An Aunt Passes

April 22, 2009


I have three aunts on my father’s side: Diana, Naomi, and Henriette.

Diana, is most like my grandmother Agnes, a horrible narcissistic woman who may have ruined my father. Diana is in now a sanitarium with Alzheimer’s disease.

Henriette, the youngest of my three aunts, is still active and energetic in his 80s in New York City. She makes calendars to sell featuring reproductions of fine art she pulls from the Internet.

I bought her a computer and a fine printer so she can make her calendars. She has been paying me back at $30 a month. Her last check arrived Saturday. She proudly told me that she is half way to paying me back.

She also told me that it was sad about her sister, Naomi, thus informing me in this off-hand, roundabout way that Noami had died

Naomi was a force or nature. All of my three aunts were narcissistic personalities like their mom, but all of them turned out a little better than Agnes.

Naomi studied to be a ballet dancer. She reached the apex of her career when she danced in the chorus line of a road company production of the musical Oklahoma. She moved to California (I suspect to try and get into the movies), but then she divorced her first husband (whom I never knew).

One day she was at a party and she met Donald. Donald was about ten years younger than Naomi. He was an engineer and a cowboy from a California high desert pioneer family that owned a ranch near Hemet, California.

As soon as he saw Naomi, Donald asked her to dance with him, even though he could not dance a bit and Naomi, a ballet dancer, danced very well. As they stumbled around the dance floor, he told her, “I want you to marry me.”

Isn’t that one of the most romantic stories you ever heard?

So Noami married him.

Most of the time, Donald was very quiet. As a product of a cowboy family, he was the strong, silent type. Although he didn’t say much, when he did speak, it sounded very profound. Naomi sometimes said, “Donald is very deep.”

As one of three narcissistic sisters, she had met her match and brought out the best in each other and counteracted each other’s worst tendencies.

Their two daughters, Joanna and Valerie, turned out very well. I always thought of them, the product of a Chicago Jewish family of alternative health nuts and a California high-desert pioneer ranching family, as an example of “hybrid vigor.”



They lived in Fullerton, California for many years. Naomi ran a dance studio for during most of that time, teaching children to dance ballet and to tap dance. Donald went back to school and switched from being an engineer to being a chiropractor.

After a while they decided to become citizens of the world. They moved to England, then Sri Lanka, then India, and then to Australia. We lost track of them and they lost track of us. Donald became a professor of chiropractic at an Australian college. Valerie became a chiropractor like her dad, and married an Australian chiropractor.

Joanna, like my brother B, was good at learning languages. After becoming fluent in French and Spanish, she said, “Those were too easy. I am going to learn Chinese.”

Joanna moved to Taiwan and became fluent in Taiwanese Chinese and Mandarin Chinese. She started working as a translator and international deal maker, helping American companies and Taiwanese companies set up business arrangements. She met and married Kenny, a Taiwanese businessman. They started a company called Graco which makse baby furniture and baby strollers. They became millionaires. (Most of my relatives remain poor all their lives, but my cousin Joanna became a millionaire and my mother’s brother George Perle, an obscurely famous composer did pretty well also, being awarded a Pulitzer Prize in composition and a MacArthur Genius Award, honors which also pay pretty well.)

Similar to her parents, Joanna had two daughters. The youngest was born almost deaf. Joanna took her daughter to Australia, where she was the first Taiwanese child to have a cochlear implant. Joanna was so grateful that her daughter learned to hear that she decided to use her millions to set up a foundation so every deaf child born in Taiwan who can be helped by cochlear implants gets one and follow-up training. Unfortunately, Joanna died of breast cancer some years ago, but her foundation lives on. Her two daughters attended the “American School” in Taipei, Taiwan. The school built a library and named it the “Joanna Nichols Memorial Library” after my cousin.

My aunt Naomi, as I’ve said, was a force of nature. She was a person who engaged in relentless self-improvement, studying yoga, becoming a vegetarian, and following just about every plan she could find intended to defeat death and decay. I think she really hoped to live forever. She told me once that she died on the operating table during heart surgery in Taiwan and had the “going toward the light” experience that many people who have Near-Death Experiences report.

However, it discouraged her greatly when her daughter died before she did. Eventually, Naomi and Donald moved to Australia. Her hips gave out and Naomi the ballet dancer and relentless physical fitness follower became a cripple in her last years, cared for by her younger husband, my uncle-in-law, Donald.

In her last letter, Henriette informed me that Naomi died recently. I hope Aunt Naomi found the light she was going for.

When my wife and I married, I was 21 and she was 18, way too young to get married. We didn’t hate each other, but I don’t know that we were “in love.” Perhaps not having much romance at the start of our marriage saved our marriage.Without meaning to, and even though we used protection, we conceived a child on our honeymoon. We probably would not have ever had children if it had been up to us, but having a child probably saved our marriage some more.

When our child was born, I thought, “I have no idea how to deal with being a parent. All I know is that I will not do what my parents did.” Surprisingly, I stuck to that vow to at least an 80% consistency. As I struggled to figure out how to be a parent, I developed what I now call, “Mad Scientist Parenting.” Even more surprisingly, my daughter, who will be 42 in August, still speaks to me and visits us voluntarily without nagging.

