Remembering Aunt Irene
January 28, 2014
It's been a few years since I stayed in Vallejo, Calif., with my oldest son, Don, and his wife, Earlene. Don is a late riser, but Earlene and I would get up on Saturday morning and head out to enjoy some time doing those "women" things.
We found a great bakery and each week would try some new treat along with their wonderful coffee. As we enjoyed our food, we began a new tradition, each of us talking about something that had happened in our lives that we had perhaps not thought about in a long time. Of course, because of my age, I had a lot more stories to tell than my daughter-in-law. That young woman remembered everything.
I'm explaining this because yesterday a caller checked on Doug and I and asked about my column. When I told them I had been writing about the house on 15th Street, Earlene immediately asked if I had talked about Aunt Irene. Then Don asked if I had mentioned the flu epidemic in the early part of the last century. I had to smile … that little house in Philly was just filled with stories.
Mother told me how she and her sister had stood upstairs and watched out of the front bedroom window as men driving horse drawn wagons had entered house after house to bring out the deceased. They say that the epidemic was worse in Philly than anywhere else in the East. Mother told me they had to stay in the house for weeks without even stepping out on the front porch.
Mother also talked about standing at that same window and watching huge columns being carried — also on wagons — to be placed at the front of the then new hospital being built a few miles away. Those columns should have been brought a block away on Broad Street, the street that runs from one end of Philadelphia to the other. But back then it was built with cobblestones and the rough ride would have ruined those beautiful columns.
Now about "Aunt Irene" who was my cousin's aunt, their father's sister.
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First of all I must explain that my mother was a piano teacher, a really fine musician, and my dad taught dancing. My sister Jeanne and I both sang in the church choir. We were a musical family. I don't know what happened on the other side of the family, but my three cousins were tone deaf.
If you don't know what tone-deaf is, it means somebody who while singing has no idea that they are out of tune and they are sliding up and down a musical scale that is unbelievably bad. It can be just awful to listen to. Back in those days there wasn't much to do in the evenings. If anybody could play the piano we'd all stand around and sing along with whatever tune they were playing.
When my cousins chimed in singing, it was enough to frighten grown men. I remember my cousin, Eleanor, the youngest, asking me if she thought she could join the choir. Thank goodness she didn't try. Now we come to Aunt Irene, who also played the piano. Aunt Irene was self-taught. Her idea of music was slamming the piano keys so hard the room shook, and she had the habit of missing the last note of every, single stanza.
Trying to sing along with her playing was painful, but my sister and I never wanted to be impolite. One special weekend, on a Friday night, Aunt Irene showed up unexpectedly and plans were made for her to stay – along with Jeanne and I — until Sunday night. All I could think about was what it would be like to listen to my cousins and their aunt as she banged away on those ivory keys.
My mother gave my father one of those "oh no" looks and simply smiled. My sister Jeanne and I found some excuse or other to accompany mother and daddy home as they exited rather early to get away. No way were we staying on 15th street for a whole weekend with Aunt Irene.
Years later at an Eastern Star meeting, we had a substitute pianist, and she did the same thing dear Aunt Irene did, skipping that last note of every, single stanza. People kept looking at each other and all of us tried to keep up with her poor interpretation of the music. All I could think about was Aunt Irene.
Edna Van Leuven is a Churchill County writer.