Aunt Shirley: Biographical Flash Fiction

Aunt Shirley was a Red. That is, she was a Communist from childhood. She fully supported the Russian Revolution, and the Bolsheviks under Lenin. She went to see Trotsky talk when he was in New York. 

“I was a good communist as a child. Then that crazy-man Stalin came along and it was all for nothing. He destroyed our vision of a worker’s paradise.”

Shirley was blacklisted for her politics, just around the start of the second Red Scare. No one would hire her. My Uncle Ira was a vice president of his company and his wife, Aunt Ella begged him to get her sister a job, which he did. He got her a good job on the shop floor. Six weeks later Shirley took the entire company out on strike. Fortunately, she got out of there before the violence started. The only reason Shirley and her sister kept talking after that was because of Shirley’s deep commitment to family.

I still don’t understand how they could have been sisters: one a racist religious Republican, the other a union-organizing Socialist. The third sister is my mother, a liberal, but one who made her “girl” eat in the kitchen.

Shirley and I would have long talks about Socialism, about civil rights, unions and much more. She had strong opinions and didn’t hesitate to share them. I loved it. We would sing union songs together, and of course the International, which I knew in English but she knew it in English, Yiddish and Russian. 

She did settle down and marry and have two children, but I don’t think her idealism or fiery commitment waned much. She marched on Washington and wrote letters to the editor. She was adamantly against our involvement in Vietnam, and did all she could to organize against it. She despised “Checkbook Liberals” who send money and then sit at home. In her mind, if something was wrong, unjust, racist it was incumbent on you to take action: organize, march, talk, write.

Shirley was the smartest person in my family, which made her degenerative Alzheimer’s all the more tragic. We watched her lose her brilliant mind slowly, over an extended and horrific period. At first, she knew what was happening to her, and then she was so far gone she didn’t. 

Watching anyone die of Alzheimer’s is, of course, a tragedy, but watching this extraordinary mind drain away was heartbreaking. 

The rabbi who spoke at her funeral knew nothing of Shirley’s commitment, her politics, her fire. He spoke of her as a mother and as a Jew, ignorant of her incredible history. Then her children spoke, and that was much better. They spoke with love and honesty and paid tribute to their mother’s politics and warmth and love.