The dead are always looking down on us, they say.
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
... they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.
They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a long afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,
which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.
This is one of Steve Jacobsen's altars at Thru My Eyes Art Exhibit
Last night I lit all the candles on the ofrenda, banked a big fire in the fireplace, and journaled for a long time about the people whose photos are on my altar. Some of them will be remembered for a long time because they had children and grandchildren, aunts, uncles, cousins, and a few are probably not recalled because their spouses died before them, they had no children and most of their loved ones and friends are gone now. Roz at Autumn Cottage Diarist asked who this beautiful lady in the photo above was when she commented on the blog today.
She is my late aunt, Sylvia Huxtable Tweedle, and she never had children and most of her relatives are gone, but I will never forget her. Instead of posting more Day of the Dead photos today, I went to my computer and pulled up an essay I wrote about my beloved Aunty Sy in 1999. Dear one, I will never forget you.
Sylvia Tweedle nee Huxtable - October 26, 1999
Sylvia Tweedle, nee Huxtable, my mother’s baby sister, got spinal meningitis when she was a small child. When she recovered, she was deaf. That was around 1910, in a small Michigan town, and there wasn’t a lot that could be done then, my aunt later told me.
Sylvia, known to me as Aunty Sy, was the baby of five children, four who lived. My mother was the eldest. Their father, my grandfather, was the town constable, and their mother, my grandmother, was a hard-working Dutch housewife. I was told that initially Sy was treated like an invalid. Sending her to a school for the deaf was beyond the financial ability of my grandparents and small town one-room schools weren’t prepared to teach children with special needs.
“But little Sy was not a quitter,” my mom told me solemnly, shaking her head back and forth. “She learned to read lips and later learned sign language. She would get very, very angry and frustrated when people weren’t responsive to her—a lot like Helen Keller,” mom added.
Sy had some residual hearing and did go to regular public school. She was a bright child who always sat in the front of the class in order to read lips, was a voracious reader, and extremely inquisitive. Because she was catered to in her family, she would live out the rest of her life with what my father referred to “as a holier-than-thou” attitude. Sy and my father were lifetime sparring partners. I recognized the haughtiness she projected to be something other than what it appeared to be. Sy not only graduated from high school, she went on to get her B.A. in English from Hope College in Holland, Michigan, the only one of her siblings to ever step foot in a college. My mother, for example, quit school at the eighth grade.
I was born in 1937 and some of my earliest memories are of Aunty Sy’s visits to our home. By then she had had several corrective surgeries, and some of them in California. Though her hearing was never substantively restored, she wore big black battery pack under her brassiere with wires going to the hearing aids in her ears. The hearing aids often shrieked if the frequency wasn’t correct and she would have to exit the room to adjust the knob in the battery pack. Mostly she read lips.
Aunty Sy never, ever let her deafness keep her from enjoying life to the fullest. Because she came from such humble beginnings, she made it her life’s mission to become a cultured, sophisticated woman. She joined the Red Cross during the war and I love the photo of her in uniform and cap just like a soldier’s. To me she was as brave as any of the plentiful G.I.’s who came around to court my sisters.
Sy had a hollow sound to her voice, that slight speech impediment you often hear when deaf people speak, and I found her speech fascinating. I loved to try to match my voice to her voice. She was always special to me, and as I grew older, I called her “My Auntie Mame.” What a zest for life she had.
Toward the end of the war she was accepted for training at Los Angeles’ John Tracey Clinic for deaf children, one of the most cutting-edge centers of its kind at the time. Her specialty was working with very young children who were born deaf. She taught them to “hear” without hearing, and to speak. One technique was the placement of a child’s hands on her throat, her chest, her back, so they could “hear” the vibrations different words made.
My aunt, who admittedly had fought valiantly for each achievement in her life, became an expert in her field. Along the way, she once told me, though she had had boyfriends, that she assumed no man would ever want to marry her. She was large, handsome-looking woman, but she assumed she would be a burden.
Then she had an opportunity to relocate to Portland, Oregon to work at the Portland Center for the Deaf, which was connected to the medical school. By then she was in her mid 30s and her visits to our home were less frequent. But when she did come, I was beside myself with excitement. I remember laying in my bedroom on Christmas eve one year watching the star-lit sky, hoping for a glimpse of Santa and the reindeers whom I had been promised would arrive soon. Aunty Sy was also late arriving for her holiday visit. Mesmerized by the sky, I heard a knock at my window—and there she was in a beautiful dark coat with fur around the collar, loaded down with presents. She told me she was helping Santa.
