Sunday, September 11, 2011
The Passing of Jeanne Pepe
On September 12, 2001, the photograph you see here appeared in the St. Petersburg Times accompanying an article entitled “Show of Faith Rises Amid Fear.” The photo was taken by staff photographer James Borchuck and shows my aunt, Jeanne Marie Pepe, mourning the victims of the 9/11 attacks. According to writer Stephen Buckley, my aunt “stood at the back of a dark empty Holy Family Catholic Church in St. Petersburg Tuesday afternoon. The 68-year-old great-grandmother stared at electric candles. She had spent the morning sobbing and was relieved to hear that she didn’t have to go into the clothing store where she works. She grabbed her straw purse and went to church instead. ‘I just don’t know what’s happening in this world, to this world,’ she said. ‘I think God must be trying to tell us something with all this tragedy.’” Her story was but one of millions that would be published in the days following the tragedy, and it seems appropriate to share this story today, the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. But for our family this image is also bittersweet, as my aunt died 10 days ago on 9/1/11. This odd series of numbers and her death taking place so close to the 9/11 anniversary may be merely coincidental, but somehow it seems appropriate to her psyche. She was, after all, born on 3/3/33.
Her name was Jeanne (pronounced with 2 syllables), but to me she was always Aunt Gigs (pronounced with 2 hard G’s). The story goes that when I was a child I couldn’t say her name and somehow came up with Aunt Gigi (same 2 hard G’s). This was endearing to both her and me, but by the time I was a teenager “Gigi” just seemed childish so I started to modify it. “Gigster” and “Gigalicious” were possibilities, but somehow Aunt Gigs suited her well. Her creative sensibility and humor were a joy to me as a child. She wore a homemade pink bunny outfit one Halloween to complement my outfit as a panda bear. One time she wanted to read me the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but I told her I knew it already. Undeterred, she decided instead to tell me the story of Silverlocks and the Three Bears, Silverlocks being Goldie’s sister, and much more feisty young lady at that! Then there was the time she decided to read me a “new” story, then proceeded to read a fairy tale backwards, which left me howling with laughter.
Aunt Gigs could respond to any remark with the lyrics from some appropriate song. Bring up dancing, she’s break out with “I won’t dance, don’t ask me!”—an absolute myth of course, since she loved to dance. Tell her it’s raining outside, she’d break out into a verse of either “Stormy Weather” or “It’s Raining Men.” Ever the merry widow, the latter was probably her personal favorite. Indeed, with her good friend and fellow merry widow Joanie, the duo used to go out for cocktails and dancing all the time like a couple of teenagers. Eventually they took their partying on regular trips to Freeport and soon became known as the Bahama Mamas. I always had admired the fact that she went back to school later in life and became a nurse, recognizing the importance of finding something to fulfill her. But of course there was a dark side too. Don’t mess with the Gigster, or she’d rearrange your face. The family remembers well how she almost jumped over the counter at the fast food restaurant Gino’s because the girl gave her attitude and dumped the French fries upside down in the bag of food. As her granddaughter pointed out in her lovely talk during the funeral services, one of her favorite phrases was “Freak you and twice on Sunday.” But we also will never forget her other classic line, “Kiss my grits!”—spoken by a New Yorker and not a Texan though, somehow it took on a more ferocious tone that implied “Come on…I dare you.” This explosive anger that could come out of nowhere was part of her urban Bronx upbringing. My mother had it too. But it was in truth a defense mechanism. In the long run she cared about protecting her loved ones, never wanting them to be hurt or taken advantage of.
Aunt Florence and my mother.) Florence was the strong one to whom everyone turned for guidance. Jeanne was the party girl who showed you how to enjoy your life. And Kathleen was the dreamer, always looking for the next adventure, always on the hunt for a bargain. They were in fact the only women in the world who could enter a Salvation Army thrift shop and walk out with designer dresses they would wear to a wedding or some other function looking quite fashionable, and having spent a grand total of $10 for all 3 outfits. Perhaps there is something to be said for being raised a working-class Bronx girl.
These past few years, Aunt Gigs had been suffering from the effects of Parkinson’s disease, and like my mother with her early onset Alzheimer's it eroded her vitality. As sad as it is to have lost her, we can rest assured knowing that like my mother she is no longer in pain. So as we say farewell to the last third of the triumvirate, we can take comfort in knowing that Florence has the cappuccino and shortbread ready, and that Kathleen is planning a full day of shopping. And once that is done, Joanie is mixing up the piña coladas so they can all go dancing in Paradise.