When I was young, I thought that both my parents were only children. When I was eight or nine, I learned that my father actually had a sister and that she was alive and well. She was eight years older than my father so she was in her mid 70’s at the time. Her name was Bertha, she lived in either Wisconsin or Michigan and she had one son and several grandchildren. I knew none of them. I’ve never even seen a photo of any of them.
I confronted my father, asking him why I didn’t know my aunt and my cousins. He told me she had seen me once, when I was two years old. But that was it. He just couldn’t face her.
Why? Apparently my father was consumed with guilt about his sister. She had not had a great life and he felt he was somehow to blame. Their mother died of Tuberculosis when Dad was three and Bertha was eleven. For several years, Bertha had to take care of Dad until their father came home from work. I don’t know if that meant she had to stop going to school.
When their father remarried, their step-mother doted on my father but was cold to his sister. Bertha didn’t get to go to college but my father did. He got an education, a career and a successful life. Bertha got trapped in a loveless marriage with someone who could barely make a living.
I don’t see how most of this was Dad’s fault. But his success in life made him feel nothing but guilt towards his sister. My father never abandoned Bertha. They talked on the phone once a year. He always sent her money so she never wanted for anything. He also paid to send her son through college. He just wouldn’t see her.
No matter how much I begged and my mother cajoled, I never got to even meet my aunt when I was old enough to remember her. I think my mother once met with her son when he came to New York City. I know she had his contact information in her address book.
I never understood my father’s aversion to seeing his sister. If I felt guilty about a sibling, I’d go out of my way to be super nice to her and her family. I’d include them as cherished people in my family’s life. I certainly wouldn’t punish them by banning them from it. Instead, my father isolated Bertha from her only family. I think he made her life worse, but I think he was too self-absorbed to see that — or to care.
I felt cheated. I understood I could never have been close with my aunt and her family because of geography. I also understood sibling relationships are often tense, even hostile. My grandmother and her brother would spend years at a time not talking to each other. But some contact with Bertha and her family, some small connection would have meant a lot to me.
Unfortunately, my father’s ‘issues’ deprived me of what little close family I had.