Of all her sisters, only Peg could talk to my mother when Mother was drinking and angry, which was quite a lot of the time. I saw Sister Alfreda, as the Order of Mercy nuns called her, also perform this magic of tact with her other sisters, whether enraged, determined, drunk, or all of the above. Aunt Peg quietly listened (a lot) and talked (a little) them out of it.
My aunt’s diplomacy and patience might have served her well in the US Foreign Service. To my young eyes, Stalin couldn’t be more difficult than my aunts, especially Aunt Ann on a toot after she threw her husband out. And my aunt the nun had plenty of practice: There were seven sisters who all had complaints, especially when they were fortified with Four Roses whiskey.
She was a saint to us cousins, always sweet and supportive of our schooling, even giving us IQ tests that I suspect she doctored in our favor. I was willing to brag my score but wonder now since she declared my brother a near genius. She always had amusement park tickets and, as we grew to a driving and agnostic age, snuck St. Francis medals unobtrusively into our cars, which may have saved some of our lives.
Aunt Peg was well educated with graduate degrees and served as head librarian at the local Catholic university.
The emotional and spiritual power she exuded obscured her mental deterioration, which went undetected for a long time. I was already in my forties when one of my more ordinary aunts, a nurse, spotted the encroaching dementia that my aunt the nun suffered. But it was this “ordinary” sister, Nancy, who stepped in and guided Peg through the medical and Mercy Order bureaucracy to a lovely room in Mercy Hospital.
“How do you like your room, Peg?” Nancy asked.
“It’s fine, except for the talking door,” Peg said.
“The door over there talks at night.”
“Peg, I’m sure that there are just some people behind the door, maybe in the next room, that you are hearing.”
“Nancy, I’m seventy-six years old, hold two master’s degrees, and have held very responsible jobs my whole life. I know the difference between people’s voices in the next room and a talking door.”
After hearing that story, I was afraid of a difficult visit. But when I arrived she seemed bright-eyed and lively enough to make me initially think this would be a real pleasure.
But just before I stepped inside the room, a nurse grabbed my arm and said, “Don’t, under any circumstances, give her money. She took a cab out of here yesterday.” I disengaged myself and said okay.
“Hi, Peg, how’s it going?”
“It’s very nice,” she said, keeping an eye on the nurse and then the door when we were alone.
“Jay, please let me have some money.” First thing, not even a hello.
“Well, tell me how it’s going,” I thought might distract her.
“Oh, it’s fine, but I need some money.”
“Peg, the nurse told me not to give you any money.”
“Oh, what does she know?”
“Well, let’s just visit a minute. My son, John, is doing fine in middle school, excels in Spanish.”
“That’s great, but Jay, but about the money.”
Distractions, small talk, family gossip, none were going to work. I thought about the nurse’s desperate grasp of my arm and her pleading look. But then I thought about my terrific Aunt Peg and all she had done for the family. She was a saint and saints deserve at least a few dollars. And there were two kinds of problems here: the nurse’s and mine. I voted for mine. But I thought maybe I could have a win-win for everybody. I’d give Peg some money but not too much.
So I gave her $10. I thought the visit went wonderfully.
After she had passed away (it only took six months), the stories of her intelligence and gentleness and wit abounded throughout the family. But many of them ended with Peg’s final comment on my last visit, one that cemented how unequal our loving relationship was as well as disestablishing my generous nature in my family forever:
“How far does Jay think a person can get on ten dollars?”