By Marianne Ruane
With Halloween in the air, I had ghosts on the brain. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I found myself thinking about my great-Aunt Mary, my grandfather's sister and a pivotal character in our family lore. Mary never married and had always lived in my grandparents' house. My Aunt Sally is still bitter that she grew up sleeping in the bed with her -- a hardship intensified by my great aunt's habit of chewing raw garlic before bed. When Mary's job at the railroad was eliminated by machinery in the 1950s, she became depressed and took off one night from her home near Scranton during strong snowstorm. She was found frozen to death a few days later in a stand of woods in the Poconos, sitting under a tree with an umbrella over her head. My Aunt Sal, who was in another town then and didn't know Mary had left, swore that she had woken during the night to the sound of Aunt Mary calling her name over the din of the howling wind.
Even as a child I was moved by the loneliness of the story. My dad explained that once great-Aunt Mary lost her job, she felt useless. Maybe she thought her only contribution had been financial and that she would be a burden as an unemployed family member. As a single aunt myself, I can only think: You were living with your brother, his wife, and their seven children! How could you not be needed? How heartbreaking that she felt so lonely when she was surrounded by family and love. If she loved my aunts and uncles with even a quarter of the intensity with which I love my niece and nephews, I can only imagine how awful she must have felt to leave them, how hard it must have been.
I chastise her,
yet I acted foolishly when Hurricane Sandy hit
When he decided at
the last minute to stay with his kids instead, I was hysterical, like the heroine
of a 19th-century novel working herself into delirium. Completely
embarrassing, but I was seriously terrified and not thinking clearly. I live
two blocks from the
me to fill up any pots and containers I had with water, to look for radio
batteries, to check the Internet and see what the latest news was for
The best part of it all, though, was realizing -- gradually -- that I did matter, that I was loved. Several friends called or texted to see how I was doing. My mother called, in hysterics herself that the roof might blow off their house in Scranton while my father was still at work, and I found strength to reassure her. In the days following, several more friends checked in to see how Philly fared, and a work colleague who lives near me said I could have stayed with her. I'm so grateful that everything was fine.
I'm not alone -- no one is alone really. If I had asked for help instead of going to pieces, I could have spent the time during the hurricane more comfortably. I tend to focus on the one "no" I get instead of all the "yes's" that surround me. I'm sad that Aunt Mary wasn't able to feel all the love around her, that she wasn't able to reach out for help before she took off that night. I hope, at least, that she was at peace with the beautiful snow storm around her when she died, in awe at nature's wonder. I would have wished her that.