Today was Aunt Mary’s birthday. She would have been…well….old….91 to be exact…but alas she went home to her Savior three and a half years ago. Now most of you are thinking what’s the big deal about an aunt who is dead whose birthday was today but my Aunt Mary was a special aunt. She hated the fact that her birthday was so close to Christmas. God help you if you wrapped her birthday gift in Christmas wrapping paper although truth be known Aunt Mary was much better at giving gifts than receiving them.
Aunt Mary never EVER forgot a birthday. She probably had 100 or more relatives in her little black book and each and every one of them always got a card from Aunt Mary on their birthday. Always. And the card always contained $1 in it. If you were 5 years old or 50 you got a crisp $1 bill. That was tradition. And that was what we all looked forward to. Her cards were never ever late either, using nothing but a tattered old date book to keep it all straight. No computer, just her date book.
The date book is long gone, thrown out along with too many irreplaceable family photos and so much more by a cousin who appreciated nothing other than the money that remained in the family bank account. Oh, what I wouldn’t pay to have the single page with my birthday on it as a reminder of an aunt who never forgot me. Once I got older I never forgot her either, always sending her flowers, candy, or something else always wrapped in birthday paper to let her know how much she meant to me. She would always call me up after then too - I was always Michael, never Mike- and thank me. Sadly, the woman who never forgot anyone was all too often forgotten by those closest to her, even her own daughter, yet how could you forget a woman like this?
I was asked to give the eulogy at Aunt Mary’s funeral. The funeral was held at St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church in Red Bank, New Jersey, the church where I served as an altar boy from age 7 to age 13. I had only been in that church twice since I left New Jersey back in 1973- once for my mother’s funeral in 1990 and then again for my father’s funeral in 2004. Both times I sat in the front pew. This time though I had to go up to the altar.
When I was younger the altar was a place of mystery. Sadly the church decided it needed to be “modernized” and in the process had changed so much of it that a lot of the mystery and magic was gone. Looking around the only things I remembered were the Stations of the Cross where I had walked to many times during high mass carrying the incense, but the stained glass windows might have been there. I looked up and my heart sank- the choir loft was gone. This was the very same loft where Aunt Mary’s voice would join the voices of the other woman in the choir singing “Oh Bombino” and other songs in Italian at midnight mass every Christmas Eve right after the feast we all had that never had meat because good Catholics never ate meat on Christmas Eve….
I walked up and looked around the church. Poor Uncle Lou was beyond distraught at losing his wife of nearly 50 years, at Aunt Katie who just lost her husband (Uncle Bill) the year before, and Uncle Joe and Aunt Marnie thinking to myself “This is all that is left.” Sadly Aunt Katie passed away a few short months after Aunt Mary did and Uncle Lou went home in 2009, leaving just Uncle Joe and Aunt Marnie- two out of 16 aunts and uncles my brother Frank and I had- remaining.
I gathered my thoughts and began the eulogy. It was good….very good….and I got three quarters of the way through it and then choked up when I got to the words “This year there will be no birthday card from Aunt Mary….” For 51 years I had faithfully gotten a card from Aunt Mary and this year….the reality hit me. It wasn’t about the card. It was about the woman. You would walk in her house and before you had your jacket off she was making you a cup of tea and breaking out homemade cookies. “Sit down, Michael. I’ll make you a cup of tea” she would say… God, I can close my eyes and hear her now…So I stood there, my heart in my throat, trying to talk yet saying nothing, tears flowing down my cheeks, thinking about Aunt Mary…and then I made history….I tried to talk and got one word out then had to stop….another word…then stopped…and then a single word that probably never has and probably never will be uttered from the altar of Saint Anthony’s again. “Shit”. There I am miked up with probably 60 people in attendance and the only word that comes out of my mouth at the time is “Shit.” I heard a few laughs and realized what had happened and caught myself, laughing a bit, saying “Sorry Aunt Mary, sorry Monsignor” before I continued with the balance of the eulogy. Had Monsignor been there I know he would have smacked me upside the head big time for that and required me to say 12 Hail Marys, 7 Our Fathers and 3 Glory Be’s for my offense, but then Monsignor probably already was rolling over in his grave having the Diocese allow girls on the altar who wore sneakers at Mass AND got paid to boot- $10 each. For all I know the choir got paid as well- all 6 of them. When we were growing up there were at least 30 choir members and no one ever got paid…at least not monetarily...and only boys were allowed on the altar. It was a privilege…it was special…..it was a different time and place.
The funeral ended and we all went back to Chiafulio's afterwards for the obligatory feast (although I knew the place as Red Bank Pizza growing up) and later that night I flew home….All went well until my birthday a month later and no card from Aunt Mary..and then the emotions came welling back….And again today, three and a half years later, on her birthday, as I wrapped Christmas presents I saw the birthday wrap too and remembered the woman who never forgot.
If anyone is in heaven it is my Aunt Mary so happy birthday Aunt Mary- take care of everyone until I get there. Know you never have been and never ever will be forgotten.