My aunt Mimi used to talk incessantly, and most of her conversation centered on complaints. She’d say that the cry of a baby was excruciating to hear, and that the heat of the day was unbearable. She’d say that a headache was torture and that her feet ached insufferably. She’d say that a saleswoman in a department store treated her poorly and that a passerby was rude. Mimi was always dissatisfied and outspoken about it, but she had a kind side too.
Whenever my family and my cousin’s family visited Mimi, who then lived with my grandmother, Mimi would play with us children, her nephews and nieces. While the rest of the adults stood around and drank cocktails or after-dinner drinks, Mimi would play records from her vast collection and teach us to jitterbug. Other times, she would sit on the floor with us to play cards. She tossed paper airplanes with us. In her way, as a caring aunt, she was a constant as a star, but I did not see that as a child. Instead, I observed her negativity and wondered why she would be stuck playing with the kids, while the other grown-ups got to be together.
Fate was cruel to Mimi. In her later years, she had a stroke, and after a long recovery, she could still no longer speak. She seemed to understand some things that people said, but not others. Her responses were always confusing to me. If asked, “Are you hungry?”, she would shake her head in a diagonal pattern, and I couldn’t tell whether she meant “yes” or “no.” The only words that she clearly said were “God! Oh, God!” and “awful, awful” and “mercy, mercy.” Mimi used these words to show that she was listening attentively and with compassion. I don’t think she meant to be negative most of the time.
One thing surprised me about Mimi’s speech. Although she could not formulate a sentence, she could sing words to songs. She had always loved music. Clearly, the lyrics tapped into a different part of her brain than the area to process speech. So, we sometimes sang Christmas carols or old tunes from the 50’s and 60’s.
Also, although she was a little unsteady on her feet, Mimi could still dance – not with much coordination but with joy, so occasionally, we played the radio and danced a bit too.
Mimi loved it when I visited her in the nursing home, and she would put an arm around my waist and proudly parade through the hallways, beaming with a big smile on her face.
One of the sweetest memories of Mimi in the nursing home happened when I was leaving her to return to my home in another state. I said something that my family never spoke aloud. Before I said “goodbye,” I told her, “I love you, Mimi.” It was then that I realized Mimi could say two other words. She took my head in her hands, looked in my eyes, and said, “Thank you, thank you.” I meant to leave with a smile, but I cried.
Over the years, Mimi was tremendously frustrated by her inability to speak – who wouldn’t be? – but it seemed that her tolerance for the injustices of life and her sweetness grew. Elisabeth Kubler Ross said, “The ultimate lesson all of us have to learn is unconditional love, which includes not only others but ourselves as well.” Mimi has helped me learn that lesson.