Yesterday, I learned that my great aunt Margaret died.
According to my sister, who has taken care of her recently, Margaret had not been doing well. She was disoriented often, and angry most of the time she spent with my sister. But this is not how I remember my great aunt Margaret, because the last time I saw her was 2007 (or maybe 2006), nearly a decade ago.
At the time, she was kind and nice. We had a cordial relationship. When I saw her, I'd give her a hug and say hello; she'd return the greeting, and then I'd go sit elsewhere in the house. It was a neutral relationship.
It wasn't always like that. I have fond memories of being close to my great aunt Margaret. I remember being so excited to go to her house in Pensacola, Florida, and listen to the waves on the beach. I remember sleeping upstairs in the guest bedroom and reading The Lord of The Rings for very first time. I remember how she'd buy her meats and cheeses sliced much more thinly than any other person I know, and how I adored the sandwiches she'd make for lunch. I remember the strange-looking ashtrays she had in her house, and the air purifier that ran constantly. I remember the organ I used to play on, and the deck from which my uncle Michael threw me into the Gulf against my screaming protestations, all while he claimed that this was the best way for me to learn how to swim. I even remember watching my sister crawl for the first time while my great aunt Margaret sat looking on in her rocking chair with a smile on her face.
I have all these great memories. But at the same time, I can't be sure that any of them are really true.
They certainly feel true. They feel as real to me as when I ate at a restaurant yesterday, or as the time that I first went to The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas.
But I have good reason to doubt my older memories. I have a clear vision in my head of a wishing tree in my backyard as a child, through which I threw coins and made wishes that inevitably came true. I only ever wished for small things, like getting to go out to eat that evening, or getting some small toy that I wanted (I was a kid, after all), but I have a very clear memory that after dozens upon dozens of secret wishes I made at that tree, every single one came true. This seems unreasonably accurate, so my current guess is that I'm misremembering the times when my wishes did not come true.
When it comes to my great aunt Margaret, I have even stronger evidence that my memories are faulty. Every memory I have as a kid involving her is exceedingly positive. I recall going to her house and having fun every time. I remember it clearly as something that happened repeatedly and always positively.
So, in my teenage years, when I began to have very strong negative feelings about life and did not know where to turn, I found myself retreating to the family member for whom I had the most positive associations: my great aunt Margaret.
I came to her doorstep in tears, hoping for affection, love, and understanding. I don't know exactly what I needed back then, nor even what I wanted, but I did know that whatever it was, I needed it badly. My life felt like it was tumbling down around me at the time, and I was starting what would turn out to be a lengthy (but temporary) bout of depression.
I knocked on her door. She greeted me. I think she was uncomfortable with my tears. I just asked for a hug.
After a short while, she asked: "Why have you come to me?" She was wondering, I think, why I would choose her company over others. So I explained how I had so very many memories of being around her. Of coming to her house and enjoying her company. Of the board games we would play on her glass table, and of all the times that family would come and visit all at once, for some holiday or another.
She looked at me strangely as I said these things. By the time I stopped talking, she looked like she was scared for me -- or maybe scared of me. She told me that we had only met two or three times, because she lived in Florida, and I had lived in Alabama. She told me that my memories were wrong, and that I was expanding a few short visits into the mistaken idea that I had come to see her often as I grew up.
Today, when I relate this story to others, they ask: "Did she have dementia?" or "Maybe she just wanted to be mean." But no, she was not like this. She had a sound mind at the time. She was a nice person. It was my memories that were at fault here, not her.
So I don't even know what to say about my relationship with my great aunt Margaret. On the one hand, I have such strong memories of so many happy times with her. But when I think of them, an image of her from my teenage years beckons, telling me that I am wrong, that we are not close, that it is weird for me to come to her crying in such a state as I was in.
I am sad to know that she has died. I feel like I loved her as a close family member. But maybe it was all in my head. I don't know how to tell the difference. Either way, I mourn her passing.