Valentine’s Day has come and gone, but I recently received something that reminded me of a love for the ages, and I felt compelled to share it to keep the lovers’ story alive.
My aunt passed away two-and-a-half years ago, and my cousin is still sorting through cartons of her possessions. Recently she came across the double-portrait above and asked me if I wanted it. I immediately said yes.
The portrait is of my great-uncle Jack and Mae, the love of his life. Uncle Jack lived with my grandparents. My grandmother was his younger sister. Those of you who have read some of my blog posts here and at other sites over the years may remember that my grandfather worked his way up to captain of the Essex County, NJ police force, beginning in the nineteen-twenties through the late-fifties. During that time he was responsible for the apprehension of many gangsters, including Dutch Schultz.
My grandfather suffered a heart attack as a fairly young man. I’m not exactly sure when, and there’s no one left alive to ask, but I believe it was sometime in the late thirties or early forties, prior to World War II. Mae was the nurse who cared for him after he was released from the hospital.
Uncle Jack and Mae fell deeply in love, but there were two major problems that prevented them from marrying. One was a difference of religion, something completely unacceptable at the time. The other was that Mae came from a mob family.
Grandpa had enough of a conflict of interest with a bootlegging brother down in Atlantic City, but at least they were estranged. Uncle Jack lived with my grandparents. Marrying Mae would jeopardize my grandfather’s career, not something that could be risked during The Great Depression when jobs were so scarce.
The lovers accepted these obstacles, continuing to love each other but never marrying. Uncle Jack continued to live with my grandparents. I don’t even know if my uncle and Mae ever consummated their relationship. That’s not something anyone ever spoke of, even in hushed tones that a curious kid like me, who loved to eavesdrop on the adults, ever overheard (not that I would have understood the topic at that young age.)
Then the unthinkable happened. Mae had an accident. The details are fuzzy (and again, I have no one to ask.) I don't know if it happened before I was born or after, but I remember being told she had fallen down a flight of stairs. Was this the truth or a sugar-coated lie told to a young child? I don’t know, but the incident left her paralyzed from the waist down.
From that day on, Uncle Jack took care of Mae. He visited her at her one-room apartment every day. He did her shopping, cooked her meals, probably even helped her bathe and dress. On weekends he often brought me with him. I called her Aunt Mae.
I never saw Aunt Mae anywhere but sitting on her bed in her apartment. She spent her days watching television, doing handcrafts, and reading true romance magazines. The doll pictured here is dressed in clothing she made. It was a Christmas present when I was eight years old and one of only two dolls that survived when we moved from the city to the suburbs when I was eleven.
Aunt Mae died on Thanksgiving Day several years after my grandfather passed away. I don’t remember the exact year, but I think I was ten or eleven, perhaps a bit older. I learned of her death by once again eavesdropping on the adults. My grandmother had received a call from one of Mae’s relatives. She, my aunt, and my mother were gathered in the kitchen, preparing dinner. The men were in the living room. The women decided not to tell Uncle Jack until after Thanksgiving dinner.
Uncle Jack continued to live with my grandmother after my grandfather’s death. When she died, he moved in with my aunt and lived with her, her husband, and my cousins until his own death many years later. No matter where he lived, the portrait of him with his love always hung in his bedroom opposite his bed where it was the last thing he saw when he went to sleep each night and the first thing he saw when he woke in the morning.