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Notes From A Polite New Yorker: Loss of Laughter and Singing - RIP Lizzy O'Donnell
In the midst of this tremendous loss, I was reminded of how lucky I am to have had an aunt like Liz, but also how lucky I am to come from a family that produces such people.
My father is one of seven children born and raised in the Bronx. Growing up with many aunts and uncles is great. Aunts and uncles are adults who are not your parents, and so they are automatically cool and interesting from the time you are a kid. Being taken to see "Little Shop of Horrors" off-Broadway by my uncle Tim remains one of my happiest childhood memories.
Our family lost my aunt Liz this past week. She suffered a massive stroke one morning, and never regained consciousness. She was only 55.
We are lucky to come from a very creative family. My family is saturated with musicians, writers, actors, and lots of people for whom creativity is second nature.
Liz loved to sing and had a beautiful singing voice. One of my earliest memories of my Aunt Liz is going to see her play music. This was back when my grandparents and several of my aunts still lived in The Bronx. There was a street fair of some kind going on. There were rides and games, and music. Liz sang, and she was great. I remember watching her sing, and thinking how cool it was that a relative of mine was so loud and awesome, out here in front of all these people.
Years later, she was driving me to the train after a family visit, and she popped a CD of a recent recording of her singing into the car stereo. She hadn't lost a thing in the 20+ intervening years. It was a comfort knowing that whatever else was going on in our lives- contending with the routine hassles of raising families, paying bills, staying employed- we remained true to the creativity in our blood.
Liz dealt with a lot of the usual unpleasant crap that abounds in the modern age: divorce, being a working single mother, unemployment, underemployment, illness and the like. But through it all, I never remember going to a family gathering where I couldn't share a laugh with her at some point.
She and my other aunts made a habit of playing Scrabble together whenever they could. Years ago at a family party I joined them, and since I was new to the game, asked for leniency in how we judged words. Liz noted that "Fffft!" was not a word. We all had a good laugh at that, and since then whenever I play Scrabble, Words with Friends, or any similar word game, I can't help but think of Lizzy's admonition that "Fffft!" is not a word.
Liz never lost the joy of singing and making music. A few years ago, Liz's band, Coyote, got back together for a reunion. They played in The Bronx, and the show was packed. It was wall-to-wall people, and my wife and I managed to scrap our way through the crowd to be close to the stage area.
Before Coyote played, Liz and my Uncle Danny (who plays guitar) did a short set. It was great to see them play together again. I remember being a very young child watching them sing and play guitar at a family party.
Coyote was true to form, and seeing my aunt play to a packed crowd made for another great family memory.
The news of her death was a shock. Lizzy's passing came suddenly and too soon. There were seven brothers and sisters on my father's side of the family, and now there are six. Six: the number seems obscene now, unfair.
But where my family has been unlucky, it has also been strong. Liz's daughter, my cousin Kerry, is a rock. I hope I can raise my daughters as well, so that they love me as much Kerry loved her mother. And if they are half as strong as my cousin, they will be set for life.
My awesome Grandmother should not have had to bury a daughter, but her resolve to comfort others in the midst of her grief proves we are made from stern stuff.
If my family has any official spokesman or representative, I'm glad it is my father. He has been the one to most eloquently voice our grief and our pride, both this time and years ago when we lost my Grandfather.
My Dad recounted his happiness in seeing my aunt sing in the Bronx at the street fair, and described her contagious laughter, generous spirit, and her incredibly tenacious nature. When Liz caught a pickpocket trying to steal something from her bag on the subway, the police had to pry her fingers from the would-be thief's arm.
Seeing my father and cousin speak about my departed aunt was as proud a moment as it was sad. In the midst of this tremendous loss, I was reminded of how lucky I am to have had an aunt like Liz, but also how lucky I am to come from a family that produces such people.
And true to form, the last thing my father heard from my aunt was a joke that he declined to repeat in church. But anyone who asked outside of church was granted the wish of hearing it. I heard it at the restaurant later where we all gathered for lunch. It was topical and funny, and completely in line with the good humor of Aunt Liz.
No family gathering will feel the same without Lizzy's laughter, but her passing has served as a reminder of what a great family we have.