18 September 2009

Here's to you, Lulu.

wedding day, july 16th, 2005: 
me, steven, aunt lucille, my brother glen, sister-in-law trish, cousin paula, mom, dad

A week ago today, my dear Aunt Lucille left this world.  I can hardly believe it's true that I'll never again hear her say "Christineey-Weenie," her lifelong nickname for me, or the sound of her contagious laugh.  She fought a 3-month battle with lung cancer and in the end, her body just couldn't take it.  "Get me outta here!" were some of her last words to the Catholic priest, Father Owen, who anointed her head with oil as she labored for each breath. He prayed a blessing over her in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, she closed her eyes, and never opened them again.

The day before she passed away, after previously hearing that she was doing well and about to leave the hospital, my brother and I got an unexpected call from my parents.  Aunt Lucille had taken a turn for the worse and was now asking for her last rites and for her family to surround her.  My brother and I tearfully booked the next flight out of Dallas that night, only to frustratingly have our flight canceled at the last minute due to bad weather.  We returned to the airport early Friday morning for the first flight out, and as we were boarding the plane, received the dreaded phone call: "She's gone."  After cursing American Airlines, a haze surrounded me as I realized that I would never see her alive again.  I thought back to my last phone conversation with her in late July - she had giggled a lot in her usual way.  She had sounded totally normal.  Her voice still echoes in my head.

* * *

The sound of laughter and the smell of marinara sauce and meatballs filled the entry way of the house on Kinney Street.  The air outside was chilly in the December New Jersey air.  Bundled in a wool coat and boots, a little girl of age 4 climbed the tunnel-like steps to the second floor apartment of her Aunt Lucille and Uncle Tony.  Her feet could barely reach above each stair, but the comforting aroma led her quickly into the warm home.

It was Christmas afternoon, and about twenty people were already crammed into the tiny kitchen and around the dining room table which was the centerpiece of the family.  It was the site of classic Italian-American meals of baked ziti, homemade meatballs, braciole, and garlicky salad with black olives {and that was just the first course}, along with every dessert you could possibly imagine.  Before dinner, the little girl's favorite thing to do with olives was to put one on each finger and call them "meatballs."   Her favorite Italian cookies were the ones shaped like leaves and shells.  After dessert, the little girl sat on their laps for awhile before going back to the livingroom to lay on her stomach and draw in her Sunshine Family coloring book that her aunt kept for her in the cabinet beneath the coffee table.  Meanwhile, those in the dining room erupted into a game of Pinocle or long conversation over unmarked bottles of red wine made by Uncle Tony...

* * * 

These are some of my most vivid childhood memories.  Most of them include Aunt Lucille, her warm home, and my loving Italian family.   As an adult, there was the long evening we all shared the day after Steven and I got engaged in Central Park.  I remember every moment of that night, how happy we all were, and how they received my soon-to-be husband like he was one of their own.

steven sitting next to aunt lucille in red

aunt lucille laughing

Last weekend, my cousin Paula, Aunt Lucille's daughter, asked me to write the Eulogy to be read at the funeral mass.  How do you capture the beauty of a person's life in 3 minutes from a church lectern?  It doesn't seem possible, but I did my best.  When the service was over, one of her lifelong friends came up to me and said, "You knew her well."

Then, we all went back to Paula's house where there was more food than you could imagine - it seemed every five minutes the doorbell rang with another neighbor bringing a tray of baked ziti.  When it was all said and done, every fridge was full of about 15 varieties of ziti and penne.  We enjoyed another meal together, and the warmth in the room was tangible, as always.  Choking back tears, I realized that some things change, and some things never do.

After dinner, I poured myself and my dad each a glass of Cabernet.  We looked at each other, and as if with an unspoken understanding that runs deep in our blood, we clinked our glasses together as a toast. "Here's to you, Lulu!" we said in unison, and threw our heads back and drank.

