My Aunt Norma in Puerto Rico circa 1955.
Her name was Norma Giraloma Congilosi. She had jet black curly hair, olive skin, sloe green eyes. She was the epitome of culture, style, and grace. She could also curse like a longshoreman and saw no contradiction in that.
Almost entirely self-educated and no sufferer of fools, she started her post-secondary education at a community college only to leave, disappointed, because she was more well-read than her instructors.
She worked for United Airlines and traveled the world, often alone, which was considered unusual at that time. She spoke French, Spanish, and Italian, including the Sicilian dialect her Sicilian/Ethiopian/North African father spoke at home.
She was a poet, a feminist, activist, and fighter for civil and equal rights way ahead of her time.
I was fascinated with Norma and her stories of beatniks, revolutionaries, poets and playwrights in San Francisco and NYC.
Her contemporaries were white, black, brown, straight, lesbian, and gay. She wrote poetry under the pseudonym Nya Gailord Carver.
I loved how she simply took her freedom; she didn’t wait for it to be granted or sanctioned.
The nasty comments sometimes thrown her way were a small price to pay for autonomy.
Somewhat surprisingly, her mother, my grandmother Maria Grazia Amato Congilosi, a devout Catholic Sicilian paired in an arranged marriage with her father’s tinsmith apprentice, my grandfather Alfonso Congilosi, not only did not judge her iconoclastic daughter harshly, but seemed to vicariously enjoy her adventures.
She worried about her unconventional daughter, but she never tried to clip her wings–not even when she fell in love with a Jewish doctor and began classes to convert to Judaism after he proposed.
Norma packed a whole lot of living into her first twenty-seven years.
She was stricken with MS at age twenty-six; she stayed independent as long as she could.
She weathered abandonment by her Jewish fiance, the loss of her spectacular San Francisco apartment, her job, and her independence, with a feisty spirit and a salty tongue.
By age thirty she was confined to a “rest home” where she continued to curse, laugh, smoke a hookah, and shake her fist at God.
As a child, I both loved and feared visiting her there. She lived to age sixty-two; I had a hard time forgiving God for her thirty-two years in a hospital bed.
As happens in families, I was often mistakenly called by her name by my mother and grandmother.
In our family, her name was synonymous with style, verve, and a sensibility on a first name basis with originality.
I took it as a compliment.
Author’s Note: I wrote a poem, Sweet Revenant, to her memory, and paired it with Kristin Fouquet’s gorgeous photos of Ingrid Lucia.