Bye bye Tante Maria

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To say that Tante Maria, ‘tante’ being Dutch for ‘aunt’, expected little from life would be an understatement. The following dialogue quoted by my brother-in-law in her eulogy illustrates it best:

‘Tante Maria, are you happy?’

‘I can use the toilet,

I can turn the radio on…

…and turn it back off.’

In the 14 years I had known her or, more specifically, known of her, I had only seen her a maximum of 10 times. For, Tante Maria was a creature of the night, the closest thing to a real life vampire you could’ve come across. Some 20+ years ago she decided that the sun was bad news for her skin, with a self-imposed ban on all daily outings as an inevitable consequence. Till the end of her days, no one really found out whether this was a true condition of her body or a condition of the soul.

Besides her pallid complexion there was nothing particularly vampiric about her. She was a warm woman. Her outdated wardrobe and values(she was 88 at time of death) concealed a sharp sense of humor and an insatiable hunger for piquant wisecracks, especially from the young males of the family. Tante Maria never married. Never even had a sweetheart. She chose instead to care for her parents, who had already been waiting for her in the family grave for decennia, and whom she finally joined on March 8th, 2014.

In her final years she remained confined first to the premises of her house, then the dining room where her bed was placed, and then the bed itself. On the rare occasions that we visited, we knew exactly where to find her. She would be in her bed, in the penumbra, dimly illuminated by a distant light bulb above the kitchen counter. She never called us, she never complained of loneliness, yet her door always remained curiously unlocked. Like an open invitation, a passive summoning, a silent cry for help.

Good things come to those who wait… She waited patiently in her bed, like a corpse flower, inertly exuding its cadaverous scent in the hope of attracting a few faithful connoisseurs, who would carry on her legacy through pollination.

I’m sure she got her share of ‘good things’. But would she have gotten more and better things if she didn’t just wait? In one of our rare conversations she expressed regret about not having gotten her driver’s license, and eagerly encouraged me to get mine. Did this superficial regret conceal a more deeply felt regret about a life lived in first gear?

She refused to be transferred to an old age home, preferring the familiarity of the old ghosts hanging around the dark corners of her house, to any new experiences that might spook them off. Many came to her aid: nurses, brothers and sisters, among others. She didn’t make it easy. This obstinance, this dominance through self-prescribed confinement was her last chance at taking control. This is the control of the helpless, the cowardly, the desperate. A control of the last resort.

In the end, she managed to turn waiting into an art form, a virtue. Tante Maria established herself as an institution, a church of sorts. Every new baby was brought to her for ‘official’ recognition. Every new significant other was introduced to her in the hopes for a tacit approval. She had been a silent witness to many a mystical experience had at her bed side. The dark and the dying are a great recipe for enlightenment.

At the funeral reception it was life as usual and the maxim ‘Life is for the living’ was fanatically reaffirmed: consciously by the elderly, unwittingly by the young. Everyone ate and drank, family members reminisced over vintage home videos and photographs, children were busy being children. Tante Maria was gently, but firmly pushed into the recesses of the mind.

Only, that night, before falling asleep, having ran out of escape routes, our thoughts surely turned back to that corpse flower that failed to bloom in her lifetime, and the image of her humble coffin adorned by a crown of white orchids. Then the inevitable truth naturally surfaced to remind us that she is still waiting. Only now it’s from within the confines of her shallow grave. Silent, patient, unwavering.

 

Epilogue

My 5-year old daughter told a classmate that aunt Maria had died. The kid drew an expression of something between surprise, horror, and hilarity, like only kids can.

‘Oooooooh-yo!’ he exclaimed.

To which my daughter calmly retorted:

‘Don’t worry. I have many other aunties.’

And the beat goes on…

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