My 15 years in Chicago have seen at least half a dozen of my aunts and uncles pass away (I hope I’m not forgetting anyone here). Even if I had been writing this journal all that time, I might not have said much about them. Nothing against them, not at all; it’s just that I wasn’t that close to them. I don’t suppose I’m all that close to Irma either, but she is an exceptional character, and she deserves to be mentioned well in advance of anything of such a final nature taking place.
Irma is my father’s sister. She is also, for the record, his older sister, though how much older I will graciously decline to mention here. More than anyone else in our branch of the family, she has served as a linchpin and conduit for the flow of information between various divisions of our wider family. For the uninitiated, I will attempt to describe her primarily with a single quote and a single anecdote.
The quote comes from my father, and I cite it because I’ve heard him say it more than once. It is said with a subtle, almost implicit sigh behind it: “Your aunt means well.” Those four humble syllables must be kept in mind at all times when evaluating Irma’s words and deeds.
The anecdote requires a bit more setup: Irma has been an avid theatergoer over the years. She has seen various friends of mine perform and has asked me to pass along her compliments to them on more than one occasion. Oddly, I can’t recall when she ever would have seen me on stage (though she may have attended one of the shows I did in high school). That’s perfectly fine by me – I rarely (I won’t say never) try to cajole anyone to come see my shows. I figure that if I have to do that, there’s a good chance they’re not going to enjoy the show, and I want to perform for an audience that really wants to be there.
So there I was, 22 years old, already a veteran of a quite a few professional productions, and probably a little full of myself. As it happened, I had been in several shows with rather “adult” themes, e.g., prostitution, Nazi persecution of homosexuals, and other assorted miseries. Irma hadn’t attended any of these shows, but as both a theater buff and my aunt, she had read all the reviews. One evening, shortly after opening night of my latest play, I happened to answer the phone when Irma called looking for my father. “Oh hi,” she began, “I saw you in the paper there in that theater review.” I could hear the puzzlement in her voice as she tried to find the words to express her next question. “So, I was just wondering – why aren’t you ever in shows that people would want to see?”
It was a sincere question on her part, asked without any intent to provoke or any thought that I might take offense. In her world, shows such as I had lately done were obviously not the kind of thing that “people would want to see.” But alas for both of us, I was living in a completely different world from my aunt – I was in a headlong rush through tremendous growth, experimentation, and artistic adventure, and I had little patience for those who would seemingly invalidate my life in so offhand and clueless a fashion.
I began my response by pointing out that plenty of people had come to see those shows. What’s more, they had enjoyed them. That notion made no sense to Irma; nobody she knew would enjoy plays such as these, so she tried to explain that what she was talking about were “good” shows – why wasn’t I ever in “good” shows? “Like Oklahoma?” she added, providing a helpful example. The conversation spiraled down pretty quickly at that point, and within half a minute, I had slammed the phone down, hanging up on her. To this day, I believe it is the only instance of my hanging up on someone in anger (I am excluding telemarketers and cable television tech support here).
I suppose I’m not exactly the same person now that I was then. I suppose Irma isn’t either. But I think the phone incident still highlighted an essential difference in our natures that signaled a clear limit on our ability to share ideas with one another. And that’s OK. I’ve never asked her to change. My only wish is that she might continue to fulfill her unique role in our family for a long time to come!