My earliest memories of family gatherings include the laughter and love of my Auntie Gail. You could not miss her presence in a room; it was as impossible as missing the sun alighting in the morning sky.
Gail lived out loud in every way. When I was a little girl growing up in the seventies and eighties, Gail was one of the strongest career women I knew. She was not afraid to use her voice — a real powerhouse of a female in a space traditionally filled with men – and she managed to be both fierce and fashionable as she hammered out business negotiations.
Auntie Gail worked hard, and she mothered hard too. In a world that does not easily accommodate working mothers, my Auntie Gail and Uncle Shel managed to raise two amazing sons who have very close and healthy family connections. Auntie Gail’s model has inspired me to seize both a career and motherhood, showing me that there are many different ways to be a good mom.
My aunt was passionate about her love for her boys, and they felt the same way about her. Oh, how seamlessly she could switch from navigating a gritty business call into cheering wildly at her sons’ many baseball, soccer and football games, reveling in the whole experience. She shouted and cheered and hollered along with the rowdiest parents in town. She beamed with pride when her sons scored.
In perpetual motion, Auntie Gail whirled through life, throwing herself into ALL of it. That included her role of being an aunt. Gail did not have a daughter, but she sure knew how to embrace her nieces. The four girls in my family all adored our Auntie Gail. Her personality lit up every party and Bat Mitzvah and bridal shower and wedding and family reunion, always with her signature one-of-a-kind laugh.
Aah, yes, Auntie Gail’s laugh. There was nothing else like it. A combination of a huge cackle followed by an even louder snort, her cries of “Ha!” triggered the mirth and hilarity of everyone nearby. When Gail laughed, all the room laughed with her. You couldn’t help it. The sound of her laugh was irresistible.
When I moved from Florida to Chicago in the fall of 1992 to attend Northwestern, the ONLY familiar thing in my life was the constancy of Auntie Gail, Uncle Shel, and the boys.
On weekends, Uncle Shel hopped into the big white minivan and drove down to Evanston to bring me back to their house, where Auntie Gail was always waiting with a giant smile and open arms.
In the warm walls of their home, the familiar love of Auntie Gail was a comfort and a joy. Every Sunday, we went to Anton’s to buy groceries for my dorm room, and we shared an enormous chocolate chip Carol’s Cookie. We chatted as we watched my little cousins’ soccer games. Shel and Gail’s friends became my friends; I hung out at their houses during every Jewish holiday.
I went shopping with Auntie Gail for new suits when I started my first job. You have never been shopping until you’ve shopped with Auntie Gail. She was a woman on a mission, and she had impeccable taste. She and I spent hours just talk-talk-talking while Uncle Shel patiently waited, always with a good-natured smile on his face. He knew that Auntie loved her girl time.
Auntie Gail was with me and my mom the day we bought my wedding dress in 1999. Auntie Gail cried when we found “the dress” and then she laughed at herself for crying. We found a pair of beautiful long white gloves and randomly asked a salesperson to snap our picture in front of the glove display. Outside in the brilliant sunlight, Auntie Gail and my mom took crazy pictures with the statues of painted cows that were displayed along Michigan Avenue. It was one of the happiest days of my life.
The first time Auntie Gail was diagnosed with cancer was a shock to everyone. I had recently gotten married, and I took the train to the hospital to hang out with her after she had her port inserted. The boys, my younger cousins, stood by her bedside, quiet and uncertain.
Gail knocked the shit out of that cancer. She tossed her chemo bag into her purse and went to our Jewish holiday celebrations, the tubes and the pump hidden away in her handbag. She kicked that cancer to the curb; she went right back to work once her treatments were completed.
We all held our breath. Years went by. Weddings and graduations and babies and a million everyday events. We stopped holding our breath.
I remember Gail’s 60th birthday party, a boat cruise along Lake Michigan. Grandma Ruthie came into town; my dad came into town. The night was flawless; the Chicago skyline picturesque against the cerulean blue sky, a night of friends, family, merriment and chocolate and wine and good food – everything Auntie loved!
She has influenced us in ways great and small, even down to the language we use. In our house, we still refer to naps as “taking a hushie – hushie” – a phrase Auntie Gail used. And I still remember the time that she, Uncle Shel and several others got food poisoning from the olives at Rosh Hashanah, and she groaned that everyone was “taking a shitty-shitty.” Quintessential Auntie!
Auntie’s beautiful boys have grown up. Auntie Gail became a proud Grandma; she enjoyed five years with a lookalike little girl of her own, her precious granddaughter, Savannah, and, more recently, her two baby grandsons.
The second time Auntie Gail was diagnosed with cancer – a very rare and different kind of cancer – we were lulled into thinking she would blast through treatment and once again move into a long period of many years of living.
We were all caught off guard by the ferocious spread of the disease, the unexpected warning that there were just hours left, maybe days, and no more. The love that immediately poured forth from around the country is testimony to how special our Gail was. She was irreplaceable.
Life is for the living, and our family always chooses life, but a great light has gone out. Our extended family gatherings will be a little less merry, a little less complete. For now, our world will pause, and we will honor and celebrate and grieve and cherish our beloved Auntie Gail.
My mom will keenly miss having her partner in crime at her side while Dad and Uncle Shel go golfing. I’m grateful for all the spectacular trips my parents took with Shel and Gail, for all the hours they spent together, all the living and loving they did.
This weekend, family members from near and far will gather here in Chicago, and we will do exactly what Auntie Gail loved. We will talk and laugh and eat and drink, play with the children, hold the babies, tell all the stories, share the pictures. We will cry, too, and then we will remember a funny moment and laugh again, all of us hearing in our memories the loud exclamation of “Ha!” followed by the signature snort.
Thank you, Auntie Gail, for making our lives richer. Thank you for your affection and your love. We will remember you with joy and carry your spirit in our hearts. May your memory be for a blessing, now and always, and may your laugh light the skies. You are cherished.
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