This excerpt, altered and updated from the original memoir, appeared in TSR The Southampton
Review in Spring 2009
Norma Lyle and I met in a funeral parlor one dark, rainy night in April. I was 17 years old and had not
yet read T.S. Eliot. I would have agreed with him that it was “the cruellest month” - certainly, it had to
be the most dreadful of my life so far.
I was there because my fiancé’s father had committed suicide two days earlier. Bill Sr. had hung
himself, after threatening to do so for the last six months. We talked about his threat a lot, Billy Jr.
and I, not wanting to believe he’d really do it. Billy came home from evening classes at college, found
the note, and then found his father’s dead body hanging in the hall closet.
As a close friend of the deceased, Norma was at the wake. Her husband, Wesley, was now Billy’s
legal guardian. Both Norma and I were there against doctor’s orders: I had the flu and was running a
temperature; Norma was recuperating from gall bladder surgery.
“So I finally get to meet Billy’s bride-to-be. I’ve heard so much about you, my dear.” The smiling
woman held onto my hand and made room for me on the settee.
My marriage less than a year later was as doomed to die as the man lying in the closed casket at the
head of the room, but neither Norma nor I could foresee disaster ahead for Billy and me. No, in the
midst of pain and grief, we both preferred optimism for the future, happiness for the handsome
We spoke in whispers there in the large, carpeted room, filled with huge bouquets of flowers and a
rack of sympathy and Mass cards. A stream of relatives and friends, wearing black, walked in and
out, or sat down on the folding chairs that were set up for the occasion, saying prayers at the casket,
stopping to hold our hands or kiss our cheeks.
“I’m very sorry.”
“What a terrible tragedy.”
“How are you holding up, Eileen?”
“I’m so sorry to meet you under such sad circumstances.”
Norma and I held tissues to our eyes, trying to hold back the tears, wanting to be dignified amid all
the drama. It was the beginning of what would be a long and fruitful relationship for Norma and for
me. She would become my mother-in-law, my Auntie Mame, and my mentor. I would become the
daughter she never had, someone she could inspire and influence.
An attractive woman in her forties, with upswept blonde hair and bright blue eyes, Norma had
smooth, fair skin and a warm smile. She was dressed in a black wool dress and pearls, with her mink
jacket and hat tossed to the side. She removed her black leather gloves to shake my hand and give
me a hug.
“Strange, but I never got to speak with you last time, at the other funeral,” Norma said. Billy’s mother
had died the year before, from cancer, which added to his father’s depression, and eventually to his
“Bill Sr. said you were good looking, and he certainly had that right,” Norma said, “You’re an absolute
If I blushed, Norma would not have been able to tell in that suffocating room. It was the fever; it was
my brain on fire. I certainly didn’t feel “beautiful” or “good looking.” I wore a plain black skirt and
sweater, with no jewelry. My strawberry-blonde hair, unwashed, was stringy and greasy. My face was
alternately pale and flushed. I wanted to crawl under one of the long tables at the side of the room
and take a quick nap.
“He’s so lucky to have you,” Norma said. And, as she told me much later, she had tried to determine
whether or not I was mature enough for “the big step,” and if Billy was, too. In her own kind of
wisdom, she figured it was better for Billy to have me, and that I would be a suitable mate.
At the funeral parlor, where Norma and I would remain for most of three days and nights, customary
for Catholic wakes at the time, I greeted people, but did not hug and kiss (“Contagious, you know,” I
kept saying). I tried to stifle the coughing and sneezing, and fought the urge to fall face down on the
plush, floral carpet.
Norma was gracious all the while, but confided to me that she, too, did not feel well and would like to
vanish. She spoke with a deep, authoritative voice most of the time -- her business voice, I called it;
the result of years of executive-level jobs in New York City. But she could revert to a wispy, little girl
voice when it suited her purposes. To persuade her husband to do something he didn’t want to, for
instance. Or even to get a better table at a restaurant. “We’d really like to sit over there” -- she’d
point, talking like she was six years old-- “near the pretty window. Could we pleeaase do that, sir?”
To me, Norma was the only good thing that happened as a result of Bill Sr.’s suicide. She was wise
and witty, full of laughter and good common sense. We both worked in the city, and I soon became
her adoring pupil. I learned about antiques and good furniture from her. One of our first outings was
to W. & J. Sloane’s, where I learned names like Bassett and Baker, Drexel and Widdicomb. I found
out about silver and dinnerware and was taught the difference between everyday dishes and fine
china. I was educated about jewelry in time, and even learned the intricacies of the stock market.
Norma introduced me to her friends, mostly upper middle class people who lived in “good” areas of
Westchester, Long Island and New Jersey, places like Scarsdale, Great Neck and Saddle River. I
came from a humble, lower middle class background, so Norma’s flair for dressing, for entertaining,
and for success in business kept me enthralled. My relationship with her made me want and expect
more from life than I previously had, both materially and emotionally. Watching Norma made me
want to be “liberated,” the way she seemed to be, and not live the kind of repressed life my mother
was living. I loved my mother, but she was unhappy much of the time.
* * * *
“Welcome, children. I’m delighted you could come.” Norma greeted us at the door.
Billy and I went to her apartment for dinner shortly after the funeral. I soon learned that, since she
was a busy working woman, someone came in once a week to clean the apartment, a seamstress
repaired all Norma’s clothing, and a hairdresser “did” her hair on Saturdays.
The apartment was comfortable, yet elegantly furnished, with handsome wooden cabinets, tables,
chests, and a plush, dark blue, down-filled sofa. There was fine art on the walls and a grand piano in
the living room that Norma played for visitors.
Her husband, Wesley, was casually dressed on my first visit, but Norma wore a long, flowing skirt,
with “good” jewels, and the round dinner table was draped with a cloth right down to the floor. Not
the bare Formica table I was used to all my life. Not my harried mother in a house dress, trying to
get a meal ready for her hungry brood of four, crowded there in the kitchen. This was another world
After an appetizer of avocado stuffed with crabmeat, we had baked ham with sweet potatoes and a
vegetable “medley.” The only kind of medley I had known up to that time was on the radio and
television, and it was music, not food. “This is an incredible meal,” I told Aunt Norma – she was now
my “aunt.” And I knew I would want to entertain just like she did, once I was married and had my own
Billy and I spent a lot of time with the Lyles, and soon Norma was encouraging me to explore all my
abilities -- to learn, to write, to “do whatever you want, dear. We only pass this way once.”
Always there was talk – of world affairs, travel, education, the theater. Norma took me to see my first
Broadway show, Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Flower Drum Song.” She introduced me to fine
restaurants and taught me about gourmet foods. I found out where to shop for good quality
clothing. B. Altman’s became my favorite department store. It was the place where I was issued my
first store charge card, which I have kept for many years, even though the store is now closed down.
I especially loved having lunch or mid-afternoon tea in the Charleston Garden with Aunt Norma.
“Why don’t you have the apple cobbler, sweetheart?” she would say. “They do a marvelous job
For my formal engagement and high school graduation, two months after Bill Sr.’s death, Norma
gave me pearls, my first. “You must have pearls, little one,” she said to me, presenting the velvet
box. “Every woman must have pearls.” I have them to this day, along with the vial of perfume, “L’
Elu” by Marquay, that she bought for me in Paris, not long before Billy and I were married. There is
still some perfume in the crystal bottle, and when I sniff it, my beloved Aunt Norma is alive and well,
right there by my side.
* * *
My marriage to Billy was a catastrophe and lasted less than two years. In truth, we were both too
young and inexperienced for marriage. Norma was there for me during the break up, helping to calm
my fears about living alone. “You’re a sharp cookie,” she told me, “and this is not a failure on your
part. It’s a beginning, not an end, and don’t you forget that.”
My relationship with her continued, even after I remarried a few years later. I had two small children
when she and her husband retired and moved to Florida.
I flew down to spend time with her at least once a year, and she visited me whenever she came to
New York. We ate at her favorite lunch spots near her new home in Fort Lauderdale, where she
delighted taking me, and she made a big fuss over my children when she came to New York. “You’re
doing a wonderful job with these kids,” she told me. “They are two extremely lucky ducks.” She
became their Aunt Norma too, and I once heard my daughter refer to her as, “my mother’s best
friend, Aunt Norma.”
We corresponded regularly. From her: “Was most interested to hear that you’d finished another
story and started work on your novel. I can understand how frustrated you must feel at times, for
lack of time, peace and quiet, but somewhere, way down deep, I just know you’re going to make it as
a writer. Don’t ever despair.”
For many years such letters sustained me. They were filled with gossip about Florida condominium
life, her volunteer work at a local hospital, her friends and her aging parents. But, mostly, they
pushed me forward in my budding writing career. I joined writing workshops in New York City. I wrote
more stories and finished a novel.
“Thank you for my beautiful Christmas card, Eileen dear – all of your cards give me the very special
feeling of being loved, and so do your letters. They make me very happy.”
I have five thick folders filled with our correspondence. I say “our” because Aunt Norma eventually
decided to return all the letters I had written to her; she had saved them. “You may need these to
draw on in your writing,” she told me.
I now have all her letters to me, and mine to her. She’s gone now, having lived into her eighties, but
this treasure trove of guidance and love is Norma’s legacy to me.
Copyright 2009 Eileen Obser