Posted by Lizzie on 10/28/05
I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank all of my excellent guest bloggers — Liam Callanan, Tayari Jones, and Casey Greenfield — for giving me a three-week break. As some of you may or may not know, my aunt Cheryl — looking like the stewardess version of the Ghost of United Airlines Past (“Flight attendant! Flight attendant!”) at your left there — died this January of breast cancer.
Aunt Cherie was a stewardess (“Flight attendant! Flight attendant!”) for the now vanished Pan Am, back when airline travel was still glamorous, jetting off to Pago-Pago and Hawaii and, in one of Pan Am’s ill-conceived exercises, actually cooking actual eggs in the plane’s galley. (As her friend Darryl explained, the situation finally reached to point where it became necessary for the staff to cheerily ask passengers, “And how would you like your scrambled eggs today?”) My favorite exemplar of the life well-lived, in the sixties, Cherie was the first black cheerleader at New York’s City College and — duh — the captain. She had a Master’s in French from Columbia, was bossy as hell, and stayed abreast of new Brita filters. When we were younger, she brought the family eel briefcases and kimonos and knock-off Louis Vuitton from jaunts in Hong Kong and Tokyo. She was obsessed — obsessed! — with any keypad gadgets, and would probably have handed out Blackberries to everyone she’d ever known, had the technology worked overseas.
At home in Seattle, Cherie worshiped at the temple of Costco, picking up smoked salmon and cheeses and 40-pound packs of paper towels. There was no sitting at the kitchen table without a spread of nibblies and Shiraz, and there was no day without calls from at least three continents. On any break from her chemo regimen, she would fire up a Buddy Pass or jump on a jump seat and head off to Australia or Wales to see friends. She was the first person to buy me a leg-waxing kit, and the first person to introduce me to Orlane. In one of my favorite stories was from last summer, I lay in her guest futon, unable to sleep, while Cherie, speedy on an energy boost drug that came bundled with her protocol, called up at least six other countries to chat before vacuuming the living room.
Cherie was also, to put it mildly, a saver. When she died, my parents gave away all they could to her friends, only to turn around and find that Cherie still had three — cheese trays, All-Clad, coffee grinders, rice cookers — more of everything. She had kept all of my grandmother’s bills back to 1973, and printed out a copy of every email anyone had sent (the swing to digital safety from plain old paper happened after her electronic awakening). In every other book, Cherie had a letter from the person who sent it from her tucked in between the pages — and she had saved every letter everyone had sent her. She had nine-thousand Pan-Am courtesy kits, not counting those from United and random hotels in Jakarta, and a hamper of soaps from hotels around the world. There were bags of Polaroids, stacks of foreign currencies, T-shirts from every Olympics. Cherie had saved every Pan Am ID she’d ever had, and one drawer was filled with at least 20 sets of Purser keys. (These were wisely removed by an old friend before we stepped on the plane home — we would probably still be being quizzed by Homeland Security.) Before she’d died, she’d rolled up all her jewelry — which she loved — in brown paper bags and hidden it in her jumble of 40 pairs of shoes. She knew my mother — who always advised that I use the refrigerator — would know where to find it.
On this trip, my father and I traveled out to pack up the rest of her apartment and ship it to my parents’ house to leave it empty for a rental. It took me three days to pack up her china cabinet, which was filled with gifts from thirty years’ worth of friends, her beloved crystal, and the silver sets from at least three relatives. (The local UPS store began laughing at us as we came in — sometimes three times a day — to pick up more bubble wrap.) Her hall closet was stocked with stacks of floor cleaner, towels, toilet paper, napkins, sewing kits, packing tape, and (optimistically) space-saver bags. At night, I tried to finish the last of her salmon and olive spread, then read her copies of 84 Charing Cross Road and Tales of the City. We headed back in the new Passat she’d bought just before she died, sometimes listening to her Abba tape (my father ruled out the soundtrack to The Bodyguard and any Barbra Streisand, and I could not find the John Denver), watching Mount Rainier — which she looked for each morning — recede in the side-door mirror.
My apartment contains many things I care about, but it is also 90% full of crap that I would remove immediately if I weren’t too lazy to haul it down the stairs. But I understand why Cherie could not throw anything she had away. Everything was a gift from a friend, a souvenir from an event, a snapshot of something that contained a story, a piece of a person she loved deeply. When it came time to give away the last of her things, I found I couldn’t leave her pots and pans for a stranger. Not only was there — of course! — one completely unused set to leave anyway, she had shown me how to make Patti LaBelle’s okra, corn and tomato stew on this pan, and soft-boiled eggs on another. (“All-Clad is excellent — Le Crueset is much better.”)
Cherie always liked to be right. (“Correct!”) As those of you who know me can attest, it is imperative that I be right, too. I only won an argument with Cherie once, when she was staying over during Christmas. She’d informed me that we’d been late getting somewhere because I’d been too long in the shower, and I, uncharacteristically, mustered up the unimpeachable reply that I was only late because she‘d had the shower before me. She kept her own counsel briefly — then, the next morning, awakened me from my bed on the couch at five a.m. to drily ask if I’d like to get in the shower before she did.
Cherie, you can have the shower. I love you.
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