There is a kind of dignified poverty encountered in 19th century British literature. Clean, neat, quiet, well-read, hard-working and uncomplaining, these people, dwelling on the fringes of society, are portrayed as reading classics by candlelight after a long day of work, perhaps aloud, while another family member darns a tired sock for the umpteenth time. They take in mending and other tasks from their social betters, and are sometimes invited to large gatherings where they meekly take seats on the periphery. They are fictional creatures, bound up as minor characters in musty books.
My (great-) Aunt Ann and Aunt Marion lived that dignified poverty, although it was the 20th century, in the cold water flats of Jersey City. My grandmother’s younger sisters, their time spanned Jersey City’s deterioration and ended before its re-gentrification.
Passing them on the street, you would not notice them: two older maiden ladies, often arm in arm, purses tucked under their coats in fear of purse-snatchers. Who would give a thought to two old ladies? They kept an extra dollar in one shoe, just in case. They dressed neatly, and well, and cared for their few possessions so that they could be worn for many years. Cursed with a genetic tendency to lose their hair in middle age, they wore demure, neatly styled wigs. Aunt Marion, being a bit flashier, had sparkly corners on her cat’s-eye glasses, and a preference for the color red. They worked in sweat shops and at other menial jobs. Aunt Ann, for a long time, operated the elevator in a business office skyscraper, an opportunity to work in a cleaner, quieter environment. Neither had an 8th grade diploma – the meaning of “graduation” in their time and place. They could not drive. They traveled little, to visit family sometimes. Their tiny apartment was sparklingly clean. They read classic literature, were knowledgeable about history, current events, and the activities of the people they loved. They loved, it seemed, everyone. They were cheerful and generous beyond their means, unflaggingly loyal to their nieces, their nieces’ children, and their children. Devout Catholics themselves, spending considerable time daily in prayer for others, they were remarkably tolerant of astonishingly stupid and bad behavior among their extended family. It mattered not how grievous the misdeeds: the errant youth was, at heart, Aunt Ann and Aunt Marion would assert, “a good girl,” or “a good boy.” After all, look how good she is to her mother; see how thoughtful he is towards his sisters. Anyone whose deity is harsh and unforgiving never met someone like Ann or Marion. The closest they came to criticizing was sharing a sidelong look and a single, slow nod, a kind of connection possible between two sisters who grew up together, raised two nieces from ages 8 and 15 together when one of their older sisters died, and shared the same ancient double bed most of their lives.
Strolling past, you would have looked through them, and unless you are a very special person indeed, you have looked through, perhaps, thousands of people like Aunt Ann and Aunt Marion. Not out of meanness, but because the people of the remnant – that pure and poor bit of holiness – are so often, apparently, invisible. Besides that, both poverty and old age frighten people, and thus we look away. If not away, exactly, then certainly not directly at them.
They have been gone for many years now, and I still regret that I was not a good-enough niece, certainly not worthy of the fondness and praise they heaped upon me. From Florida, I sent some homemade cookies now and then; a randomly spaced letter between birthday and Christmas cards, small gifts that I thought they might like at Christmas. I mentioned, during their lifetimes, my befuddlement at their level of praise for what a good girl I was to my mother, who loved them dearly and called them often. She stopped what she was doing to look at me and said, “Please. Do you think anyone else gives a thought for two old ladies?”
A sad question, that: who gives a thought for two old ladies, or an old man or two?
How hard is it, to give a thought for any other person? “People will not remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel,” is the theme of the “most important award” at our granddaughter’s Catholic school, and one we were proud to hear she had won at the end of second grade. It is good to know that the kindness and sweetness we experience from her flows outwards, beyond the family. Her precocious insight into human nature is something she wields only with compassion. At seven, viewing Goodbye, Christopher Robin, she watched WW I veterans stomping balloons and announced, “They are doing that to learn not to be scared. “ She makes people feel special. Perhaps she has a touch of her great-great-great aunts’ spirits.
The gift of presence is that quality of attention: the attention that lets someone know that right now, they are the most important person, and whatever they are doing with you is most worthy of their attention. (My aunts, having read Tolstoy, could have told you all about it, but only if you brought it up first. They would not show off, and they would never broach a subject that might embarrass someone else.)
How powerful their capacity for presence within their humble, dignified way of life, a life that seems invisible to those who will not look at them. Then again, who would give a thought for two old ladies?