Last week, a friend of my grandmother’s passed away, after a brief struggle with pancreatic cancer. She was chic, impeccably styled and coiffed, well-traveled, well-read, highly educated, and within three months of her diagnosis, she was gone.
For my grandmother, the loss is primary. Her memories with Miss Edna span decades. And in her late 60s, losing lifelong acquaintances is becoming an all too frequent an occurrence.
For my mother, the loss is secondary. She grew up admiring Miss Edna’s poise and the kind way she had of treating young people as equals. She spoke wistfully of her travels and achievements and, in some ways, perhaps, wanted to be quite like her.
For me, the loss is tertiary. What I remember most about Miss Edna is having to hide when she came to visit, because whenever she did, her beloved poodle, Pierre, was in tow, and I was terrified of him. When I was older, though, I wanted her courage. She’d gone after a PhD in middle-age, traveled to Africa alone and lived there for quite some time. She’d raised a son. She’d worked at Morgan State, Baltimore’s favored HBCU. I wanted an inkling of whatever motivated her.
In some ways, our relationships to Miss Edna mirror our relationships to Aretha Franklin.
Nana remembers her first as a dewy ingenue, singing solos with her Daddy’s choir, then as a source of wonder, when at just 19, she could sing heartache that resonated with the long-grown.
Mom remembers her “Soul Train” years: afros and and maxi-dresses and Rock Steady. She remembers breaking up and feeling like the world would stop if an Aretha record did. She played “Till You Come Back to Me” until the vinyl wore thin.
My earliest memories of Aretha are the iconography. I remember her performing, “Think” in a waitress uniform in The Blues Brothers. I remember the fun of spelling (and misspelling) “Respect” on the playground and hearing her cover of “Natural Woman” for the first time on a bra commercial.
But as in the case of Miss Edna, we all, in our own way, claim Aretha as ours. And news of her illness isn’t filtered through our gradations of acquaintance with her. The worry isn’t watered down through the generations.
Whether you heard her first in the 50s or just this week, you likely feel a kinship.
Aretha is your all-knowing aunt. The one who’s been everywhere and always has money and stays telling your mama what to do. The one who’s unlucky in love, but still sings tales of hopeless romance at your parents’ anniversary parties. She’s all brass, strutting into every room with her back straight and shoulders square, no matter how much weight they’re carrying, always wearing something that makes the crowd whoop, “Ooooh, girl! No, you didn’t… She’s known great loss and that glint of loneliness you think you see in her eyes isn’t imagined. And you wish you could tell her how much she’s adored. And you wish you could tell her to take better care of herself. And you wish you knew an accurate count of the women who emulate her.
But she wouldn’t entirely believe you.
You so desperately want her to, especially now, when her time here with you might be more limited, especially now, when you know so well what cancer is capable of.
At its most malevolent, cancer robs. It takes and it takes and it takes; it is insatiable. And you hate to hear that anyone’s body is being pillaged by it.
Hope, if you hope. Pray, if you pray. Wait.
And now, as ever, let Aretha be your soundtrack.