Showing Respect For Aunt Ilene
At her funeral was probably a strange time and place to change my opinion about Aunt Ilene, but that’s exactly how it happened. At least she would never have to know about my confusion or disappointment.
Although my aunt had always been kind to me and fun to be around, and I had paid her many compliments over the years, something in the way others praised her at the funeral home hit a sore nerve with me. “Look how many people loved her,” an uncle said as we mingled through the crowd reading cards on flowers and ceramic angels. “Someone said they had to bring out a second signature book.”
“She spoiled every child in the family,” I heard as we passed the casket. “Bought them extravagant birthday gifts. She never forgot one.”
“She’d give the shirt off her back,” someone responded. “In fact, she gave me a Hawaiian print after I complimented her on it.”
Tired of walking, I joined a group of cousins on facing couches in the back of the room. Already deep in conversation, they nodded me in and went on talking. “She warned everybody she knew not to rent any of her properties,” one of them said in a tone that suggested this was an admirable trait. His comment drew laughter from the others but alerted me. Something was not right with the greater picture here.
“Yeah,” one of her nephews said. “She always admitted she was a slum lord. Charged too much and gave as little as possible.”
“Remember the place on Franklin?” another asked. “My friend, Judy, filled out an application for a one bedroom shortly after we turned eighteen. Ilene hit the ceiling when she found out and tore the application up, telling me to tell Judy she’d freeze in there. The heat was on a master control that Ilene didn’t turn on unless the temperature dropped below fifty. It was nice of her to warn Judy.”
Ilene’s son nodded. “She took the phone off the hook many a time when the Franklin residents got rowdy. They always managed to get the home number somehow.” He smiled and reflected for a second. “But they were nothing compared to the people in the Sunrise complex. Those people called day and night about the backed up drain in the courtyard, like it would’ve killed them to walk around the building when the yard was muddy.”
His sister rolled her eyes and blew a shot of air through her teeth. “First drop of rain and they started up. We complained, but Mom reminded us those people paid for the gifts she bought us.”
“At least she warned the people she cared about,” another said.
“She could have let us all move in without warning and took our money,” another cousin said. “Ilene was honest, and a big-hearted woman.”
I listened to bits of similar conversations for two days as new friends and family members arrived to recount their own memories of Aunt Ilene. She donated barely worn designer clothes to shelters. She attended every school function, was room mother for nine straight years, and volunteered for fund raisers and on eye testing days. “Ilene had the gift of gab and could sell a bag of garbage to the queen,” a former PTA friend added to the collection.
After wrestling with my uneasiness, I convinced myself this was usual funeral behavior. Everyone gathers in funeral homes to remember the good, no matter who dies or what kind of life they led. Showing respect is the official term, probably because so much of it is just for show.
Determined to change my attitude, I reminded myself of the things I loved and respected about Aunt Ilene. She loved her children and dedicated herself to them, so she was a great mother. Right? A walk around the parking lot shot the rightness out of that thought. I respected her as their mother, not as a mother. A great mother cares about cold children on Franklin and feels terrible if the children at Sunrise can’t play in the courtyard because she doesn’t want to spend the money to fix the drain.
I scratched great mother and tried successful. I respected Aunt Ilene as a hard worker and successful businesswoman. The millions she left behind in property, stocks, and banks signified success.
Ten minutes locked in a bathroom stall wiped out that theory as quickly as great mother had disappeared. She made her millions at the expense of people who were mostly too poor to move or pay the legal cost of fighting her. She bought most of her houses from people in foreclosure, offering a fraction of what the houses were worth because the sellers were tired and desperate. That meant she understood how to use people for her own gain, not that she was a successful person. I could find nothing to love or respect about that.
At the funeral service, I heeded the earlier bid to look at all the people who had come to show their love for Aunt Ilene. Did it mater that there were as many, if not more people in the world who didn’t like her? Did one side rationalize the other?
I walked out that day respecting Aunt Ilene for teaching me the most valuable lesson I had learned in my adult life. The real mark of character isn’t how I treat my friends and family; it’s easy to love them. It’s now I treat the rest of the world.