As a child, what I remember most was that my Great-Aunt Madeline was blind. She could see a bit, but legally, she was blind. I think she could see better when she was younger, but by the time I knew her, her eyesight was extremely poor. She had red hair, and wore funny blue-tinted glasses, and she was always immaculately dressed. She was my grandfather’s sister.
She tried to teach me to knit, but I was not a very good student at the time. So, instead, she would knit beautiful things and send them to me. I was always particularly intrigued by her shoes. Even though she had to have help walking, because of her blindness, she wore the prettiest shoes, and always with heels. I also remember that she was a really great cook. She briefly lived next door to my grandparents when I was a kid, and I remember going over there for dinner a few times. It was always excellent.
My father loved Madeline, and loved to tell stories about her. His favorite story was about when she had surgery to improve her eyesight. He asked her what was the most surprising thing about being able to see. Her response kept him in stitches for years. She replied “My reflection.” He would also marvel at how she would only smoke a cigarette when she came to visit. She would ask him for one of his, and then that was it. She would not smoke another one until the next time she came to visit, and that could be a year or two.
Madeline, however, was actually my mother’s aunt. My mother remembers staying with her in Chicago when her younger sister was born, and remembers Madeline coming to visit them when she was a kid. She said they would have to go to the train station to pick her up, and that it was always very exciting. I think Mom gets a lot of her independence and spunk from Madeline.
Aunt Madeline hated Texas, and spent most of her life trying to get out of it. She had some success at that. She lived in Chicago for several years, attending modeling school while she was there. At some point she moved out to California, where she met and married Ed Coleman. She was 55 when she married for the first and only time. They were married for 19 years before he passed away, and she outlived him by another twenty years.
Madeline was a brilliant woman, and had she been born in another age, she would have been an ideal candidate for CEO of a company. Her memory was incredible, and her attention to detail was unparalleled. Even after having not been to Chicago for 30 years, she could describe the streets, buildings and landmarks as if she’d been there yesterday.
The last time I saw her was just over four years ago. She was in a nursing home down in Marble Falls, Texas. My cousin, Spencer, and I (along with my kids) went to visit her and take her to lunch. At ninety, she still looked amazing, and held herself regally, with as much dignity and poise as any queen could ever hope to achieve. We took her to lunch, then
brought her back to her room. We visited for a while, but couldn’t stay, as we were traveling. I didn’t realize that it would be the last time I ever saw her.
When my house burned down in the Summer of 2005, she called me at my mother’s house to express her concern. She wanted to help me, and told me I would need dishes, so she sent her beautiful Noritake dishes to me. She said she didn’t need them anymore, living in the nursing home, and so I could have them. I thanked her, hung up the phone, and wept. What an amazing, generous gift! She had been suffering for several years from dementia, yet she very clearly knew what had happened to me, who I was, and had figured out a way to help. I was humbled and honored beyond expression. So today, we used those dishes (instead of the plastic ones we usually use) in honor of Aunt Madeline.
Madeline passed away Saturday night, in her sleep. I loved my Aunt Madeline very much, and I feel an emptiness because she’s gone. She was my link to the past, to a world I never knew but would have loved to have been a part of. She remembered everything with such brilliant detail, and was always glad to tell me about what it was like when she was young. I miss her, and I will miss her memories. Her passing marks the end of an era in our family.