I have been blessed with some quirky folks in my life – a whole parade of them.  I seem to attract them or am attracted to them.  One of them was my Aunt Irene.  She was in a class of her own.

I grew up a military brat and really have little to no memory of my extended family before I was 10.  We had just come back from Hawaii and were driving across country from California to Virginia with stops along the way to visit friends and family we hadn’t seen since before our three years in Hawaii.  Some of them we hadn’t seen even in the years before that.

One of them was my Aunt Irene in Kansas City. 

Oh my.  She was larger than life.  A brash redhead, but vulnerable.  Sincere and irreverent.  And her name.  I just loved that name.  I vowed then and there if I ever had a daughter I would make part of her name Irene. 

Up until then, the women I met were straight-laced, often officer’s wives ever conscious of their husbands’ reputations.  Or church ladies.  Warm and nurturing yet somewhat distant with kids.

She was short, possessed of remarkable breasts, chain-smoked, and had just given birth to her youngest child that first time I met her – that I could remember meeting her.  Kansas City in January was cold, and we were miserable after the tropics, but the 250- watt laughter of my Aunt Irene blew the cold away. 

She called me Connie Lynn as did all my family because my dad was known as Connie.  Later he became Conrad and I became Connie, but Irene called me Connie Lynn until she died.

While we were there, she took us to see the park.  In that 1970 winter, Kansas City, Missouri sprayed the park with water creating ice sculptures of trees.   It was breathtaking.  My grin must have been huge because she said, “You like that, Connie Lynn?”  I was somewhat shocked.  I was of that generation of kids that should be seen, but not heard.  She acknowledged my presence and wanted my opinion.   Pretty heady stuff.

I didn’t see her again for a few years and when I did, she had changed her name to Cindy.  I don’t know the story behind that, but in later years I said to her that she would always be Irene to me, much the way she called me Connie Lynn.  She indicated in some way, perhaps just a look, but probably not. Irene was not shy, and she was a talker – I imagine I got a torrent – but she expressed dislike of the name Irene.  I responded with, “Oh no! It is the name of an Irish Queen.  A remarkable woman.  A strong woman.  A warrior queen.

She smiled and said, “You think so?”, but still went by Cindy.

I spent part of a summer in Kansas City babysitting for her the year I turned 13.  That was a seminal summer in my life, not the least of which was my time spent with her and my cousins.  I have such fond memories of that Kansas City summer.  Neil Diamond’s album on the stereo, my first really good pizza, and Irene’s phenomenal cooking.

Irene showed me that a woman could be all things.  She could own a business, she could drink and dance, she could swear, she could love her family with the fierceness of an Irish matriarch, and she could cook like a chef. 

Irene was a role model for me – an icon beyond the times – I did not have to be just a wife and a housewife.  I could be strong and independent and mouthy and still be a mother and a wife. 

I remember her somewhere….on a dance floor, a cigarette in one hand, a drink in the other, dancing alone and singing, They got some crazy little women and I’m gonna get me one.  The song? Kansas City, of course.

The family stories of Irene were legion.  Each is more outrageous than the last.

She said to me once, “If I had done all that I have been accused of, I would have been one hell of a woman.”  But she was.  One hell of a woman.

She had a hard life as did all my dad’s siblings, but just as things turned for her, just when life was sweet and she was rocking her sixties, she was diagnosed with a particularly malignant cancer.  She was gone before we could even process the news.

Physically, we couldn’t have been more different.  Me tall and thin and dark, she short and curvy and fair.  But we shared some other qualities which shouldn’t be surprising.  She, or her legend, shaped who I became. 

I miss Irene. She was one of my most favorite people of all time.

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