Monday, February 04, 2008

Happy Birthday: Hortense Caswell Hall R.I.P.

My aunt was about three years older than my mother, who was twenty-eight years older than me, so if she were still alive, she'd have celebrated her ninety-third birthday today. She died several years before my mother, of complications brought on by her generation's penchant for heavy smoking and even heavier drinking. [She liked her Manhattans, and although she gave up smoking, (unlike my mother) she still suffered from the effects.]

I idolized my aunt when I was a teenager. She was everything my mother wasn't... wealthy, sophisticated, interested in art and antiques. She gave lavish parties, had her friends over to play bridge. She had been a nurse, and still filled in occasionally at her local hospital. She had the whole outfit: white dress, white hose and shoes, starched cap with black band. Nurses don't dress that way anymore, just as most nuns don't dress in habits. We sometimes bemoan the passing of the "uniform"... the clothes that confer a recognized status, a familiar and comforting illusion.

As a child I vowed (again and again) I would not grow up to become my mother, but I did. While I am uncomfortable with the term flamboyant to describe myself, it's definitely a term I'd use to describe my mom. She liked loud colors and bright prints, She bleached her hair platinum blonde and laughed a lot. While my aunt played bridge, my mother went bowling.

My mother and aunt were rivals, but they were also close friends. When blood needed to be thicker it was... my aunt (and her wealth) rescued us when my dad deserted us, her bankroll funded my mother's purchase of a beauty shop in the boondocks of New Hampshire, and her sense of family brought us to her house every Thanksgiving and Christmas to celebrate together. She was the Episcopalian. That and a love of tissue paper with sparkles are the tangible things I have to show for her considerable influence.

I am (occasionally) wiser now than I was at fourteen, when my love affair with my aunt's view of the world was so at odds with my relationship with my mom. Much of my aunt's sophistication was pretense... an effort to seem to be more than she was... My mother was exactly who she was... if you didn't like it, well "tough titty" to use her expression... one my aunt would have deplored.

I owe my life to both influences. They are inextricably mingled... one in my DNA, the other in my environmental conditioning. I think of them both in heaven... chatting over their afternoon drinks. My aunt raises her Manhattan: "Well at least she's an Episcopalian, Helen. You owe me that." My mother smiles as she sips her Whiskey Sour. "Yes, but she hates bridge and likes to bowl."


Anonymous said...

That was lovely Sister.

4501 Safari said...

Outstanding! One of your best pieces. I love the warmth and honesty in your words. R

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the giggle. I have a deceased aunt much like "Hortense" whom I adored as well. Then I had my own G'Ma who used words like "tough titty." I had not thought of that expression in 20 years.