When It's Too Late to Stop a Family Rift

Commentator Desiree Cooper reflects on her estrangement from her Aunt Lucy. Recently, she realized that sometimes it's just too late to make amends.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

You always think that you'll get around to it. We all have something we plan to do, but things just seem to get in the way. For commentator Desiree Cooper, it was a decades-long rift between her mother and her Aunt Lucy that kept her from keeping a promise made long ago.

Ms. DESIREE COOPER (Commentator): I was a college freshman on the day I sat in my Aunt Lucy's living room looking at an old family album. A few of the pictures captured my imagination, especially the one of my aunt as a slim, sexy teenager on a sandy beach.

Can I borrow these? I begged. I promise to bring them back. Aunt Lucy, with her dark, curly hair and mischievous eyes, had always been generous. But she didn't seem to want to let go of the pictures.

Okay, she finally relented. But be sure to bring them back.

It wasn't until I had married, moved away and had a family of my own that I came across those pictures again. I thought about mailing them, but it seemed cowardly. I decided to wait and deliver them to her personally. I still had them when Aunt Lucy and my mom parted ways. It was one of those slow-burning feuds that no one even remembers how it began. For years after my cards and phone calls to Aunt Lucy went unanswered. She even refused to open the door when I came to visit.

After a while, I stopped trying to reach her. And the photos became our only connection.

But last Christmas, I opened up that scrapbook and carefully removed the pictures. Once home I drove to her house and rang the doorbell. It was a while before I heard steps shuffling closer.

Aunt Lucy? I said, as the door opened slowly. It's me.

I thought I might find an angry old woman hardened by a pointless feud, bitter by my broken promise. But I never expected to find her slack-jawed and befuddled. She smiled weakly and let me in. I followed her into the familiar living room. As she sat down heavily, I noticed how the light in her eyes was gone. She fiddled humbly with her fingers. I realized with sudden sadness that perhaps the only reason she'd let me in was because she hadn't remembered who I was.

The room was almost exactly as it was when we'd sat there 20 years before, dark wood paneling, beige shag carpeting, and a red brick fireplace. Over the mantel were pictures I'd never seen before.

That's my grandson, she said, brightening. And then she went down the row, naming names, laughing and telling me stories. It almost felt like old times.

I brought you something, I said sheepishly. Just like I promised, I'm returning the pictures you lent me.

She looked at me blankly, as if I had handed her someone else's Kodak moments.

That's you, I said. Remember? That day on the beach?

Me? she asked, her shoulders slumping.

Suddenly, what little recognition she'd had disappeared. When I said goodbye moments later, she accepted my kiss with wooden patience. All these years I had been hording those black and white images when I should have been hording memories of my Aunt Lucy.

SIEGEL: Desiree Cooper is a columnist for The Detroit Free Press.

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