My Aunt's Ghost

For October, DWF Mag asked the Dream Warrior community for personal essays that explored this month’s theme of fear and ghosts. Below, you’ll find a a beautiful and haunting story by DWF Mag contributor, Kate Delaney about coming to terms with the life and death of her mother’s sister.

Trigger Warning: this article discusses death, suicide, eating disorders, drug abuse, and miscarriage.

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The last time I saw my aunt alive, I made it a point not to speak to her. Years before, I had worked to distance myself from my mom’s younger sister, a woman of too many ex-husbands, too many vain obsessions. As her namesake, I always had a nagging worry that unless I was vigilant, I could follow down the same path—brains  and creativity siphoned away to count calories and coo over men.  

I likely never would’ve given the trajectory of my aunt’s life another thought if the years had just marched on and we had continued to drift apart to become total strangers. But one February night, my aunt came home from work, wrapped a stuffed animal around a handgun to muffle its sound, and shot herself in the heart. When my mother’s brother called to deliver the news, my mom, who was out shopping, screamed so much that mall security swarmed. I didn’t scream, or even cry—at least not right away. Mostly, I felt a leaden sense of guilt. In writing my aunt out of my life, what had I missed?

Here’s how my mom tells her sister’s story.

When my aunt was born in 1960, child number five, my grandparents were done raising kids. My mom, second from the top birth order-wise, was glad to have a sister after three brothers—but not necessarily thrilled.

“I had my own room, and then in came the crib,” says my mom, recounting the perspective of her nine-year-old self.

My grandfather liked to tell the story of his pick for my aunt’s name: Penelope, to be nicknamed Penny, because with the last name Nichol “she’d be worth six cents.”

What was my aunt’s worth? In upper elementary school, her intellectual talents were noted, and she was recruited for admission into a separate gifted school. In high school, her artistic talents garnered enough community attention that the local drug store commissioned her to paint murals throughout the shop.

 “Send her to college,” my mom, pregnant with my older sister, recalls pleading with my grandmother.

My mom sensed both her sister’s talent, and her sister’s propensity to drift off into trouble. Maybe my grandmother did too, but the only money for college was already earmarked for the eldest son. My aunt took a class at the local college, and that’s where she met Greg, husband number one.

My mother remembers tromping through snow, nine months pregnant with me, to attend her sister’s wedding. All of the groom’s family was there, but on the bride’s side only my parents attended. My grandfather did not approve. Greg was black. The marriage, more a statement than a bond, was short-lived, and during, my aunt had an ectopic pregnancy, and learned she would never be able to have kids. After the divorce, she was hospitalized for an eating disorder.

When I was a kid, my aunt was married to Paul, a man I adored and a Vietnam veteran who lacked one leg from the knee down. He would let my sisters and I play with the prosthetic. I liked my aunt when she was married to Paul, a man who was always silly and doting. Drinking seemed to release a merrier side of him, but for my aunt, it unleashed something morose, frightening. When they split up, my mother tried to explain, in the gentle, indirect way you do with kids, the drinking and the drugs.

My aunt remarried quickly after Paul, and the woman who’d dressed like a hippie and believed in healing crystals disappeared completely.

“This Buddhist stuff is okay,” she told me shortly after the third wedding, “as long as you accept Jesus as your personal savior.”

Every word out of her mouth was mimicry of the latest husband, an ultra-conservative just a few years younger than my geriatric grandfather. My mom’s relationship with her dried up almost completely. This husband had no interest in my mom’s sister or her sister’s family. He talked her into selling her house and moving into a remote development. They stopped showing up to family holidays. The last time we spoke was at my grandmother’s death bed. While everyone else fell apart, she was poised, composed, seeing my grandmother through till the end. I admired her strength, and then I resented it. Why had she given her identity away to one man after another?

In trying to tease truth out of my aunt’s life, I can seize many threads. The drinking, the drugs, the eating disorder were not the problem, but symptoms of loneliness, of a longing for self-actualization. Treatment papered over the cracks the way the revolving door of husbands propped her up for a time. I labelled my aunt a failed feminist, but what societal space was afforded to women on their own, without husbands or children, in the 70s or 80s—or even today?

 It’s easy to celebrate the women who power through, but the stories of the women who lose their way deserve an airing too. In facing my aunt’s ghost, I see the potential that might’ve been, the aunt and sister that might’ve been. And I feel an even greater need to fight for a better world for all of us.

Kate Delany