How My Great-Aunt’s Death Brought Us Closer

Egem Yorulmaz, 16

When I was 12, my great-aunt Nevin died. She had suffered a heart attack while taking a shower in her tiny apartment, and the downstairs neighbors found her dead after water began to leak through the ceiling of the apartment below.

I felt bad because I hadn’t cared very much about her while she was still alive; I remember visiting her in her neighborhood of Üsküdar, on the Asian side of Istanbul, across the Bosphorus from where my family lived. Every month, we made the 20-minute trip. My parents told me that it was the right thing to do.

As odd as it seems, I became much closer to Nevin after her death than I had ever been when she was alive. In my childhood Nevin became increasingly sick with each visit; she disregarded our pleas to admit her into a nursing home, as she had never rested a day in her youth, and joked that she did not intend to start now. Her apartment reeked of antibacterial creams and scented candles, and it reminded me of a clean, dormant clam concealed deep under the seabed of Üsküdar—and cut off from the world.

My father remembers her most clearly. When he was six, his parents enrolled him in military school, left him in Istanbul, and moved to Germany, so Nevin was the closest family he had. “She didn’t complete elementary school and started working at a tobacco factory at the age of six,” my father told me. “Her father had left their family while she was still a child, causing Nevin to become the authoritarian head of the household.”

My father said because of this, Nevin had hardened from a young age. She did love, and loved greatly, but she often came across as overbearing and uncompassionate. She never married or had children, so after raising her siblings, she watched as the people in her life started to slip away with families of their own. And so, she started to hold on to every object that reminded her of them.

I distinctly remember the table in her living room. It was made of two layers of glass, and in between were small trinkets she had collected over the years, ranging from key chains to cigarette wrappers. Occasionally Nevin would take out a small tin box from her bedroom, which no one was allowed to enter; we only caught glimpses of it while the door swung open and shut. The box contained her favorite poems, rewritten in her handwriting, withered with age and stained by tears. These poems were a bittersweet metaphor for her life: the greatest magnitude of emotions and desires tucked into a cheap tin box, hidden from public view.

After her death, I became fixated on who Nevin was, and how she had become so disconnected from the rest of our family. And as I put my great-aunt back together, rediscovering her piece by piece through the traces scattered around that small apartment, I also learned about myself. Understanding her death was a way of processing my own pain. After moving from England to Turkey at the age of seven, I felt isolated in every aspect—I had no friends, I didn’t fit in at school, and my parents were preoccupied with their new jobs in Istanbul. My loneliness manifested in anger towards everyone around me. When I was 12 and Nevin died, I began to sympathize with her as an outcast. Our shared experiences of isolation—hers from her family, mine from my peers—made me feel close to her.

 “One thing I remember is how she always stuck up for me,” my father told me. “Once in fifth grade my math teacher lost my exam, and accused me of throwing the answer sheet out. I can never forget how Nevin came to my school and fought for me, telling them how she knew that I would never lie about anything. She knew what it was like to not have anyone to lean on as a child. . . . If it were not for her understanding of how harsh reality can mold a naive child, I would’ve become bitter with anger and sadness. I think that was what she was the most afraid of.”

Nevin had helped both my father and me in our childhoods, his when she was in her twenties, just on the brink of truly beginning her life, and mine after her life had ended. We overlapped in the middle, during her years of sickness. There are still so many things I wish I could ask her. For now my father and I can only read through her poems, and line by line, rediscover the love and life that had existed in that small, somber apartment.

Photo courtesy of  Egem Yorulmaz