My grandmother’s last sister (there were five Miller sisters in all including my grandmother) just died with the advent of the Jewish New Year. She was 100 years old. She was my mom’s pal and they were close for eighty-eight years. She was twelve years older than my mother and used to babysit for her when my mother was a little girl and my aunt was a teenager.
My aunt was always very trim and, more often than not, wore a gold chain belt around her waist. She was perpetually atop spike heels. She developed foreshortened Achilles tendons secondary to her lifelong perch on those heels. Eventually she had to wear even bedroom slippers with high heels. Her hair was very important to her as well, and, make no mistake about it, you were not welcome if your visit coincided with her appointment at the hairdresser. Even in her nineties, a hair salon appointment took precedence over just about everything. She preferred silk shorty nightgowns, even if she said she was cold at night. Imagine this slender, perfectly coifed eighty- or ninety-year old in her silk nighty on her heeled slippers and you will start to envision my aunt, the way she looked until she was just too tired and frail to care.
Aunt Gladys was married to Uncle Julie, who died thirty years ago. He said he fell in love with her ass while she was in white shorts playing ping pong. I have no idea if this was the case, but he certainly was very in love with her during their long marriage. In my family they often referred to him as the sixth Miller sister as he thought nothing of sitting at the kitchen table with the lethally chatty and judgmental sorority while they gossiped about each other and their acquaintances. The rest of the husbands convened elsewhere. Gladys and Julie were very social, threw wonderful parties and had many friends, but their life together was ultimately one of shared sadness.
They had two sons, Allen and Steven. When I was a kid the four of them went on a car trip through the Western states and had a very serious spinout on the road, during which everyone suffered serious injuries and their youngest son, Steven, was killed. Gladys and Allen were rushed to a hospital and Uncle Julie was left waiting for help with his dead macerated son in his lap on the roadside. As fate would have it, Steven had been a very smiley, charming child who seemed adored by all the world. Their eldest son, Allen, was quiet, introverted and, even before the accident, always seemed sullen. Now he had to compete with his dead brother for attention. It couldn’t have been easy.
Eventually Allen married. Soon after that, he stopped speaking with his parents. Many people in the family tried to intervene, but Allen had made up his mind. He gave differing reasons for his decision to different people. He wrote a letter to Gladys in which he stated that her unending criticism of his wife was the factor that led him to his choice. He made an appearance at his father’s funeral, but for the rest of his life he saw his parents less than 5 times except across the aisle at temple. He died of a heart attack about 5 years ago. When Gladys called to be included in the funeral, one of her grandsons told her she was not part of their family. None of the grandsons had ever spent a moment with their grandmother.
Gladys was not an easy woman. They didn’t make easy women in the Miller family, but in many ways she was a wonderful person. She could be controlling and critical, but she was also generous and warm. She would ply you with food with a relentless tirade until you had properly overeaten and could badger you to death when she wanted something. She was vain and she was proud, but she was a fantastic aunt. When I stayed at her house as a kid, she couldn’t do enough to entertain me. She fed me, she took me places, she was funny and I always went home with lots of goodies. She was my great aunt and she was a great aunt.
She was also always a prankster and a little naughty. When my mom was a child riding in the car one Sunday on her family’s weekly jaunt, she saw a girl rollerskating up their street who had a dress very similar to one she owned. Then she realized it was her aunt wearing her dress which she must have lifted from my mother’s dresser. When my mother was fifteen, my aunt took her to a burlesque show with the admonition, “Don’t tell your mother or my mother or I will be dead.” The show stopper was a nude woman who came out in a circulating green-tinted bottle.
She was also a great booster. If she was on your team, you had a fantastic parntner and a good chance of succeeding. She raised a tremendous amount of money for children with respiratory illnesses and for other causes sponsored by her temple. You couldn’t say no to her.
In her seventies, she got breast cancer and had a long hard road with chemotherapy. She told me that if she had a recurrence she just wanted to die, because she couldn’t go through chemotherapy twice. Uncle Julie took very good care of her and didn’t push her to do anything she wasn’t up to doing. She lived thirty years after being treated, but unfortunately Uncle Julie died of a heart attack soon after her recovery.
Later, Gladys had a beau named Hy. He used to call her name and it sounded like he was calling a dog, but they had a long warm relationship that terminated when he died. He left her enough money to live very comfortably and to be taken care of in her own home. During her last twenty years she suffered a hip fracture, a broken leg and a few other orthopedic problems, but she just seemed to bounce right back. She had spunk. She had spirit. She was frail but still had tremendous personal strength. She almost drove her aides to drink. We all loved her very much and she always said my mother Mimi had her heart. It was mutual.