Aunt Toots: You Say Patato, I say Potahto

My mom had an aunt named Toots. She was my grandma’s much older sister.  This woman was older than Christ himself before we were even born. She was born sometime in the 1890’s. I often wondered if she had a pet dinosaur growing up.

I can’t remember what started me thinking about her the other day, but I did. I can’t think of the last time I had thought about her. And that’s funny, considering she was a major part of my life growing up. Sort of.

This is Aunt Toots in her younger years.
This is Aunt Toots in her younger years.

I sent a group text, because I love a good group text, to my brothers and cousins. I asked them to share any memories of Toots, that I may have forgotten. It was obvious that everyone on the group text read my blog about friends not letting friends text alone. I was pleasantly surprised that everyone followed the rules.

Apparently, at one time in her life, Toots was a heavyset gal. She went on a diet and destroyed all pictures of herself as fat. She never gained it back. And she never ate a potato ever again either. If she had Facebook at the time, she probably would have updated her status weekly on her progress along with her weigh-ins and workout regime. She was so ahead of her time.

I know my mom shared a room with Toots as a child. That always seemed so weird to me. They lived in a two-flat with my mom and her family on the first floor with Toots. The second floor was where the other sister, Agnes, lived with her husband and kids.

I can remember going there as a kid. We lived pretty close by. Toots always had 7-Up in a bottle for us. She also had a green ottoman that we loved to turn on it’s side and roll around on. And about the only other thing I can remember are these drink coasters she had. I still have them. But the odd thing is, hardly any glasses/cups/cans/bottles fit into them. My cousin Meila remembers her having a purple bathroom.

She was born at home. The first time she was ever in the hospital was when she was mugged at 63rd and Western in Chicago. I think she was around eighty-seven at the time and she broke a bone or two. Thinking of that now, I feel so bad that this poor old woman was mugged, but at the time it just wasn’t a big deal. I’d love to know more about the ahole who did that. Or if he was ever caught. What a jerk.

She always stayed overnight at my Uncle Tank and Aunt Laughy’s house on Christmas Eve. Big Tranny remembers helping his dad carry her down the stairs on Christmas morning. My cousin Daureen remembers her always giving gifts of nightgowns on birthdays and holidays. And we all remember her response to anything was, well that’s lovely.

Toots used to come over and babysit us when we were kids and my parents went out at night. Three kids under five. She was in her eighties. My parents obvi didn’t care if we lived or died. One time, I can remember falling and bumping my head and she came after me with a butter knife. I can vividly remember it. I was so scared. But she was using it to put on my bump, to help the swelling. Apparently, she was not familiar with the invention of  ice.

Daureen told me she remembers Toots babysitting them as well. One time, their parents went to a Notre Dame football game and Toots made them all go in the basement and stare at the screen until they saw their parents on television. Turns out Toots was actually a genius.

Aunt Bethany
Aunt Bethany

The day came when Toots could no longer live by herself, so she moved in with my family.  She looked a lot like Aunt Bethany from Christmas Vacation. And she was deaf as a door nail, too. She could never hear a God damn thing anyone said.  Her hearing aid was constantly buzzing. And she was always leaving her teeth places. Like other peoples’ houses. This is when I start to have memories of Toots.  And they’re worth remembering.

My cousins, Meila, Daureen, and Big Tranny seem to have happy, simple, nice memories of Toots. Juan, Dat, and I have some not so nice memories of Toots. For which we are sure to burn in hell.

Juan and Dat were moved to the basement and Toots took their bedroom, which was right next to mine. And twice the size. Not that I was bitter. I think we were all in our teens by this time. Late grammar school/early high school.

For some reason Toots carried her pocketbook (purse) everywhere she went in the house. She would get up off the couch and take her pocketbook to the lavatory, as she called it. I still don’t know what was so damn important in there. One time, I had to sell calendars for our high school fundraiser. I asked her to buy one and she said, of course. She went to open her pocketbook and asked, how much? I said, twenty dollars. She said, for a calendar? Oh, no thanks. That’s too expensive. Really? Too expensive compared to what? The free room and board you’re receiving here? With a room twice the size of mine? Thanks Tootsie Roll.

When the phone would ring, she would walk all the way from the family room to the kitchen, to answer it. Not that it was far, but for a lady her age, it took some time. She always answered the same way. Catherine Cooney, instead of hello. And that my friends, is how we learned her real name was not Toots.

We used to like to have fun with Toots. My brother Dat and I would constantly flip the light switch in the family room and she would be looking all over wondering what was going on. We constantly tried to get her to eat a potato. She never would.

Sometimes things got weird. Toots like to take her blouse off in the middle of the day for no apparent reason. We could have a house full of friends and she would just sit there with her pocketbook and take off her blouse. It was so embarrassing. The other kids didn’t have old ladies at their house who did this sort of thing.

My parents would go out at night and leave us in charge of Toots, or Toots in charge of us. Still not quite sure what the arrangement was there. Kind of like Tony Danza. Who was the boss? But my brother Juan was always the older and wiser one. Really not saying much compared to Dat and I, but still. Juan had the ingenuity to change all the clocks ahead so that Toots would think it was time for bed. She would say good-night and go on up to bed and we would have all of our friends over for a party. Our parents stayed out late figuring Toots was in charge.

Every night, at six-thirty, Toots would push a chair in front of the television to watch Wheel of Fortune. Every night. Unless, of course, we changed the clocks. She would always solve the puzzle two minutes after the contestant. We weren’t impressed.

One day, Dat and I got Toots to eat mashed potatoes. We knew. The end was near. She had to go live in a nursing home, briefly, until she died somewhere around the age of ninety-three. Finally, the bigger bedroom was mine!

Her funeral was the first one I attended of someone I actually knew well. She was ninety-three. I knew she had a good life. That’s how it was supposed to be. There was no reason to be sad. There was another funeral going on in the same cemetery that day. It was for a very young guy that I did not know, who died suddenly. I can still remember how sad I was for that family. It was my first lesson on how cruel life can be.

And before you ask, I have no clue why she was called Toots. Not sure I ever even asked. It just never mattered.

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