Over five decades ago, my mother took my brother and I to meet our grandfather and aunt for the first time in her hometown of Frankfurt, Germany.
Having heard stories of her war time experiences and of her father’s resistance to the policies of Hitler, the trip to this “exotic” place during our high school years held the promise of finding a piece of ourselves there in her homeland and our heritage.
She and her little sister had a complex relationship, which we only knew through mom’s stories. My mom left everything behind to start a new life in America as a military wife and became a card carrying member member of the lower middle class. Her sister remained in Frankfurt to continue a path towards wealth and social status.
Aunt Charlotte, for whom I am named, greeted me warmly that first day and, holding my hand, walked me upstairs to her bedroom which had one wall of mirrors. She put her arm around my shoulder and looking into our reflections in the mirrored wall, announced in broken English, “We look like each other…”
It was meant as a compliment, but for the remainder of our stay, I took note of her poor treatment of my mom, bordering on distain, it seemed. Mom seemed destined to be thought of as “the poor relation,” lacking manners and class, however that was decided in Aunt Charlotte’s world.
And so I didn’t want to “look like her.”
But secretly, I think Aunt Charlotte admired her older sister Irene. Irene was the adventurer who literally sailed the seas as she followed my dad to various military assignments. She was the one who traveled the globe, four children in tow. She was the one always conquering new challenges in a foreign land with vigor and with joy.
Over time, mom stopped communicating altogether with Aunt Charlotte, feeling acutely the sting of her critical spirit. Often she would regale me with tales of all of the slights, and an unforgiving spirit settled into her.
One day, exasperated, I just tried to set her right.
Someday you will both be gone, and you will have lived all this time without the one person who shares a history with you.
She took the counsel reluctantly to heart and reached out, a gesture which reunited them after a long absence and kept them in communication until my mom’s death at 95.
Towards the end of her life, mom would often recount how she and her sister had talked about their reunification in heaven, a thought that seemed to give her great joy.
Today, my brother let me know that Aunt Charlotte had passed at the age of almost 98. Though she and I never had a relationship, she was our last connection to my mother’s homeland…our last living relative of that generation, and it filled me with deep sadness at the loss.
When I called one of my daughters to let her know, after expressing her sympathy, she said,
You are the matriarch of the family now.
And that is a statement that will take awhile to assimilate.
In time I will perhaps grasp the significance of that mantle and assume it gracefully, but at the moment, it comes wrapped with some uncertainty for me.
But also in this moment, I am certain of this one thing: for years, my mom looked forward to spending eternity with her sister, Charlotte, and today she is doing just that.
And someday, so will I.