I called her Aunt Pat.
She wasn’t my Aunt Pat, not technically. She was my college roommate’s Aunt Pat.
To me, she was a pseudo-Aunt Pat. She laughed the first time I called her that, so I called her that over and over.
After my mother died during my junior year at the University of Nebraska, Aunt Pat put me on her radar. She kept me there, showering me with Hallmark kindnesses on Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, birthdays. Later, she did the same for my children.
Aunt Pat had her own children – two boys a bit older than me. They became kindred spirits. Whenever I called Aunt Pat, we spent a lot of time catching up about everyone. That’s what you do with a favorite aunt. We reminisced. I told her my worries. She commiserated.
Aunt Pat died last May.
Two months before that, I went to see her in Pender, the town in northeast Nebraska where I could go to unwind from pressures and feel surrounded by friends. Last March something told me: You’ve got to get up to see Aunt Pat. It’s been far too long.
As usual, we laughed a lot. She soon grew tired. As she hobbled to her bedroom assisted by a beloved caregiver, I called out: “Sleep tight, you little bug.” It was the sendoff she always gave me whenever I headed for bed while visiting her. Aunt Pat chuckled when I used the line on her. She thrust her cane into the air – another resolute gesture to savor like all the others that punctuated her bold encouragements aimed at making me believe in myself.
Early in October I visited her grave when I was back in Nebraska.
The day before, I sat with the son in Pender who is serving as executor of her estate, looking at photos of Aunt Pat’s paintings. We laughed, of course, as we recounted highlights of a life well lived by a woman deeply loved. Sometimes silence seemed the warmest refuge, a glowing, penetrating warmth – an Aunt Pat kind of warmth.
“Come here. I want to show you something,” Aunt Pat’s son said.
We walked to the hall closet. I looked in to see all of her record albums, the music that accompanied our late-night chats in the art room, those deep talks about inspiration, and life, and dreams. So many wonderful memories I have of discussions that might meander from Nebraska football to musings about how to keep fighting when you feel weary and worn by struggle or worry.
Then, I saw it: The Billie Holiday album Ain’t nobody’s business if I do.
I picked it up, held it against my chest, closed my eyes.
“Do you have a record player? You can take that album if you want,” her son said.
I shook my head. “No. No player.”
Aunt Pat and I played that album one night when I was feeling blue. We talked about racism, Aunt Pat and I. We talked about loss and heartache. We talked about violence and war. And desperation. Then we talked about marshaling hope to find a way out of darkness. It sounds like hyperbole, but I can’t help myself: We talked about anything and everything.
I told Aunt Pat about having similar heart-to-hearts with my mother. I told her about one of my fondest recollections of growing up: Awakening on Sunday mornings to the smell of bacon with the sounds of Billie Holiday or Louis Armstrong or Ray Charles filling our house.
I described memories of my mother philosophizing after we watched the movie Lady Sings the Blues together: “However much we may struggle, she struggled so much more.”
Just weeks ago, as I drove the 14 miles from Pender to the cemetery in Aunt Pat’s hometown of Walthill, I took that Billie Holiday album with me. When I stood looking down the hillside from where Aunt Pat and Uncle Ron are buried, I thought about the art room in Aunt Pat’s house. I remembered Aunt Pat telling me about the value of north light: “It’s special,” she said. “Artists need north light.”
In late afternoon, on that hill early this month, Aunt Pat’s grave was awash in north light. It felt so right.
I looked north from the cemetery, surveying the vastness of the rugged Nebraska beauty that requires unique insight and understanding to appreciate. I saw the oranges, the yellows and the vibrant green of grass breathing life into the newfound fall of early October. I took in the many blues of the late-afternoon sky, from the threatening clouds on the outer reaches to the pastel splotch breaking through between the barren tree on my left and the leafy limbs framing the scene on my right.
I sensed a special perspective, much like the views that dominate Aunt Pat’s paintings, like insights, pleasures, challenges and beliefs we now nurture and cherish, like a burnished heart keeping alive her generosity of spirit.
I took photos of the Billie Holiday album at Aunt Pat’s graveside. I took one while holding the album cover in my left hand as my right hand positioned the camera and snapped the shutter. I took some of the album cover leaning against the stone marking the graves of Aunt Pat and Uncle Ron. I don’t know why I did it; it just seemed fitting to tie these elements together.
And I took photos on my way out of the cemetery, a scene I can’t get out of my mind when I think of Aunt Pat: Unfurled before me was nature’s quilt of sky stitching together the softened hue of powder blue with the haunted patches of darkening gray and steel blue.
Aunt Pat told me to be an artist at whatever I do. She told me to believe in myself. And she made me feel special, always, and oh so loved.
How fitting when I left the cemetery that day to hear the strains of Van Morrison’s Brown-Eyed Girl from the radio of my rental car. As I drove by the house where Aunt Pat lived as a child, these lines resonated: “So hard to find my way, now that I’m on my own.”
Suddenly more memories loomed, big and bold: When I left college and didn’t know much about what I wanted, Aunt Pat encouraged me to follow my heart. Whenever parental responsibilities started to overwhelm me, I called Aunt Pat and she helped me work my way into the clear. Without a doubt, it has been hard, at so many times, to find my way.
Now, without her in that Pender art room to take my calls, I am on my own in more ways.
Today I thought about Aunt Pat and responded by googling Billie Holiday. I learned this is the year marking the 100th anniversary of the late singer’s birth. Then I smiled, browsing the website run by her personal estate and seeing that she died on July 17th – the same date as my birthday. I ran down the list of Lady Day’s songs, remembering what it was like to listen to them with my mother and then later with Aunt Pat.
I found myself noting, again, the wisdom and eloquence of quotes from Billie Holiday. “A kiss that is never tasted is forever wasted,” read one. Then this: “I’m always making a comeback, but nobody ever tells me where I’ve been.” And another: “Sometimes it’s worse to win a fight than to lose.”
Yes, Aunt Pat, life is about finding your way. It’s about finding the artist inside yourself and letting her breathe in, and out, pausing and reflecting, trusting and believing, aspiring and demanding more of yourself but also knowing sometimes you need to lighten up, to give yourself a break, to rest.
Aunt Pat made me believe when I differ from others I must embrace what makes me stand out. Look for the genuine luster in life, she would say, and take time to cherish moments as well as memories.
Above all, I must grow from the encouragement of loved ones and friends to contribute to the world in my own way. This, I now believe, is the art of living: Treasuring your own sense of worth and being true to the artist within.
After all, as Billie Holiday said and I think Aunt Pat would agree: “If I’m going to sing like someone else, then I don’t need to sing at all.”