Eleanor, or "Auntie El" as she was called by everyone, was my primary caretaker for the first fifteen years of my life. Auntie El grew up in the blue-collar town of Everett, Mass., never married and lived with my grandmother, who was her older sister. She spent her spare time bowling and looking for bargains on items nobody needed. Auntie El worked for the Gillette Company for 43 years in its South Boston factory as an inspection clerk in the Quality Control Group, scrutinizing the edges of razor blades under a microscope. Auntie El retired in November of 1989, the exact same month and year in which I was born. My parents both had demanding jobs with long hours and therefore needed someone to look after me during the day. Three months after I was born, they still had not found a babysitter, and time was running out. My grandmother volunteered her younger sister, mainly to get her out of the house they were sharing. Auntie El was called in to "pinch hit" on a temporary basis.
Cranky and wheezy from her latest cigarette, Auntie El walked into our house on her first day wearing her flowered apron and carrying a plastic grocery bag in which she packed her clothes for the week — not exactly Mary Poppins. Both my parents did not see this arrangement working, but were grateful for her services until a suitable caretaker could be found. She took care of me for two weeks until she went on a previously scheduled trip to Las Vegas. I guess she must have softened to the idea of caring for me because, halfway through the trip, she called my mother and told her she wanted the job full time. Auntie El started the next Monday.
No longer able to smoke because of my fragile lungs (I was on a respirator for several days after I was born), Auntie El had to find activities to take her mind off cigarettes. She took me on long walks every day and, as I grew older, would play catch with me in the backyard. Her health improved dramatically. We were good for each other.
As the years passed, we became even closer. By the time I was in first grade, she was a faculty favorite at my school and could be found waiting for me every day in the parking lot in her white Cutlass Ciera Oldsmobile with her BINGO plate on the front. She quickly became a school legend when she was the only adult in memory to join the Halloween parade which took us through every classroom in the school in costume. Auntie El wore a witch's hat and a black and orange polka dot apron; I was a fireman.
Through our years together, we had numerous adventures. One night, her nose bled profusely and she could not stop the bleeding. Since my parents were at work, she had to call an ambulance and was forced to take me with her. With the sirens blaring, I hopped in the back, dressed in my red Power Ranger pajamas.
Auntie El's tough, gritty mentality made me a stronger person. She grew up without a father and her family was poor. She and her siblings were taken out of school by tenth grade in order to help support the family. She never missed a chance to point out how hard my parents worked to provide me with great opportunities and called the town in which we lived "la de da land." I always had Auntie El to give me a dose of reality.
The littlest things seemed to pull Auntie El and me together. Our passion for food was a regular topic, and we would have daily discussions on what I had to eat for lunch that day at school. Late at night, I would sneak up to her room and watch episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond and would laugh until my parents heard us and ended the fun. No matter where we were, you could always find Auntie El and me laughing about something and enjoying the moment.
In the fall of my freshman year, Auntie El was diagnosed with colon cancer. After a successful operation, she spent some time in a rehabilitation center to regain her strength. On Thanksgiving evening, 2004, Auntie El suffered a heart attack. She fell to the floor, and hit her head. She was found later the next morning, and was pronounced dead. I found out when I heard my mother scream on the phone with the hospital. Auntie El's passing affected our whole family, but it was particularly tough for me. My good friend, my partner in crime and my teacher was no longer with me. Coming home to her every day for fifteen years was something I really enjoyed. Arriving home to an empty, quiet house and having days pass without talking to her was the worst experience of my life. I did not know life without Auntie El.
However, my family and I had to adjust but I did not know how to start over. I found myself thinking about Auntie El a lot and, one day, realized that she was still with me when I would hear her voice in the back of my mind during a test or a game or just when I was making dinner for myself.
More importantly, I realized that Auntie El instilled in me the values that I admired in her. She was genuine, caring and respectful. She taught me to work hard, and be mentally tough for life's challenges. Her perseverance and grit showed me a lot and provided me with the perfect role model for life.
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