On remembering

Dedicated to my aunt who passed away on September 26, 2022.

It was my aunt who first taught me how to iron clothes. Start with the collar, then the sleeves. The shoulders and chest next before the buttons. (Or was it the other way around?) Sweep your hand down each newly pressed section. Alternate between steam and starch until the creases are crisp, clean, undoubtedly neat.

Everyone in the family knows she was the best at ironing. It was a skill only she was able to master. As I child I never wondered how she became an expert. I assumed she simply enjoyed it. But as stories emerge at her wake about the piles of laundry she washed by hand, all generated by four younger brothers, and the meticulousness with which she washed and hung their clothes, I realized (belatedly, much to my shame) that her skill emerged out of traditional gender roles, not necessarily out of enjoyment or choice. Perhaps she did not mind doing it because it was the way she knew how to express affection for her family. My discomfort at hearing these stories again (and some for the first time) must stem from me imposing my American feminist perspective on someone who would most likely claim neither of those identities.  

As I write her eulogy, I scratch out whole sections of text about her being at peace, about her sacrifices. Because I want her to be more than those things. More than the stories of how she couldn’t finish school because she had to take care of her siblings, how she never married and instead dedicated her life to family. I want her to be more than her smile and laughter, more than her pale, pretty face. I want to believe that she had secrets she whispered only to a select few. That she had depths she did not willingly show to everyone—only if she thought you deserved to know.

I can’t seem to write an ending for your eulogy. I don’t want it to be an echo of what has already been said. I want it to be true, even if it’s not as neat and comforting as the creases on a newly-ironed shirt. So I confess to those present that I do not know much about you after all. I asked questions about your life too late.

I’ve forgotten minute details: you ate a banana every day without fail; after you retired, you walked around the neighborhood daily as long as it wasn’t too cold. I was only a witness to a small part of your life. I wish I was reading your words about your own life up here. Tell me how you want to be remembered.

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