When I have to deal with my very extended family (siblings in Maine, Vermont, Missouri, and California, aunts in Australia, New York City, and Connecticut, obscurely famous uncle also in New York City), I feel great anxiety. When I was invited to a family reunion about eight years or so ago, I resisted going. When my travel and lodging expenses were mysteriously paid, I went; it seemed ungracious to refuse to go. (I didn’t realize at that time that my cousin Joanna had gone to Taiwan to learn Chinese and had turned into a millionaire and to please her mom, my Aunt Naomi, had paid for the entire reunion.) I teach computer classes; I tell my students, “Don’t worry so much about learning about computers; study your Chinese if you want to get rich.” As a fair number of my students are native Chinese speakers, they regard me with some bewilderment, or at least inscrutable expressions.

Relatives wanted me to call them on Saturday. I put it off for a couple of hours, and then forced myself to act like a family member.

I started with my aunt Henriette. A year ago or so, her husband died in her arms as she tried to carry him to an alternative health practitioner. Her son had already moved as far away from her as he could. As everyone in my family detested her husband (whom she married and supported because he said he would train her to be an opera singer for the Metropolitan Opera), and he felt the same way about my family, she is rather isolated from other members of my family. As I was first nephew, and as someone who knows a (very) little about computers, she has focused on me as the family member she can reach out to. One of her sisters (Diana, the most like their awful mother, Agnes) is in an home for people with Alzheimer’s. Her other sister, Naomi, who was a ballet dancer and teacher and health food and exercise fanatic, is now living in Australia and crippled.

I suspect that Agnes, their mother and my grandmother, was a narcissistic personality. (David is certain his father is also a narcissistic personality.) Diana (who fled her family because their dad, dentist turned naturopath who was at the least, a crackpot, insisted on trying to provide enemas to most of Chicago, including to his three daughters and his son-my father)-had lots of personality. I figure as a way to stick a finger in her parents’ eye, Diana married a conventional doctor. When I met Diana and her three children at the reunion, they told me that she had “destroyed” her husband, by then dead. Although Diana did not strike me as being as dreadful as her mom, there was still a lot a lot of firepower present; I could easily imagine her doing in her husband by sheet force of personality.

Naomi, the ballet dancer, married an engineer from a Hemet, California cowboy family. He had probably grown up roping cows and riding bucking broncos; he was at least a match for Naomi. He was about ten years younger, as well. I am not exactly sure of the dynamics of their marriage: most of the time Donald is quiet but exudes confidence and an air of inscrutable profundity. Naomi speaks of him with respect and dominates everyone else in the room.

Naomi had two daughters. Joanna became the Chinese-speaking millionaire.The other, cousin, Valerie, is a chiropractor educated in Australia but now living in Spain. I had met Joanna’s husband, an Australian chiropractor, who joked around so much he dismayed even me. Joanna has since kicked him to the curb.

Compared to her older sisters Diana and Naomi, Henriette is merely a turbine-powered drill who quietly wears away at whatever is in he way. Since I last talked with her, she has gotten a part time job at a senior center. As her son Carl (much more of a computer nerd than I) refuses to talk to her any more when she has a technical support question, I am her main source for computer assistance. At 82, she is more adept with computers than 80% of the students I work with who are over 70, which means that she knows enough to get herself in difficulty. She taught herself some Excel to use in her job; so Saturday, she had some Excel questions which she tried to describe over the phone. Every time she wants computer help over the phone, she drives me crazier.

I bought her a computer and a fancy inkjet printer. She is repaying me at $35 a month. Now that she has a job, she proudly informed me that she is going to pay me $70 this month.

She made up some calendars to sell, using fine art reproductions she copied from the web. She sold a fair number of her calendars; unfortunately, with the cost of ink she loses money on each calendar she sells. She asked me to find a way to get the printer company to sell her ink more cheaply because she is in business. I suggested she find someone from SCORE to give her advice on running her business.

After I talked with Henriette, I called my youngest brother, J, just diagnosed as suffering from bi-polar disease.

His wife had written to me and my other brother:

J will be getting out of the psych. unit this afternoon. They ran more blood tests this morning, checking levels of medication, cholesterol, etc. and if all is well then he is good to go!!! He is very happy about this and will be coming home after a week and a half of being away. The psychiatrist told me that J followed the program really well.

Please understand that he needs to be on medication and please be supportive of his recovery. It is his choice to take the meds and to go through therapy. There are chemical imbalances in his brain. He will continue with psychotherapy [at the clinic]. He plans to get back to working with vocational rehab. and ARC of the Ozarks, an organization helping to find job placement. He may also get an extension on his unemployment which would help financially. Even with insurance, which I pay an unreal amount of premiums for, we have hospital bills that are mounting up. I am so glad that we bought up to the “premium” insurance plan. I am certain that this will pay off in the long run – whew!

