat - which she couldn't on Sunday when my parents went to visit), my Uncle Elliot, and my parents. The phone rang, just as my daughter went to catch her bus. I knew. I knew that I wasn't going to Califon today. And, just hearing my father's voice, he didn't have to say a thing. I knew.

Aunt Carol ran out of time today.

There will never be a slice of her rhubarb pies anymore. I'll never hear stories about what my father was like as a kid, and the trouble he'd get into with his Aunt Bettina. I'll never have the chance to collaborate on a piece with her, and my daughter. My daughter, who only met her once this past year, who fell in love with her, will never develop the relationship she wanted with my aunt. She'll never have the chance to share artwork she did based on photographs Aunt Carol sent her with her mentor. I'll never be able to ask her why she was so obsessed with death, and how she made her paper. She'll never smile when I present her with another candy mold to add to her collection.

And I'll never see the twinkle in her eye, and her smile again.

But now, I have to see my father, who lost his big sister. Whose only blood relatives, other than me and the kids, are now gone. I'll have to see a man who turned into a boy whenever he was in her presence, and I'm terrified of seeing the loss in his eyes. I fear the twinkle that they both shared will be dimmer now. My heart aches for a man that I love so much and I cannot imagine what he's feeling right now.

And then I think about my Uncle Elliot. He's alone in that house that he built with Aunt Carol with my latest golden retriever cousin. He had to watch her fade. He's so far away, we can't just stop in and bring him muffins, or check in, or spend time with him with ease. He spent so many years with her - how is he going to be?

My only consolation is that I know the past few weeks were so unpleasant for her. At last, she's at peace.

Pray that the rest of us can find peace in her passing, now. Pray for my father. For my Uncle Elliot.

Gosh, I'll miss her strawberry rhubarb pie.

To view her work, please go to http://carolrosen.net/