Thursday, January 21, 2010

Aunt Jo

If you have a family where everyone is happy, healthy, content, and free of problems raise your hand. No "crazy uncle in the basement?"

Thought so.

When I was growing up the eccentric was Aunt Jo. She's actually my Great Aunt on my Mom's side.

Aunt Jo migrated to Chicago along with her sisters and brother from Swan Quarter, North Carolina. Her brother and two sisters (one of whom is my grandmother) lived comfortably in the Chicago area. Aunt Jo? Not always sure. I know she worked many "mid level" jobs as a secretary, never married and had no children.

I don't remember much about where she lived. She would come to our house and either my Dad or Uncles would give her a ride home while my cousins and I stayed home. By design, I guess. I remember hearing about prostitutes, thieves and such in the neighborhood.

Aunt Jo was proud. I don't think she asked for help and my guess is she would refuse it.

Aunt Jo had breath that would peel paint off a wall. She chain smoked her entire life and used to bring her own flask on "road trips" to visit with the family. As a child it was rather terrifying to hear her heavy, raspy voice bellow "Come give your Aunt Jo a kiss." But we did.

(As an aside, I recently saw the movie Crazy Heart. I thought of Aunt Jo as Jeff Bridges first invades Maggie Gyllenhall's personal space against a hotel room door. Maggie was not a smoker or drinker, and I could only imagine what his breath was like at that point. Actually I don't have to think that hard.)

Aunt Jo always had a card for me and my sister for Christmas and birthdays. In the card was a crisp $1 bill. I remember my Mom explaining that Aunt Jo didn't have a lot of money and the dollar meant a lot. Not necessary. At 10 or 11 years old I understood completely that her life was very different from mine.

Aunt Jo had a big heart. She always remembered what grade I was in and had a hearty laugh. She cared. She was genuine, and original.

Aunt Jo was the "blacksheep" of the family. Don't like that term but it fits. She died of cancer over 25 years ago.

After she died we made an amazing discovery. Aunt Jo had manually typed series of journals for every year of her adult life. Poignant, hilarious, sad, and joyous insights about family and life in Chicago during the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

When my children were born 12 years ago, I was inspired by Aunt Jo to chronicle their lives.

I am at 100 pages or so and counting. The kids don't know about it. I guess I am waiting until they graduate high school or get married.

Aunt Jo is buried outside Chicago, next to my Grandmother and Grandfather. I still visit. And smile. I love you Aunt Jo. You're a trip, and an inspiration.