It was another one of those days. I woke up to a text message from my brother that my Aunt Mildred passed away. Aunt Mildred was a pretty big part of my childhood. There were some years we all lived in the same 3 family house on 1st Street in Astoria, Queens.
Aunt Mildred was Puerto Rican, and I’m not (she married into the family) so this was something that stood out about Aunt Mildred as a very young kid. Before I was really aware of what different ethnic backgrounds were I heard people saying she was Puerto Rican without knowing what that meant until it was simplified to my little white mind to mean “she’s Spanish”. Well that explained why she said some things I didn’t understand, until she started teaching me.
The other thing that stood out about Aunt Mildred was the food she made. Nobody else in the family made rice and beans and chicken with an orange color to it, but she did, and it was unbelievable.
Arroz con Pollo and arroz con frijoles were two of the first things I learned how to say in Spanish. I loved food so it was easy to remember for me. For the rest of my life every time I saw her I begged for a pot of rice and beans the next time I saw her, unfortunately I won’t have that chance anymore.
Aunt Mildred didn’t like to be called Aunt Mildoo, that’s how some of the kids said her name when they couldn’t pronounce Mildred, but she didn’t like when everyone else teased her and called her Mildoo or Mildew, but for some reason it was ok when I said Aunt Mildoo. She always allowed it, and with a smile would tell me “you’re the only one I let call me that.” She had a way of always making me feel special. Always a big hug and kiss, always a stroke over the head with both hands as she looked me in the face and said “so handsome.” I’ll miss that.
My Uncle Jimmy and my cousins Gladys, Jamie, and Carlos were a big part of my childhood as well. From playing outside to video games, to just keeping in touch through Facebook in our older years, there’s always a bond with certain family members you feel is never gone no matter how long it’s been since you’ve seen each other, or even spoken on the phone.
Sometimes people don’t realize what they mean to you. From the silliest things like loving arroz con frijoles and arroz con pollo to this day, to relating the comfort and warmth of a big loving hug to their name, the fact is we take something from each other at every crossing, like remembering her laugh as she smoked a cigarette when Uncle Jimmy and I were breaking each other’s balls and I’d get a good one in on him.
She was, in the truest sense of their vows, for better or worse, the love of Uncle Jimmy’s life. They gave the world three beautiful children who’ve given us even more beautiful grandchildren. The Najdek/Perez union is eternal, as is the smell of Spanish food taking me back to their apartment, staring at the stove while I bugged Aunt Mildoo about when it would be ready. Eternal is that big warm hug that I can still feel as I write this, eternal is hearing salsa music and being transported back to parties while Aunt Mildoo was trying to teach me how to dance to it, and eternal is the confusion of memories when someone passes away. The same memory that makes you laugh, makes you cry, then laugh again, and after maybe another cry you smile as you look up, blow a kiss, and say thank you Aunt Mildoo, I love you.