I am trying to be positive and am hopeful that we will see differences in J’s mental stability within the next 6 weeks (time for the meds to work). Wouldn’t it be wonderful if he was able to think more clearly and to function and be productive. A brilliant mind is too beautiful of a thing to waste!

I talked with J. There is almost no affect in his voice. As at the last time I talked to him (at the family reunion about eight years ago), he strikes me as almost entirely out of touch with his feelings.

I told this to my wife. She looked at me. I said, “Why do you think it is so difficult and threatening for me to talk with my brother? He’s like me, except worse,” I said.

6K Henriette Loses Something

February 24, 2008

I suspect that my relatives, especially my father’s three sisters, believe that if they follow the correct procedures—that is, procedures involving alternative health practices, they can live forever.

Evidently, this began with my grandfather Harry, who figured out from what he had learned from Dr. Kellogg that colonic therapy (giving enemas to “clean out ‘toxins’ from one’s system”) will ensure if not eternal life at least a very long one. Although no one in my family still practices “hydrotherapy” (as it is also called)—perhaps because my grandfather died a long time ago—it is still widely practiced in our society. For example, in the small unincorporated town five miles from where we live in the woods on an island, I see a clinic with a sign advertising hydrotherapy. This advertisement from Arizona gives an idea of how slickly (so to speak) this therapy is marketed today.

This practice persists despite the fact that most conventional medical authorities—such as the National Council Against Health Fraud—consider hydrotherapy not only NOT beneficial—but downright dangerous.

Given the suspicion about conventional medical practices in much of our society, it is probably not surprising. For example, when I was 30 years old, I suffered from a duodenal ulcer. Not known then (but realized now) most ulcers are caused by bacterial infection. So there is plenty of reason to be suspicious of conventional medical practice as well as alternative medical care. Nothing but witch doctors for me from now on.

After Harry died, Grandmother Agnes left Chicago to live with my Aunt Naomi in Fullerton, California. By then my family’s alternative health care focus had switched to fresh carrot juice. The grinder ran day and night grinding carrots to make juice for Agnes, who died of cancer anyway.

When my millionaire cousin Joanna (who became wealthy by learning Chinese) developed breast cancer, she could afford the best treatment in the world. Her father, my uncle-in-law Donald (who had switched from being an engineer to being a chiropractor), her mother, Aunt Naomi, and her sister, Valerie (who also became a chiropractor), scoured the world for the best conventional medical treatment (which they decided could be found at a clinic in Colorado) and the best “alternative” medical treatment (which they decided could be found at a clinic in Germany) and took Joanna to both those locations for treatment.

Joanna died anyway, perhaps confirming the superstition that if you become too fortunate in one area of life—in her case, becoming a millionaire—the gods will balance the scale in some other area of life—in her case, dying of breast cancer (which spread to her brain) about the age of 50 and leaving behind two young daughters who now combine an ethnic heritage of Taiwanese Chinese and Eastern European Jewish ancestries.

Grandmother Agnes and her three daughters Diana—who married a conventional doctor in rebellion against her enema-applying father, Naomi—who became a ballet dancer and pursued relentless self-improvement all her life and is now a cripple in Australia, and Henriette—who married Morton in defiance of her family because he said he could coach her to be an opera star for the Met—were women of enormous will and determination.

Diana’s children told me that their mother had “broken” their father the doctor. Naomi’s husband Donald—from a cowboy family in the California high desert—was a match for Naomi, and their daughters displayed hybrid vigor.

Toward the end of his life, Henriette’s husband Morton developed cancer.

Henriette became irritated with him because he became apathetic and lost interest in living. She was determined to save him through alternative health care. As Henriette had worked as a waitress while she practiced her opera singing for the call by the Met that never came and supported Morton because opera coaching was so demanding, they did not have much money. As I had suspected, her sister Naomi had used some of Joanna’s money to support Henriette and Morton until Naomi needed the money for her own ailments.

As I was her first nephew, and because her son Carl fled across the country in a desperate search to find a life and identity of his own, Henriette has fixated on me as the one relative she can depend on for assistance and help in times of stress. She called me when her computer confused her and she called me when she wanted to sell art works of dubious provenance on eBay to raise money to get alternative health care for Morton to save him in spite of his fatalistic apathy.

I turned to my brother B—who owns a crafts business and has sold items on eBay—and only lives a couple of states away from Henriette in New York City instead of across the country as I do—for assistance. He said in polite scorn (as did several other people I consulted)—that Henriette was very unlikely to make much money in this fashion (as I had suspected).

I called Henriette to tell her that I was not able to help her. She told me that it no longer mattered. The day before she had tried with the help of a neighbor to carry Morton down the stairs of her New York City apartment—he was now too weak to walk by himself—to take him to an alternative health practitioner.

“He died in my arms as we went down the stairs,” she told me.

I was stunned and shocked by this news, as I was a bit shocked by the rather cool and detached manner in which Henriette delivered it to me.

“He didn’t want to live any more, anyway,” she told me. Henriette is still vigorous in her 80s, and it is clear that she still is very determined to keep on living, even if her now ex-husband had decided to drop out.