Five years after that fun celebration, her health started going sharply downhill — and I knew her days were running out. And then, a few weeks ago, she died at age 96.
In my memories, we’re always at the beach together, because she and Uncle Ray lived across the street from the ocean for decades.
She relished taking visitors down to the shore to point out turtles’ nests. And she was thrilled when on one visit, her relatives — including my husband, Jef, and me — witnessed a mother turtle laying eggs.
On another visit — which turned out to be my husband’s last — Aunt Rita was delighted when we reported seeing baby turtles rushing to the sea.
My parents died when I was 29, and she became a second mother to me. She was there when I received my doctorate from the University of Florida, there when I married Jef — and there when I bid him goodbye at the cemetery.
Born in New York in 1921, she was the youngest of six surviving children born to Italian-American parents. Shortly before her birth, one of her sisters came down with a life-threatening illness.
Her parents prayed for the intercession of St. Rita, the patron saint of hopeless causes — and the little girl was healed. As a sign of gratitude, they named their next baby after the saint.
Aunt Rita grew up in a brownstone house that featured a huge kitchen decorated with black-and-white octagonal tiles, put into place by her father.
She shared a room with her sisters, Doris and Grace, bunking down on a cot at the foot of their bed. She didn’t sleep in a regular bed until she got married.
Her family was close-knit, with aunts and uncles living on the same street. At Easter there were so many family members, her father created makeshift tables by laying boards on top of sawhorses.
We became close friends over the years, writing letters and talking on the phone frequently. As she aged, she confided that, despite her faith, she feared dying and leaving this world behind.
You see, although she attended Mass faithfully, prayed and read her Bible, she struggled at times with doubts.
I assured her that everyone has these struggles, but my aunt had a deep skeptical streak — and viewed my opinion with further doubt.
Toward the end, she was in and out of the hospital with recurring lung problems — and instead of praying that she’d be with us a few more years, I prayed, “Please let her have peace of heart and a gentle death.”
One afternoon, I was standing in my kitchen and suddenly had a vivid image of Aunt Rita and my husband together.
My cousin Julie called a few hours later to tell me her mother had died. Although I was prepared, I cried because I’d lost a friend, as well as an aunt.
But my prayers were so beautifully answered, because Julie had asked her, “Mom, are you ready to go home and be with Jesus?”
Without hesitation, Aunt Rita answered, “Yes” and died soon after.
And who knows? Maybe I pictured her and Jef together that afternoon because he was walking along the beach with her, sidestepping baby turtles — and giving her a tour of heaven.
Lorraine’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org