The general manager of the universe has resigned, reluctantly but with no regrets. My aunt Ginny was born in 1927, the year Maidenform claims to have invented the bra. This matters because she later became a Maidenform bra model, in the 1950s ad campaign that had women dreaming of exotic places in their Maidenform bras. After a few years as a model, she began touring the country as a foundations expert, helping women with “figure problems” (and who among us doesn’t fall into that category?) find the right-size bra. A photo from 1958 shows a window display at Harvey’s Department Store in Nashville. A bra-clad mannequin floats on a flying carpet, and the lettering on the window says, “I dreamed I went to Baghdad in my Maidenform bra.” In the lower-right of the display, an 8 by 10 of Ginny announces her upcoming appearance for fittings.
Ginny was my dad’s oldest sister. They were raised in hard-scrabble circumstances in Harvey, Illinois. She left home at 15, and got a job at a savings and loan. My dad went off to college, without any support—emotional or financial—from his parents. During the summers, he lived with Ginny in a little house she bought through foreclosure for $6,000. A customer of the bank, a young widow who modeled for Sears Roebuck, helped Ginny get into modeling.
That was Ginny’s long-ago history. By the time I developed anything worth fitting, she’d moved on to the larger pastures of real estate. But she remained a role model. She was glamorous, hard working, and understood the necessity of finding humor in everything, even tragedy. Especially tragedy. Her early years were hard, and she understood that I’d seen some difficult times too. We used to joke that, in our next lives, we’d return as delicate flowers, the kind of women who refuse to lift a finger and are therefore, somehow, taken care of. Oh, to be transported through life on a such a magic carpet—as if either one of us would tolerate that for more than six minutes.
Almost 20 years ago, during a hospital stay, Ginny composed the first of many autobiographical writings. She was worried about dying without passing along her history, so any time she was in the hospital, I sent notebooks and pens so she could write it all down. “My dear family,” she wrote in 1992, “when I resign as General Manager of the Universe—and we all have to give up our role at some point—know that it’s part of God’s big plan.” She wanted us to know her life had been good—not easy, but with more experiences than most could ever hope for. Through the years, she accummulated her dying thoughts, until carpel tunnel made it nearly impossible to write.
Recently, in the last few weeks of her life, she kept her many relatives informed by phone. “It’s nothing, just a real hassle,” she confided about her latest hospitalization. “But please pray I don’t need surgery.” We both knew her body couldn’t take it. Her heart was weak. She was dehydrated. “Let me get a drink of water,” she said during our conversation. I heard her sipping through the straw, then a grateful sigh. “These days, hon, that’s as good as a martini.”
She sounded like her old self. She was determined to get through this latest scare. Still, I was worried. I checked in with my cousin and siblings. We agreed, she was fragile. But as I talked to my sister and my cousin, it also became apparent that Ginny made each of us feel that we were the most loved. She talked to each of us about what was important in our lives. She fretted over various family dramas, with advice that was thoughtful and hard earned, always reminding us of how far we’d come and what joy was ahead. She did the same for her fellow residents at the nursing home, including a relatively young woman who had ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Ginny grieved with her as the woman went from being engaged and active to sitting in a wheelchair, unable to speak or respond, except, perhaps, with a faint glimmer in her eyes. Ginny read to her almost every day.
I got the call a couple weeks ago—Ginny died. We all knew she was going to go soon. My mom and sister and I had visited her on her birthday in April. We laughed and celebrated. Ginny repeatedly thanked us for visiting. (And called after I left, to thank my family for being willing to be without me for a few days.)
Ginny taught me to have faith and to love people while we’re all still here. But her passing does leave gaps. First, there’s the whole General Manager of the Universe thing, which now will have to be done by a committee of strong-willed and sometimes disagreeing descendents. It won’t be the seamless, uplifting process it was when Ginny filled the role. But more important, I want to tap in to her ability to make each loved one feel most loved. It’s the one thing I forgot to ask her. How did she do that?