Joyce Sepanski nee Shields was the second of my father's four older sisters. She gave birth to a son and a daughter, both of them born with muscular dystrophy. Her son lived, her daughter did not. For years, she drove a school bus for handicapped children. She helped, in some ways, to raise her youngest brothers. Her husband was a Korean War veteran who stayed very active in the VFW and American Legion his entire life, and by extension, so was she. She was widowed five years ago. Her voice was low, soft, and gravelly. She didn't really smile or laugh very often that I saw. She loved dogs. This is about all I really know about my aunt. I would learn later that Aunt Joyce was the doer and the planner and the knower of where and when, and just how much her sisters depended on her.
In addition to his four sisters, my father had three older and two younger brothers. He and my mother (who was an only child) divorced when I was about three. It was bitter. My paternal family was based in the Midwest, my mother's in New York, where I would be raised. It would be decades before I saw of any of my nine aunts and uncles, their spouses, and scads of the cousins they brought forth.
I reunited with Aunt Joyce when I was about 26. The meeting was hastily arranged by my father when I told him I was going to be in Chicago on business. She and my cousin, Larry, came to the hotel where I was staying and we had a short, happy, if not joyful, visit. Aunt Joyce was a reticent woman, and I can be shy and awkward, too. We were complete strangers, yet family, so we did our best to fill some of the less comfortable pauses. She collected elephants and brought me one from her collection. I'm ashamed to say that after several moves I've lost track of that gift.
|Labor Day 2008|
It would be another 11 years before I saw Aunt Joyce again. The occasion was my father's funeral. I barely remember our interaction, and I daresay she didn't either. When we met at subsequent family reunions, we are always warm. But we really didn't get to know each other well. In my late 30s and into my 40s, I was a rebellious, profane, drinking woman, and I kept company with family members with a similar bent. Five years later, when my father's younger brother died, our family reunions stopped, too, but time continued its relentless march. While I kept in touch with several members of the family, Aunt Joyce was rarely one of them. Of course, we exchanged Christmas greetings and became friends on social media, but that does not an intimate relationship make.
I think my sadness is colored more by regret than sorrow per se. Dad put us together, but we didn't set. It wasn't an absence of familial love, it was the fact that so much of our lives unfolded without each other in it that we didn't know how to catch that up. Or maybe I just didn't know how to catch that up.
At this point, I haven't seen my aunt in roughly 10 years. Time can be quite a cunning thief, stealing days, months, years, until we find decades are just gone, all the while lulling us into the belief that there is a nearly endless supply of tomorrows. Until there are no more tomorrows, people are gone, plans go unmade or unkept. And you STILL don't know a damned thing about someone you love.
There is a part of me that wants to lay the blame for this at the feet of my parents. How they chose to comport themselves robbed me of a family. Deprived me of the attachment to aunts, uncles, cousins, and other kith and kin. There is a deep, rich history to which I am related, but of which I am no part. I was never involved in it and by the time I could be, I had no idea how to be. You're damned right I'm angry and jealous and sad that I missed out on what everyone else has as naturally as the air they breathe.
But I am no child. I am responsible for the choices I make or abdicate as an adult. I closed myself off to an extent. I could have done a hell of a lot more to claim my spot in the family circle. And not just mine, by my son's. Instead, I kept on as I always had, geographically and emotionally distant. So how can I be indignant? I've done no better than those against whom I'd rail.
Grief, sorrow, loss, regret, emptiness is all that's left me now. If I so choose. There are still two aunts, two uncles, a score of cousins, several siblings, a couple of nieces, a nephew, a son, a mother, and a partner. And if I'm lucky, a few more tomorrows to be a better niece, cousin, aunt, mother, daughter, and partner.