The Grandmother Diaries:  My "Great" Aunt

If you’ve followed my Grandmother Diaries, you’ve “met” my Gran.  All my life (and most of hers), Gran’s younger sister Minerva lived a block away.  I’m not quite sure how it happened…my Gran moved into the house she was in most the time I knew her after my Grandfather died.  I never knew him – he died when my father and aunt were fourteen of appendicitis.  Minerva must have moved shortly thereafter (or maybe before?) into a small two bedroom house with her husband.

Minerva was best described as quirky. She was the embodiment of the kooky childless aunt that almost every child has.  She never worked.  She always had several cats.  She smoked like a chimney. She didn’t learn to drive until after her husband died. Even then she only drove to get groceries with my Gran and go bowling. When she learned how to drive, well into her sixties, it was a bit scary because she’d get distracted fairly easily. I always think of her like a cross between Lucille Ball and Angela Lansbury. She was a little absent minded – yet always properly dressed with her hair done when in public. I remember many a night when she had her hair up in curlers and a scarf. She had a lovely sense of humor (or, quite possibly, was too polite not to laugh at my corny kid jokes).

I don’t have very many memories of her husband.  I know that Edgar was a boxer in his youth – and he did quite well.  There were photos of him and medals in her home. I remember him being quite tall and very thin – but very strong. He was quiet and gentle. I think she did all the talking for him. He used to hold a dollar up and tell my sister and I if we had the reflexes to catch it between our two fingers, we could keep it.

I believe he worked in an appliance factory before he retired in his early sixties.  He died of lung cancer when I was about eight not too long after his retirement.  What a horrible disease.  He wasted away very quickly. Minerva though kept smoking…even though she knew that was likely what killed him. Part of me wonders if it was because my aunt wanted to join him. If that was her aim, it took its time to work.  Minerva was several years younger than he was – and lived into her early eighties. She used to walk a lot. And I can remember her getting into Tai Chi – she’d do it in front of her television.

Aunt Minerva was always happy.   From birth.  Always saw the bright side – although with her own little quirk. When my dad and his sister were a month away from birth, my grandmother suggested she couldn’t figure out why she could feel poking on both sides of her belly at the same time. This was in the forties – well before ultrasounds. Twin births could be detected – but not always. Auntie helpfully suggested that maybe the baby had mutated and had extra limbs.  Gran always laughed as she told the story, but I wonder if it didn’t worry her a bit. My father’s sister came first, and she named her after one of her aunts. The doctor said she wasn’t done…and pulled out my father moments later. She was so tired, when asked what his name was, she asked what the Doctor’s name was. He said his last name…and as a result, my father carried the doctor’s last name as his first.

As they lived up the street from each other, Gran and Aunt Minerva were always in each other’s pockets.  Both widows, they spent their time watching TV, going bowling and playing cards.  I remember them both at family parties at Gran’s house – cigarette dangling from their mouth…cards in their hands. Minerva would come over and do her laundry at Gran’s.

Aunt Minerva was very involved in our childhood. Just before Christmas she’d come up and spend the day in my parent’s bedroom, wrapping all the presents. Now of course I realize why Santa’s handwriting didn’t match my mother or fathers.

When Gran wasn’t available, Minerva was our default sitter.  She took us once for a week once while my parents went to Florida when I was seven. When my parents returned, Minerva had given me a very tight permanent. I looked happily showed off my new hair. My mother almost burst a vein…she said I looked like little orphan Annie. My parents were a little more specific about what was allowed and what wasn’t when we were left in the future.

The small two bedroom house she lived in always had several cats.  One of them was usually very mean and usually black.  I remember it being dark, with heavy curtains. It smelled like cats and cigarettes. As I was allergic, when my parents needed a sitter and for a week or two in the summer, I would stay the night with Gran and my sister (who wasn’t allergic) stayed with Minerva.  I’d take my meds and spend time there anyway. We’d play card games and read the Reader’s Digest in her TV room and have tea. She had a very old game system…I can’t even remember what it was.  We’d play an 8-bit hamburger game on her little TV and eat potato chips and drink soft drinks (which weren’t as accessible at home). She was never the baker that my Gran was. She would make pasta and spare ribs or buy us take out for dinner.

She never worked.  She never had any children. I’m not sure why. She told me once that she couldn’t see bringing a child into the world when it was so screwed up. She was very passionate about over-population and disease and famine. I wonder now if she just wasn’t able to have children, and had built up that wall to protect herself from the questions. She was very good with my father and his sister – a godsend to my Gran after her husband died. She was great with us too – and her face always lit up when there was a baby in the room…

I wonder sometimes if she lived the life she wanted to.  She did always seem very cheerful, but I wonder if she was lonely. I don’t remember her travelling much. She’d go to my aunt’s cottage and one time I think she went to Jamaica with Edgar. But I don’t think she liked planes much. She told me she didn’t have to go anywhere because the miracle of television meant she could see any place in the world. I wonder what she would have thought of the Internet.

