Monday, November 09, 2009

My Great-Aunt Minnie

I've been thinking a lot about my Great-Aunt. I've been meaning to write about her ever since starting this blog, as I mentioned in this post (I gave my great-aunt a water buffalo.), but for some reason I never have. She's now 95 years old and sadly, her health is finally fading and she won't be around much longer. Maybe this is a good thing, in a way-- it must be hard to live so long and feel the pain of losing so many people before your own time comes. My Dad was her nephew and I'm sure she never thought she'd outlive him. But she's never lost her strong spirit, and she's actually been a great financial role model in many ways.

Minnie has always been a great aunt, and a great great-aunt, probably because she never had kids of her own and never married. (Perhaps she was discouraged from doing so by seeing her sister pop out six babies in ten years!)

Minnie would have been referred to as a "career girl" in her youth. After graduating from high school, she started working. I don't know the full details of her early jobs, but I assume they must have been more or less secretarial, as that would have been the norm for that era. At some point she must have shown that she was very capable and not on the marriage track, so she started to be given more responsibility. I remember her telling me she'd worked for a large corporation in the 1940s and was sent to live in New York for several months to set up a new office there. She spent the last 25 or so years of her career working her way up to the position she held until she retired, a very prestigious job that she was the first woman to hold.
I remember visiting her in that office when I was about 8 years old. Minnie always dressed very casually when I'd see her on the weekends, so it was funny to see her wearing a formal skirt suit, with reading glasses on a gold chain around her neck, and I was very impressed to see her doing these important, business-y looking things. Everyone in the office called her "Miss B." rather than using her full last name. This was back in the days when people tended not to call the boss by his or her first name, so this was actually quite informal, but I think Minnie was the type who could allow that kind of cheekiness while still seeming very authoritative! She is a very warm person, always cheerful and easy-going, but she has a certain sporty toughness about her too-- she always used to like to pretend we were boxing right before she'd grab me into a big hug.

I didn't think much about it at the time, but in retrospect, I think it was quite important to me to see a woman running things as someone's boss. She wasn't anyone's mother, she wasn't a teacher or a nurse or a doctor or a store cashier-- I came of age at a time when women already had a lot more options for careers, but other than Minnie, I wasn't close to anyone who went beyond those roles.

Though Minnie worked hard, she never let the job become her life. She had a group of friends she would take vacations with, spending a week each summer at the beach and traveling all over the world, always bringing back little souvenirs, some of which I still have. She always loved sports, and used to swim and play tennis and golf, and I remember her being really good at bowling too! She also went to Red Sox games and got tickets to the Olympics a few times. Every other weekend, she'd be at my grandmother's house when my family visited, and every Christmas, she'd be have to be dragged out of the kitchen and forced to eat instead of serving everyone else. She moved back in with her elderly parents to take care of them at the end of their lives, and ended up staying in that apartment, which was rented, until a few years ago. I sometimes wonder why she never bought a house or a condo, but I suspect there was so much history there that she never wanted to move, and the rent was quite low. The apartment was full of things that my great-grandparents had owned, including a few items I now have in my own home, like a little handmade stool, and an old Saltine cracker tin.

Minnie, of course, grew up during the Depression and like so many others, never lost that frugal mentality. I have no idea what her salary ever was or how she might have invested, but she retired with a pension and I know she must have saved quite a bit of money. Every birthday and Christmas, I'd get $20 or $25 from her, as my many cousins must also have, and I know she gave my father and his sisters larger amounts. When I was in college, I remember her taking me aside once just to give me a $10 bill, "for some pizza," she said. And another time, when I'd gotten a $75 speeding ticket on my way to visit her and my grandmother, she again cornered me secretly to give me the money to pay the ticket-- not that she wanted to encourage me speeding, and not that she was ever the type to spoil anyone-- I guess just because it made her happy to do odd little things like that when you wouldn't expect it.

About 10 years ago, Minnie moved in with my grandmother, and one of my aunts moved in with them. After my grandmother died, her house was sold and my aunts helped Minnie find an assisted living facility. At first, she didn't want to do it-- she was still quite spry and she was horrified at how expensive assisted living was. But as she herself admitted, she was "deaf as a haddock," and she didn't want to become a burden to anyone, so she ended up moving to a lovely community where she dove into every activity that was offered: shopping trips, lectures, concerts, fitness classes... Even a few weeks ago she was still going to tai chi regularly because she knew the instructor would be disappointed if she didn't show up. And here's another thing one of my aunts told me: Minnie recently said that maybe this coming year, she'd finally give up doing her own taxes and have her lawyer do them instead!

As I grew older, Minnie was always interested in my progress. She was very proud of me when I started to work, and when I got my first business card, she was thrilled when I gave her one. Every time I've gotten a new card since, I've always given her one. She has always been far more interested in my career than my own parents, and now that I know her time is limited, I find myself wishing I could reach one more big career milestone, just so I could tell her about it. She also has loved hearing about my travels, and whenever I see a sporting event, I tell her about it-- she's even quite tolerant of my having turned into a Yankees fan! In our family, I am pretty much the only female of my generation who followed in her footsteps as the unmarried "career girl" and it's become a bond between us, something I feel very lucky to have had.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

That's beautiful! I enjoy your longer pieces.

Beatrice said...

That's a very sweet post. It makes me hope to be an Aunt Minnie some day.

Bucksome Boomer said...

Your Aunt Minnie sounds like a great lady. She reminds me a great aunt I had who had a career and lived in the "big" city --- Kansas City.

Thanks for bringing back memories.

Anonymous said...

(by asking this question I'm not suggesting that your Aunt should have gotten married or had a significant other)but do you think there were times when she was lonely and might have wished that she did have a family? I ask only because at the age of 25 I find myself having many characteristics similar to that of your Aunt (but I'm not at all distinguished at this point haha)and can see myself leading the same lifestyle when i'm older yet i'm a bit concerned that some day i might all of a sudden yearn for a more traditional family life and realize that it's too late to obtain it. what's your thought on that?

rhonalala said...

Great post. Reinforces hope that their is happiness out there for single women who like it that way just fine.

T'Pol said...

God bless your Aunt Minnie! Thank you for sharing this family story. So inspiring and so touching...

Wayne said...

Very moving piece.
Thank you.

Madame X said...

Anon 10:14-- It's an interesting question, and I'm not really sure. Minnie has always been so cheerful about everything, it's hard to imagine her feeling depressed about how her life turned out. All the nieces and nephews and the extended family are so fond of her, I doubt she could miss having her own kids, but not having a partner must have been harder. However, I think that it was probably easier for her in her youth than it would be for someone today, just because it was more of an expected role-- women tended to choose between marriage and career, whereas now it's more expected to do both.
I've also been asked if Minnie was a lesbian-- my thinking on that is that she probably wasn't, but maybe could have been if she'd grown up today-- I think sexuality is more determined by nature than by nurture but a lot of people might be flexible enough for circumstances and social acceptance to swing things one way or another to some extent.

So who knows... but, Anonymous, you're only 25, so you have plenty of time to think about what kind of future you want, whether that includes a partner or not, or children, or whatever. We have so many options today, and if your feelings about your lifestyle change as you get older, it doesn't have to be "too late."

Anonymous said...

This was really delightful to read. I love hearing stories about women who chose to live different lives - there isn't just one path to fulfillment. I hope that Minnie is kept comfortable for the remainder of her days.

Anonymous said...

As usual a very enjoyable read ... although it is possible for someone to detect a slight bias against the traditional women -- those who "pop out" children and focus their attention on family instead of career ... then perhaps that just my read?

In either case, you aunt sounds like a great lady and her life and choices deserved equal admiration to women choosing family over career IMHO.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post - thanks so much for sharing!

Madame X said...

@anon 12:14, of course I identify more with the non-motherhood role because it's what I ended up choosing, but I have no disrespect for those who take the traditional route. I've also written a bit about my grandmother, the one who "popped out" the 6 babies, which is a formidable achievement no matter how you look at it! And my grandmother was just so special in many other ways as well. The two sisters were truly a great pair, each in their own way, and I could tell stories about both of them for far longer than anyone would care to listen!

Anonymous said...

A moving and inspiring read!! Its been a few days since your last post, and i wasn't a big fan of your previous post.. but this one is worth the wait.. God bless Aunt Minnie!

Anonymous said...

any chance that she is well enough to help answer some of the questions posted? I have a neighbor who is 86, alone still traveling the world, although a bit embarrassed that she could afford her second 18+ day cruise of the year. Anyway,she has offered so many pearls of financial wisdom to me, from her life. I can't help but think they (older generations) dealt with many of the same money issues we deal with... If you are surrounded by people that "have made it" lets learn from them so one, we do not repeat the bad, but two we can maybe look to actually execute the good they did... It can't all be a new game.... But rather just and updated version....

Thoughts?

Sicilian said...

Great reflection of a pillar in your life. . . . my grandmother is the era of your aunt. . . . her mind is gone. . . . I can't get those pearls of wisdom that you have gleaned from your aunt.
Write down all your thoughts and memories in a special place. You would be surprised how comforting that will be to you some day.
I wished I had done that.
Ciao

SeeJaneGetRich said...

I really enjoyed reading your post. What a strong woman!

Anonymous said...

from anon 10:14-> Thank you Madame X for such detailed answer! As always I really appreciate how considerate and level-headed your answers are. I'm a bit awe-struck that your friend dared ask whether Minnie is lesbian...of course she may very well be but somehow it just seems like a huge taboo especially for people in her generation.

I hope you're better nowadays with your family and that you, your mom, and your sister are all doing better.

Anonymous said...

thought you would like to read this wsj article about severance pay and people who did not budget for tough times
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125780714976639687.html

rinter said...

That was a very inspirational post! It proves that women have so many avenues today than what was considered centuries ago, or may I say, decades ago???

Brooklyn Money said...

The timing on this was good for me. I had a breakdown this weekend because I am 35, successful and alone. I just woke up after years of working, traveling the world and getting a masters and realized that what matters most to me is having a partner. This is a nice reminder that a fulfilling life is possible even if things don't go the way I want them to.

bugbear said...

Thank you for writing a very moving piece for us.

Anonymous said...

best. post. yet.

Anonymous said...

How lovely

Anonymous said...

As a single woman in her 70's (who did rather well in the corporate world) I truly enjoyed your post. I am a happy woman who has traveled extensively and found great satisfaction in my career. I am fortunate to have the good health to continue my travels with my friends.
I did a great deal for my nephews over the years and that is my one regret. I never should have robbed them of the joy I had in "making my own way". My genorosity to them has really not been a blessing to them or to me.