It’s cool this morning. Chilly even underneath my sweater. The first one I’ve worn this season. My iPhone says it’s a crisp 52 degrees. Downtown, the wind whips around all the buildings. The constant breeze is inescapable. As I walk to my office, the city is waking up. Yawns turn into a faint fog in the autumn air. A storeowner waters his freshly planted mums in the window boxes outside. In the firehouse next door I see firefighters grabbing their heavy coats before hopping inside their truck, opening the massive glass garage door and wailing their siren as they speed away.
I cross the street. I step over some newly set streetcar tracks. The asphalt is still wet around the metal. Nearby, a woman pauses with her stroller and tucks her baby’s blanket tighter around his chest. They decide to wait on the corner for the walk signal. I run past them during a break in cars. It’s colder as I run so I slow down. I look up. The trees lining Walnut Street are still mostly green – but a shade that hints change is near.
It’s fall in Cincinnati.
I’m almost to work and I’m thinking of my Aunt Marcy. She was one of my grandmother’s sisters. (My great-aunt, technically.) She loved Cincinnati. For much of her life she lived and worked just across the river in Covington.
For me, a kid in rural Kentucky, she was the closest thing to a city woman I had ever encountered. She never learned to drive. She rode the bus and took cabs. I was fascinated. She was a career waitress on a popular riverboat restaurant. She was good at it too. She waited on Nick Clooney and his young, unknown at the time, son George. She schmoozed with then-mayor Jerry Springer and other politicians. Talked sports with Reds coaches, players and fans.
She was fierce. She spoke with a pointed, slightly crooked finger – waving it just a bit in front of you for emphasis. She wore big costume jewelry. I particularly remember her collection of clip-on earrings. She never pierced her ears. Her sewing skills were impeccable. She made the curtains and upholstered the chairs in her living room – and altered all of our clothes.
Her laugh was more of a cackle. It was deep, loud and warm. She pronounced Cincinnati, “Cincinnat-ah.” When she lunched downtown she loved to people-watch at Fountain Square. She was amused by all the women in skirt suits and sneakers – their high heels temporarily tucked away in their purses for the walk.
Her town is now my town. I wonder how many of the buildings I’m passing right now she once passed too? Do we share any of the same shortcuts through the city? Does my bus take any of the routes she once took? What would she think of Cincinnati now? The revitalization. All the new. And the effort to save and remember the old.
She died in 1997 when I was a teenager. The last few years of her life she lived closer to us. I visited her often with my grandmother. They had seven other siblings – but I think they were perhaps most fond of each other. I remember my grandmother telling me one night how after Marcy’s kids were born (twins!) she moved in with her. The unexpected two-at-once handful required reinforcements.
“They didn’t have any idea she was going to have twins until they were here,” my grandmother told me. “I had just graduated from high school and she called and wanted me to come help.”
They lived in a tiny house. Marcy and her husband gave up their bedroom. That became the nursery. They moved into the living room. My grandmother had a cot in the hallway.
“You never knew where you were going to sleep or if you were going to sleep at all,” she said. “We worked our tails off. Had to do the washing on boards and carry the water for rinsing. We scrubbed those clothes and diapers by hand. Just imagine for two now? And they never both went to sleep at the same time. For both of them to take a nap – it was like heaven. We celebrated and hollered if both of them were asleep at the same time. We’d sit outside under a big tree in her backyard in two little old chairs and laugh and talk and act silly. You almost had to. Sometimes Marcy would buy us cold drinks and a little wrapped chocolate cake from an old store down the road. It was a really hard time raising two kids at once – but Marcy really made it a fun time. She was good at that.”
I grew up also knowing my Aunt Marcy had a tragic past. It was one of those family stories you almost couldn’t believe. Like folklore or legend. I’m sure she wished every day it wasn’t true. But for her it was a reality. For her it was a nightmare that probably never stopped hurting.
First, she lost her daughter. (One of the twins.) She died as an adult in a car wreck. She left behind a husband and four children. Then a few years later the unthinkable. A house fire. It ripped through the home of her daughter’s remaining family. The flames were too hot, too intense. Marcy’s son-in-law and four grandchildren were all killed. It made national news. My family remembers the haunting images of four little white caskets lined side by side.
I can’t imagine my Aunt Marcy’s pain. It was the first inconceivably terrible story I can ever remember hearing. Tragedy now had a clear, close-to-home definition in my head. And it happened to someone I knew. I was so sad for her.
By the time I knew her though, she had long since picked herself up. Somehow. Somehow she was able to keep going. Somehow it didn’t define her. My grandmother said it was her faith. It was unshakably strong. Years later when she was sick and in her final moments – my grandmother – her best friend – was there by her side. They prayed together until the very end.
On this cool fall day I feel like any of the people walking next to me, bundled in their extra layers, could be her.
As a kid, when I thought of my Aunt Marcy, I thought of Cincinnati. Now, when I think of Cincinnati, I think of her.
I’m not so sure she really ever left.