She died when I was in my thirties.  I was (am still) estranged from my father, and hadn’t seen her as a result for over ten years. I came across her obituary while reading the paper at work, and crumpled.  Although she’d been absent from my life for some time, I felt the loss freshly. I slipped in to her funeral, leaving before the end so as to avoid any scene.  But I needed to be there. I hadn’t even known that she was sick.

I was more impressed by the loss than when my father’s sister died. I also discovered her death in the paper. I drove to her funeral and sat in the parking lot briefly.  Leaving instead of going in.

There are parts of my childhood and adulthood I regret (even though I try to live with no regrets). I regret that she died without me having a chance to tell her what an impact she had.  Despite her kooky nature – I remember her being very kind and sweet.  And don’t tell my mother…but I loved my perm.

Did you have a woman in your life like my Aunt?

Image credit: Ambro /

Follow Live by Surprise on TwitterGoogle+FacebookPinterest and Bloglovin


  1. Such a beautiful post about your Great Aunt…I’m so sorry you were separated when you were older…
    I’ve lost a lot of people close to me from a young age…I can relate to the loss that you feel/felt when you learned she was gone. I think the ones who truly love us never leave…they’re part of us. And I think they also know we say goodbye even if they didn’t hear you before they departed. You are as much a memory to her as she is to you…two different sides of a coin…and because of that you’ll always be part of each other… Hugs
    (Ps I hope I didn’t accidentally post twice…my device timed out on me). Hugs to you!!!

  2. Such a beautiful tribute to your aunt!!! Thank you so much for sharing this story…I’m sorry you couldn’t say goodbye before she passed…
    I’ve lost a lot of loved ones along this road, close family members…since I was very young. I think it’s true that the ones you love never leave you, that they are part of you, and they know that you said goodbye in the way that you could. <3. Hugs.

  3. My parents are both only children, so I have no aunts or uncles. I felt that absence as a child, and even more so once I had my own kids. Being called Aunt Dana is a close second to being called Mommy; I can only hope that my niece and nephew will remember me with the same love that you remember your Aunt Minerva.

    I think my grandmother would have been friends with yours and your aunt. She was the best.

  4. Aw, this gave me goosebumps. That’s so sad you didn’t get to say goodbye but maybe there was some conclusion that you came to terms with back when you left the family. We always keep our memories no matter what happens. I think you were very courageous to go to her funeral regardless of your father. My only Aunt who was involved in my life as a child, I just reached out to before Christmas (mid November). I want to take her out for lunch. She’s eighty some years old now and I wanted to have an opportunity to tell her I appreciated my visits to her home as a child and just having her as an Aunt. its time I reach out again. Thanks for the inspiration, Liv! I’m sure your Great Aunt loved you very much!!

    1. Author

      That’s great Lisa – I wish I had done it. I’m happy I mended my relationship with my Gran – and we did talk about her sister – so I did get some resolution there. At least one regret was averted. I hope you’re able to reach your aunt!

  5. This is a lovely evocative insight into a down to earth family with all its quirks on show. Very entertaining and warm. I had my grandma and her half sister in my life. They were real characters too and strangely, like your aunt, mine was really quirky and off-beat too. Very happy memories.

  6. I had three unmarried great-aunts who lived in Scotland (where I was born). I left there when I was four and grew up in the then-called Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) half way across the world from them. I only saw them for a few weeks when I was 12. Yet the three of them were so very dear to me, and as I was the only child in the family, they loved me to bits. One even flew all the way from Scotland to attend my wedding – the first time she’d ever left the UK and she was in her 80s. As they died, one by one, it was like losing part of my heritage. Thanks for this post. I loved it.

  7. OH wow- this was so fascinating to read. Going down this memory lane- learning about sweet Minerva and the relationship you two had. I could picture all the scenes you described from back then and envision her stinky smoky home and her quirky antics. I’m impressed about the perm! LOL

    I only had one aunt- I didn’t know her well. BUT she was kind and loving and I still have a blanket she knitted for me a long time ago. Her daughter and I are very close cousins.

    I believe I AM that quirky aunt to my sister’s kids in many ways. 🙂 I’m kinda proud of that.

    1. Author

      I like to think I’m that aunt too. My niece spends a week with us every summer and she gets to eat crap and swear and listen to bad jokes. thanks for reading!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *