My Great Aunt

by angeliska on April 12, 2006

Jessie Polacheck Sheridan
September 14, 1923 – November 4, 2005

This weekend I traveled to Chicago
with my Grandfather for my
Great-Aunt Jessie’s memorial service,
which was, without question, the most
incredible memorial I have ever witnessed.
I have found most of the (all too numerous)
funerals, wakes and the like I have attended
to be fragmented, weak ceremonies
drained of all meaning by “modern”
convention and fraught with blearily
numb or wearily distraught crowds
of friends and relatives boozed up
or propped up by percoset
and xanax cocktails,
clutching at crumpled kleenexes
and ill-prepared eulogies.
This wasn’t like that.
No choking scent of funereal flowers,
no droning electric organ, or nasal hymns.
This was a real send-off given by her
impassioned, brilliant, odd-ball family-
my family, one I am very proud to be
a part of.
I learned more about my Great-Aunt
that day than I had ever known about her,
which regrettably wasn’t much-
considering that we were rarely in
each other’s vicinity.
Even more regrettable is the
realization of how much we
had in common, and how much
I could have learned from her.
All of this was culled from
the eulogies of her nine (!) children,
from her remaining siblings
(my Grandfather and Great-Aunt)
and her cousin, who in a fevered fit
of ranting referred to G.W. Bush as a
“dirty lying rascal” to which the ENTIRE
congregation burst into applause!
We sang “All The Pretty Little Horses”
and “Solidarity Forever”
and recited the 1st Amendment as a song
(this is how she taught it to all her children
so that they would never forget it..)
Here it is, just in case you did..
Congress shall make no law respecting
an establishment of religion,
or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
or abridging the freedom of speech,
or of the press; or the right of the people
peaceably to assemble,
and to petition the government
for a redress of grievances.

Here are some things I learned:
My great-aunt Jessie,
“a happy and proud misfit”
former member of the Communist Party,
“housewife and hussy and part-time poet”
who loved dragons,
& peter falk,
& babies,
& eskimo art,
& political debate.
Who adored
William Blake
William Morris,
Utopian experiments
and the Venus of Willendorf.
Who collected sugar skeletons,
dolls, art nouveau lamps,
masks, birds and stars.
Who went to movie palaces
with real swans swimming
in a pool in the lobby.
Who wore combs in her hair,
and said things like,
“Jesus Christ on a bicycle!”
and “Well, tough titty said the kitty,
but the milk was good!”

and “If you are so smart, then
why ain’t you rich?”

And when neighbors complained of her
yard becoming an overgrown thicket
she posted a sign reading,

Who wrote stories about a woman
who was arrested for peeking under
the clothing of dolls in a department store,
trying to find one that was anatomically correct,
and collections of poetry called
“Mothers and Other Losers”
Who sold face powder door to door
for House of Charm.
Who contributed to
“The Feminist English Dictionary
-An Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Dirty Words”
with the following poem
(which was recited, in its
entirety by her son during the service-
who also mentioned to the crowd that
“William Blake can kiss her ass!”)
Ode to Whores
Sisters, they robbed us
Of our fire
The source
Of warmth, of heat,
Life burned
In us. They stole it, then,
Did not know
How to use it.
If they could,
they would have
Killed us all.
Instead, they sorted us
into “Whores” and “Ladies”
Saying, “You, Whores
Keep some of it
So we can use it, and
You, Ladies, go
Freeze to death.”
Playing “Whores and Ladies”
To divide and rule.
-Jessie Polacheck Sheridan
October 1973

The Masque of Youth, by Jessie Arms Botke
from the mural in Ida Noyes Hall
where the service was held.

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