My aunt Carol passed away this past Friday after a long illness. Carol was a remarkable person in many ways. She once said to me that she'd been 10 years ahead of her time in several different respects and this was absolutely the truth. She was not an easy person to be around all of the time, but she stepped up several times during her life and made a difference.
Carol was an aunt, but only ten years older than me. She was closer in age to me than to several of her siblings, which meant that we had a lot of common experiences. In high school in Bloomfield, Connecticut, she earned numerous trophies and plaques playing tennis and these bits of recognition decorated my grandmother's house. She graduated in 1960, then went off to the city for college. My impression at the time was that she was going to Boston, but within a couple of years she'd landed in the Village in New York City. She had a variety of experiences down there and got to know many folks like Bob Dylan, SF writer Chip Delany and poet Marilyn Hacker before they became famous. She didn't particularly like Dylan, but was close enough to Delany and Hacker to show up as a subject of one of Marilyn's poems (see Nights of 1962: The River Merchants Daughter in her Back to the River collection) and later in one of Chip's autobiographical works.
But I didn't know about any of that until later. I discovered Delany's books in the early Seventies and met him in 1976, but didn't know about our common connection to Carol until a couple of years later. I'm sure I saw Carol at family reunions in the Sixties, but don't remember much about that, other than knowing that she always treated me like an equal and had great stories about my childhood from times when she'd been my baby sitter. In the late Sixties, she became a single mother and had a baby girl, Beth. At the time, the details of this were shrouded in mystery -- she was reputed to have been involved with a man who'd died in Vietnam -- but she had changed her last name and now began raising her child Beth in Philadephia.
I graduated from college several years later and joined a computer company, Burroughs, which offered courses in the Philly area. On a couple of nights off, I went into the city to visit her and she was a gracious host, taking me to a very good Chinese restaurant and then we went out to have a few drinks and chat. This was when I got to know her a lot better. We were both in the computer business -- she was a programmer and I did similar work for my company -- but she also loved her city and was one of my mentors in learning about city life. Her life wasn't easy -- she was the only single Mom I knew -- but she managed to combine work and being a mom in a marginal neighborhood near the University of Pennsylvania.
So I visited her whenever business took me to Philadelphia and she always welcomed my visits and we'd take the time to have dinner together and she'd show me more of the city.
A few years later, she relocated to Las Vegas and simultaneously created a startup business related to computer software. It was classic Carol -- she mixed her professional and personal life in the startup -- while Beth stayed behind in Philly to finish her high school education. Shortly after that, I had my first trip to Vegas to attend the Comdex computer show and we arranged to meet for a buffet dinner at one of the casinos. We had a nice dinner together and she told me about her experiences in the city and how the business was going. I'm not much of a gambler, but she suggested I treat the Vegas gambling experience as an inexpensive form of entertainment. It was good advice and helped me cope with the craziness that was and is Vegas.
A few years later, the startup fell apart and Carol started making plans to return to the East Coast. Her mother Margaret was now 90 and had been living in an apartment by herself, but needed more help to stay independent. Carol agreed to come back to Connecticut and rent an apartment that was large enough for the two of them. This began the period of Carol's life as caregiver for her mother. Margaret was in good health, but she needed that extra support of live-in care and Carol put the rest of her life on hold and offered that.
By now, I'd married and had children, and I have fond memories of taking my two sons to see their great-grandmother living in her own apartment along with Carol. Margaret lived until the year 2000 before dying at the age of 97. She was able to stay in the apartment for all of that time and Carol had been instrumental in making that possible.
Carol returned to Philadephia and re-united with Beth. Beth had gotten a college education and went on to get a job in the same computer field that several of us in the family had pursued. By this time, Carol was retired, but she used her computer skills to gather the stories her grandmother Ellen had written during the Twenties and Thirties and distributed them to the family as part of our legacy. Carol also got access to a large number of family photos and digitized them, then sent out a DVD to family members with the photos, Ellen's stories and the family geneology.
A few years later, a social network called Gather.com ran a novel writing contest called First Chapters. I'd written a novel called Growing Up Single, so I joined Gather and prepared to enter the contest. But Carol had gotten there first. She'd joined Gather the prior year -- as an age 60+ social networker -- and she also had an SF novel, Juria, which she entered in the contest. Once again, our paths had crossed and our common interest in fiction writing moved to the forefront. We both put our chapters out in mid-February for comments from the Gather audience and hoped for the best. Privately, we exchanged emails and helped each other navigate this strange new contest experience. We both got both praise and catcalls from the commenters, but Carol offered her candid and thoughtful feedback to me through private emails. It was fun sharing the experience together and the social network became another way for us to interact. Neither of us won the contest, but we both learned a lot about writing and the world of publishing. Better yet, we re-connected in this pursuit of our common interest. She was gracious and always supportive during this often stressful period.
A year later, another business trip took me to Philly, so I headed out on a weeknight and took the train to the suburb where Carol and Beth now lived. Carol gave me a tour of the two story house and then we all went out to dinner. We shared pasta and red wine, along with lots of stories about family, writing and the world of high tech we knew so well. A few months later, Carol sent me an email, suggesting that I come by to visit again the next time I came to town.
About six weeks ago, one of my brothers called me to pass on the news: Carol was dying. She'd had a long term illness and now it had reached a critical point. I got in touch with Beth, who confirmed her mother was gravely ill. Beth had now put her life on hold and was the caregiver for Carol. It was a tough time, made worse by the bureaucratic rules of a hospital that pushed Carol out during a point when she really needed that extra level of care. We hoped for the best, but the end was near.
So now Carol is gone, but she lives on in the memories of friends and family who knew her. Carol was rebellious, rambunctious and even revolutionary in several ways. She was truly sui generis (of one kind). This informed her many roles as mother, caregiver and friend, but I'll always think of her as my favorite aunt. As I've had this weekend to think about the times we spent together, it reinforces how much she meant to me and how she'd so often served as a caring and thoughtful guide as I navigated through various stages of life. I offer these words in the spirit of celebrating her life and sharing a few stories. I will miss her very much.