By then my aunt was well-known in her community, and reported trips with her friends to the opera, the theater, and dined in fine restaurants. She introduced me to steak tartare, which I found totally intriguing. When she visited she once splurged on filet mignon from the local butcher, which she was horrified to see my mother make into a pot roast with potatoes and vegetable. She often flew across the country to present papers at conferences.
At 37, Auny Sy fell in love with my uncle Tom Tweedle, a wealthy, divorced lumber broker in Portland, who was about 12 years her senior. He was having hearing difficulties and when he came to her clinic for testing, she handled his case. After a truly exciting courtship, they married—and they were one of the few couples I know who lived happily ever after—until my uncle’s death in the early 1970s. The only difficulty she would constantly be confronted with during those years were Tom’s two grown daughters, who resented her presence in their father’s life.
Sy became a gourmet cook, an artist and craftsman, a genealogist, a calligrapher, a gardener, and dinner parties at her home were popular in her social set. Always a social drinker, it was during these years that she began to drink in excess, however. She could make one mean martini, but had rigid rules about drinking hours. She continued to work part-time, but essentially she became what she had always longed to be—a society matron, a woman who people sought out both professionally and socially. She and Tom traveled around the world as he purchased lumber for sale to clients.
After my uncle’s death, she continued to travel internationally, but now she went on cruise ships, as it was easier with her deafness to have the same table mates each evening and built-in companions. Sometimes she would put into port in San Pedro and I would go to have lunch or dinner with her, totally dazzled by her sophistication. Sometimes she would stay at our home and doted on the babies. Her favorite argumentative conversation was about whether it was harder to be blind or deaf—and, of course, she found deafness to be the greater burden.
As she began to age and become infirm, and I divorced, I flew to Portland fairly often, sometimes to care for her after a fall, which seemed to happen often. She lived in an exquisite apartment on the 20th floor of a high rise building overlooking the river. My visits to her were mini-lessons in family history and I was gathered into her social circle. The drinking became more and more pronounced, and when I intervened with her doctor to report her “problem,” she grew very angry with me. She had earlier enraged my sisters, who no longer had contact with her. When a male friend of mine flew to Portland for three days, during a time I was visiting there,, she blew up when we shared a room, even though I had asked permission in advance. She made it clear I was no longer welcome to visit.
Ironically, as she entered her last illness, she called to ask me to come and stay with her. Though she had a caregiver, she longed for a family connection. Unfortunately, I was working in a demanding job at the time, and since I was my sole support, I wasn’t able to go; I wrote often and called. She had a special amplifying device on her phone and if the conditions were right, she could at least hear part of my conversation.
And then the call came from her lawyer, informing me of her death and asking me to pass this information on to the family. She was 81 years of age and the cause of death was listed as congestive heart failure. She had died alone in the hospital three days before. By then she had macular degeneration and was almost blind as well as deaf. She died a wealthy woman and the will stipulated, as she herself had informed me many years before, that half of her estate go to her stepdaughters, and the other half to the Portland Hearing Center for the Deaf.
When I think back to my Aunty Sy, I feel grateful for having had her as a role model and confidant all the years that I did. Rather than dwell on the negative experiences that seemed to happen as she grew old, I love to remember brushing her long gray hair, which literally hung to her waist. I like to remember her rose garden where my uncle’s ashes were scattered. I like to remember cocktails and hors d’oeuvres in her French provincial living room overlooking the river. I like to remember her mink car coat that I would sometimes don in the winter to walk into downtown Portland. I like to remember her with my babies gathered on her lap while my uncle did magic tricks for them.
My aunt never told me she loved me, which is not uncommon among my Dutch kinsmen. She would sign her letters, “Fondly, Sy,” but I like to think that she did love me, her dear sister’s baby daughter, as she was her own mother’s baby daughter. I close my eyes and I smell her perfume, and it seems like she is only a 2-1/2 hour airplane ride away.
Thanks to Rebecca at Recuerda mi Corazon and Stephanie at Mango Studios for hosting Dia de Bloglandia this year. Check both of their links and their Mister Linky app will link you to the entire month's posting by those of us who participated.