My mother's mother, Mary Amelia Ashley (née Gruenwald), was one of my favorite people. She rebelled against almost everything. She lived to be 86 (died in 1965) and for the last many years was tormented by terrible arthritis in her knees. Left by the death of my grandfather in 1933 with only his meager Spanish-American War pension to live on, she was obliged to shuttle back and forth on long visits to one or another of her three daughters. She had two sisters who were quite well off, but they never seemed to want to help her. Long after her death I was surprised to learn that as a young woman she had suffered from very long bouts of serious depression.
My aunt Thelma Ashley was a free spirit. Though she was actually married only once, we referred to her subsequent lovers as husbands 2-5. She had a son during the first marriage, but the baby died at a very young age. I liked Thelma because she was extremely arty, which annoyed hell out of my mother. So she and I were always co-conspirators. When I was quite young, she gave me books about art and high culture, and for that I will always revere her memory. Quite early, in a period when such things were never mentioned, she had cancer, not once but twice. As a result she had both a mastectomy and a hysterectomy in her early 30s but lived to be well over 70. In the end, it was lung cancer, though she hadn't smoked for many years and in fact spent the second half of her professional life working for the American Cancer Society.
My aunt Irma Ades got married to a stable, dependable insurance saleman who provided a solid, middle-class home for them and the two boys. The older one, Richard, was my sister's age and given to terrible temper tantrums. But I got along famously with the younger one, Robert. (Both boys always went by their middle names, Ashley and Byron, respectively.) Irmie was always cheerful, never complaining of the multiple sclerosis that slowly corroded her nervous system, always ready to make yet another breakfast for a sleepy kid, and divinely gifted for music, though she never really had an opportunity to develop the talent. She certainly did encourage me as a musician, though.
My cousin, Robert Byron Ades, was several months younger than I was. I spent several summer vacations with my aunt and uncle. By and I were about matched athletically, except he liked baseball, which I despised. Bike riding and swimming were our favorite pastimes. Living in various town and suburban Milwaukee neighborhoods, we could take the bikes to the Washington Park zoo and the Hoyt Park pool, or take the bus downtown to the natural history museum. But these were our daytime activites.
At night we slept together, usually in a tent in the back yard, or if it was rainy or cold, then in his room in the house. The second summer we did everything a person can imagine to do. It was natural curiosity and precociousness, I suppose. We certainly knew it would be a bad idea to get caught, which we nearly were a number of times. But somehow we got away with it. We liked each other, but it was not love. It was just sexual curiosity, free of any kind of passion. As a matter of fact, By was always completely straight.