Last Thursday my dear and wonderful Aunt Evelyn passed away. She was ninety two years old. Her passing marks the end of an entire generation of Abate women whether they were born to the name or married into it.
Aunt Ev, as we all called her, was truly one in a million. I know that people throw that phrase around a lot but in this case, there really was no other like her.
I can still see her face light up with genuine joy when I lived in New York and I would pay her a surprise visit. As I came into her view she would raise her hands high over her head and call out loudly, “Donald’s here!” as if announcing the arrival of the Pope. Neighborhood woman seeing her utter joy would often ask, “Who is this Ev?” With more pride than I can describe she would take my arm as she answered, “my nephew Donald… my brother Johnny’s son,” with almost indignation to their ignorance, as if I were some kind of celebrity that should have been recognized.
Aunt Ev was pure and unconditional love. She had a heart that reached out to everyone. No one would ever have known what a difficult and unfair life she had lived. Mostly because she never felt sorry for herself and absolutely never talked about it.
As a young woman, Evelyn waited for love to come along like every other red-blooded American girl in the 1940’s. One day, it did. She met a man who paid her lots of attention and professed undying love for her. In time, he proposed marriage. Aunt Ev was totally smitten and happily agreed to become his wife even though the young man was out of work. He wanted a big church wedding and Aunt Ev had enough money saved to do just that. She looked stunning in her white ball gown and veil as she marched down the aisle on her father’s arm.
After the wedding, the couple moved in with grandma and grandpa while the fellow continued to look for employment. Aunt Ev had a job and would kiss him goodbye each morning as she headed off to work. In a short time, while still living in her parent’s home, Aunt Ev discovered that she had become pregnant. She couldn’t have been any happier. All that was missing was a job for her husband and she would have the perfect life.
Then one day she came home from work, to find the police at her door. They were arresting her husband. It seemed that he was a bigamist who was already married with a family in Ohio. Aunt Ev of course, was devastated, the horrible shock even causing her to miscarry and lose her child.
To add insult to injury, The Catholic church would not annul her marriage. It seemed that the man had only been wed by a justice of the peace in Ohio, but in New York had a church wedding to Aunt Ev. As far as the church was concerned, the ONLY marriage they recognized was the vows he took with Aunt Ev. So even though she was not LEAGALLY married by any state law, the church told her that she would be excommunicated should she ever remarry.
My poor grandmother had even gone to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral to literally beg the bishop for help. On her knees, she wrapped her arms around the man’s feet as she implored him to understand the situation and release her daughter from this sham wedding. He merely shook her off his leg like a small dog and told her that this was Aunt Ev’s fate and God’s test for her life. I only wish I had been alive to tell him that maybe it was HE who was being tested by God and failing greatly! I am sure that God weeped to see a representative of his church with no compassion for another human being, happily willing to destroy a life without even a second thought. Obviously, the man never entered the marriage in good faith and was making a mockery of the church, the institution of marriage and my poor aunt. Aunt Ev obeyed the church remaining alone her entire life.
As a devout Catholic and Christian minister myself, I feel she was given a raw deal by a man who was high on power that will one day have to answer to God for his actions.
Aunt Ev managed to pick up her life, devoting herself to all of us nephews and nieces bestowing her own special brand of love and nurturing on each and every one of us. She was never embittered by her misfortune and seemed to instead count her blessing.
I remember her relaying a story to me many years ago. It was close to Christmas back in the 1970’s. Aunt Ev was riding a city bus home from work when she noticed a young Latin woman board the bus with several young children. Clearly they were not dressed in warm enough clothing to protect them from the cold winter weather. Aunt Ev eyed the other passengers on the bus. It was obvious that they all were thinking what she was thinking but one by one she saw them all look away as if the young woman didn’t even exist. Aunt Ev opened her handbag, gathering up the cash that she had in it and slipped the money into her coat pocket.
As the bus approached the low income projects, the mother rang the bell for the bus to stop as she gathered up her children. Although it was not Aunt Ev’s stop, she too exited the bus. Once off of the bus, Aunt Ev approached the woman. “Merry Christmas misses!” she told her taking the cash from her pocket to place into the young mother’s hand. The woman was surprised and touched but told Aunt Ev that she couldn’t accept her gift. Evelyn told her that she had to put her pride aside and except this gift in the spirit that it was given for the sake of her children. “God bless you,” the woman cried as she hugged Aunt Ev.
Now Aunt Ev was an older woman supporting herself by working long, hard hours doing piecework in a sweat shop. She made little money and I know she didn’t really have any to simply give away. However it was important for her to do what she could for this family even if she had to do with less herself to do so. I had even asked her, didn’t you need that money? She said, yes it would have made things easier, but I can get along without it and it made a bigger difference where it went. That was simply who she was.
Her home was her little piece of heaven and she took great pride in it. In time, she redecorated her tiny rail-road apartment mostly by making purchases using lay away plans. Aunt Ev had bought some lovely furnishings. Granted some were a little gaudy or a bit too large in scale of the apartment, but she knew that and wanted them anyway. Aunt Ev worked hard for her money and if she wanted to be surrounded by what she felt were “pretty things” than she was entitled to that one luxury. She made two sets of wall-to-wall draperies for her little bedroom. One set for the fall/winter season and another for spring/summer.
One day her grandniece [our cousin Jenn] told Aunt Ev about a part she had in a play. She was going to play the part of a resident of Emerald City in a production of The Wizard of Oz. Calling upon Aunt Ev’s background as a seamstress, she asked if she would make her costume. Before Jenn knew what happened, much like Scarlet O’Hara, Aunt Ev [now in her 80’s] had taken down her spring drapes [which were shades of green and white] and made my cousin the most beautiful gown, the likes of which overshadowed anything out of the MGM musical!
When my aunt told me what she had done and showed me the photographs of the magnificent costume, I remember saying to her, “Its gorgeous Aunt Ev, but I thought you loved your beautiful drapes.”
Without missing a beat she responded, “you’re right, I do. But I love Jenn more!”
That was my Aunt Ev… Our Aunt Ev! A woman who was a hopeless romantic, who routed for the underdog and always helped others when she could.
She chain smoked unfiltered cigarettes for over 60 years until she got cancer. Her reaction to the cancer? She switched to cigarettes WITH filter tips! “What?” she said mocking us for scolding her, “I’m 88 years old… I should quite now?”
She was all of 4’9”, 80 pounds soaking wet but she was a tough cookie who carried her own groceries up the stairs to her walk-up apartment. When she was so ill and not doing well at all, I would call her to check in and chat and she would tell me she was fine. I would tell her that I knew she way fibbing and I was well aware of her condition. She’d laugh at me and say, “so what… I’m in my 90’s what am I gonna do? Complain?”
On a trip to New York, my sister took me into Brooklyn to visit our aunt. We arrived there only to find that she had cooked for us. In spite of her condition, Aunt Ev was happy in her element, presenting us with her world famous pasta, meatballs and sausage!
I’ll miss that cooking, I’ll miss her love, I’ll miss her one-of-a-kind brand of humor, I’ll miss the way she sometimes misunderstood things but most of all… I’ll simply miss her.
Aunt Ev is being laid to rest today. She will be buried with my grandma and grandpa. The world will forever be a different place without her. However those who knew and loved her, will never forget her. We will hold her in our hearts, keep dear the happy memories and find comfort knowing that when our time comes and the lord calls us home, Aunt Ev is among the many wonderful and loving people in our lives that will be waiting to great us.
God bless you Aunt Ev. Thank you for a lifetime of love and laughter. R.I.P.
Love your nephew, Donald. Your brother Johnny’s son! XO