“Nothing is perfect. Life is messy. Relationships are complex. Outcomes are uncertain. People are irrational.” — Hugh Mackay
Remember the feature in Reader’s Digest called “My Most Unforgettable Character?” These stories usually described people both heroic and saintly. The “characters” oozed inspiration from every pore.
My Most Unforgettable Character never climbed Mt. Everest or cured cancer or was even particularly nice. But she showed me, as no one had done before, how complex people could be. Before her, I thought of my fellow humans in simple black and white terms —the good guys and the bad guys. Since knowing her, I’ve learned to see gray everywhere — the basically good guys and the somewhat bad and every nuance in between. Am I glad I knew her? Beyond a doubt. Did I love her? I’m still not sure. For your consideration: My Great-Aunt Rose.
She was born Rose Morris on the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the turn of the 20th century, and lived there all her life. She was the pampered baby of a family that included her big sister Florence (my wonderful, maddeningly self-deprecating Nana) and the middle child, Harold. Harold died long before I was born, but I heard a lot about the hapless child who became the disaster-prone young man. Indeed, until I was about 10, I thought his name was “Poorharold” because that was the only way his sisters referred to him.
Like Florrie and so many other young women of the day, Rose decided to be a school teacher. Unlike Florrie, Rose really didn’t care much for children, which made her decades-long stint in P.S. 20 pretty painful. Over the years, Nana would often learn glad tidings about her former students; this one was a concert pianist, that one won a Pulitzer. Rose would note with amusement that HER past pupils seemed to all find their way onto Death Row. From Aunt Rose I learned the regret of the wrong path taken, and the gift of laughing through disappointment.
Rose married late, and for money more than love. Uncle Ernest was a rich widower, and she dreamed of a very comfortable lifestyle. Alas, Ernest soon became an invalid, and his care drained their funds and her spirits. The experience made her bitter, and she started obsessively hoarding her every dime. In the end, she left a sizable sum to her only nephew, my Dad (who soon blew it all, but that’s another story). From Aunt Rose I learned the poisonous side of money.
Summer afternoons at the Jersey Shore, Aunt Rose would stretch out in a beach chair, ever-present cigarette in hand, and tell stories, some of them pretty far-fetched but always supremely entertaining. Nana would chuckle and urge her to go on. We would sit near them, playing in the sand, feeling the special comfort of children listening to the grownups chat. From Aunt Rose I learned to tell stories well and truthfully, save the occasional embellishment that added spice to the telling.
Rose was a hypochondriac who went on “vacation” every spring, checking into the hospital to have tests run for various phantom aches and pains. She had doctors who specialized in body parts I didn’t even know existed. I can still see the cracked maroon teacup that held her rainbow of daily pills. She walked miles every day, and ate such exotic delicacies as grapefruit and yogurt and fish. When Rose died, it was a lingering death from a stroke. From Aunt Rose I learned the difference between maintaining and worshipping the body, and came to understand that all bodies will fail us eventually.
Rose played favorites among us, regularly doting on one as she threatened to cut another out of her will. We all took turns being in her good graces and on the hot seat, a bizarre kind of “fairness.” But she never ignored us or acted less than really interested in our lives. From Aunt Rose I learned that we all play favorites sometimes, for better or worse. I also learned never to cut anyone out of my will — not that there was ever anything in my will anyway.
Rose always wanted to be in control, from insisting that Nana leave my abusive grandfather (Nana never did) to walking in front of a taxicab, holding up her hand and declaring “Stop! I’m a retired school teacher of the City of New York. Let me cross!” (She got hit by the cab.) From Aunt Rose I learned that there are some situations you just can’t fix — and to wait for the green light.
Sometimes, when I look in the mirror, I see traces of Aunt Rose — my dark hair, my hot temper — and recall my very mixed emotions. But as I write about her now, I realize that I DID love her, warts and all. Rose died August 16, 1977, at the age of 77. (Elvis Presley died the exact same day, and his death got a lot more coverage in the press than hers.)
And so I paint a portrait of My Most Unforgettable Character, using a palette with every shade of gray. The same gray that colors us all. And I remember that even gray can be beautiful.
Elise Seyfried is Director of Spiritual Formation at Christ’s Lutheran Church in Oreland. She is also an actress, wife, mother of five and co-author (with husband, Steve) of 15 plays for children. This piece is taken, with permission, from her recently self-published book, “Unhaling: On God, Grace and a Perfectly Imperfect Life,” a collection of essays, humorous but with a spiritual focus. The book can be purchased for $15 plus shipping through www.eliseseyfried.com. (Also from Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble bn.com, although they add an extra charge.)