* * * 
My Aunt Lucille's Eulogy
We had many different names for her: Mom…Lou…Aunt Lucille…Grandma Lulu…Lulu Belle...Lucille. But there was one name we all had in common, and that was family. Even Aunt Lucille’s friends were like her family to her. That is just how she lived life – she was devoted and loyal and would do anything for those she loved. Photographs of her friends and family covered every surface of her home – the walls, her bedroom mirror, the refrigerator, leaned up against knick-knacks on shelves, even stuffed into a sauce pot in the closet. All those smiling faces are evidence of a life well lived, a life where she loved deeply and was deeply loved.

To me, she was “Aunt Lucille,” my dad’s dear sister, and in my 31 years of being blessed to share life with her, she was the epitome of fun, honesty, kindness, and love. I could write an entire book of my wonderful memories and stories of Aunt Lucille, but for now I’ll just focus on how well she loved other people, and how much fun she was to be around.

Aunt Lucille has been taking care of people her entire life. When she was a child, she wouldn’t let her brother Frankie leave the house without being properly dressed. All his clothes had to match – his socks with his tie, his shirt with his pants. As an adult, her home was a place you would always feel comfortable. There would always be a smile for you, and a plate of cookies. There’s no question that this is what Aunt Lucille was put on earth to do. We are all better people because of the way she raised us, taught us, celebrated with us, walked beside us, loved us, and cared for us.

With any decision Aunt Lucille ever made - whether it was going to the grocery store or going on vacation - she always thought about how it would affect her family and others she loved. She was fiercely loyal and serious about her relationships. She was an integral part of the community. Everyone in town knew “Lou” who worked at the Borough and was a part of the Madison and East Hanover communities for almost 70 years. Some of her closest friends - many of you in this room - are friends she had, literally, her entire life.

She walked with us through marriages, divorces, baby births, and graduations. She was shopping partner, travel buddy, confidant, mother, sister, cousin, aunt, grandma, and the best friend you always wanted by your side. She loved fashion and good Chinese food and country music and the beach. Her meatball recipe can probably never be replicated. And who could forget that smiling face? Glowing cheeks, honest, sparkling eyes, wide flashing grin. She was vivacious, full of life…and oh so silly.

Yes, Aunt Lucille loved to laugh almost as much as we loved making her laugh. We would say something funny to get her going and she would giggle and giggle until she begged us, “Stop it! You’re gonna make me pee!” That, of course, only made us laugh harder. Her favorite recliner chair was the site of a lot of crazy antics. We'll never forget the day she decided to relax in her recliner chair and enjoy an ice cream cone. When she went to sit down, she didn’t just sit, she plopped. Well…that day, she plopped a little too hard. The force swung her back and tipped the chair until her back was on the ground and her feet were sticking straight up in the air! “Briiiiiiaaaaan!” she hollered for one of her grandsons to come rescue her. When Brian arrived, there was Aunt Lucille, still stuck on the floor, but holding her ice cream cone desperately in the air like it was the Statue of Liberty’s torch. I wasn’t there that day, but I’m almost 100% sure that when he tipped her upright again, her face was wet with laughing tears.

From Aunt Lucille, we learned how to be better people – how to laugh at life, how to embrace those we love, how to watch over our siblings, and how to treasure our children and grandchildren. So, how can we best remember her?   Go on living.  Go on loving. Be happy for her that she is at peace now, free from pain, and that she’s still doing what she does best, just now in Heaven.

From all of us here left behind, bye bye Lulu. We miss you so very much. Thank you for bringing so much goodness into our lives. We promise to keep laughing and caring and loving and serving each other well, as you taught us to do.


Christiana said...

Such a beautiful tribute to an undoubtedly remarkable lady.

Tara said...

I'm laughing and crying - the best kind of story. What a wonderful lady. Every family needs a Lulu. :)

allison said...

Beautiful, Christine. Thank you so much for sharing.

marisa said...

thanks for sharing, CB. you painted such a beautiful picture of a life well lived.

Robyn Jones Clark said...

That was a beautiful eulogy,stine! So sorry your aunt Lu had such a tough battle. She was a blessed woman to have a loving beautiful niece as you.