we never called her kate.
to my grandmother, she was kitty. to my mother, and thus to me and my brothers and sister, she was aunt katherine. if my grandmother is the family's little black rain cloud, aunt katherine was its sunny day.
everyone loved her, simply because she greeted the world with a smile. she always had a joke, a question, a funny story. she died at 91, after having sold her home of many years and gone into an assisted living place (nowhere near as nice, according to my mother, as the place my grandmother's in.) even so, the church was filled at her funeral, with neighbors and friends and friends of her only son, johnny, who unfortunately inherited not only his mother's merry heart, but a propensity to drink, from my uncle's side of the family (of course), as well.
he died a couple years before aunt katherine, and in a way it was a blessing, because to say she didn't have an easy time of it with him is an understatement in deference to the dead. she didn't have an easy life in general - my uncle jack was sick for a long time with various chronic illnesses that required her to spend a lot of time looking after him. (actually we used to joke about uncle jack that he was like a timex watch or the energizer bunny because it seemed like everything that could possibly go wrong in a human body had gone wrong in his, and he kept on going.)
she never had a title or a profession beyond secretary, den mother or housewife, but she is indisputably one of the brightest lights in my memory. to this day, my mother tells me how she misses aunt katherine telling her she loved her, and i know why. because when aunt katherine said she loved you, you didn't just hear the words, you felt them too... a great surge of pink perfumed cashmere, that wrapped around you like a hug, and left you feeling warm and full. she is one of the few i think of when i hear the words "great lady." She was great not because she was rich or powerful, but because she was kind, generous and accepting. of all the old women i have had held up to me as role models, aunt katherine is one of the few who ever made me want to be as good as she seemed to think i was.
she is also one of the few who ever showed any kind of awareness regarding my grandmother and her behavior. in her last years, she told my mother that she realized that the family had not handled my grandmother well at all - that a belief that they needed to coddle to her to make up for her lack of a husband had somehow turned her into the pretty awful person that she can be. when my mother told me aunt katherine had admitted that, i was not only stunned, but for the first time felt validated in my own belief that my grandmother's behavior was part of a systemic issue that ran through the family like a vein of arsenic, poisoning the family tree. my mother seemed to believe that my grandmother was just this evil person in the middle of an otherwise healthy loving group of individuals, the one worm-ridden rotten apple in the basket of otherwise beautiful fruit. but i knew that couldn't be so. aunt katherine gave me the lense, finally, through which to look back at the forces that shaped my grandmother.
one of the last times i saw her was at my fortieth birthday. her husband, uncle jack, had died a few years before, and aunt katherine was in her eighties, but she was still volunteering at Chestnut Hill Hospital outside philadelphia a couple days a week. she told me how a doctor had approached her, and had asked her, rather sheepishly, if she was dating "yet." when aunt katherine protested that she was an old lady and was not expecting to date, ever, the doctor blushed like a teenager and said, "but mrs. rosa, i'd love to take you to coffee or dinner if you'd let me."
"so what do you think of that," she asked me. "can you imagine some old coot asking me out, looking at me like i was a piece of spring chicken!"
"well, aunt katherine," i remember replying. "you may not be a spring chicken, but on my fortieth birthday, i sure am glad to hear how i come from a long line of hot old babes!"