Big Brat, Little Brat: Saying Goodbye to Aunt Judy

Aunt Judy and me

Some hours ago, my Aunt Judy passed away. On March 27, she entered the hospital for a routine procedure and was later discharged, only to return with complications a few days after. Her condition continued to worsen as intervention after intervention failed. In the end, it was only life support that sustained her, and it was her own wishes not to be resuscitated that meant we had to let her go.

When I was a child, Judy lovingly and jokingly began calling me “Little Brat.” I suppose this is because I often derived attention from (usually literal) poking and prodding of the people to whom I showed affection. Or because, in an extended family with few children and none my age, embodying the trickster was another guaranteed way to earn attention. Being surrounded by adults was the norm in my childhood, so I engaged them in the ways I knew how, and they in return, me. The latter meant I grew up precocious, with an expanded vocabulary, with more self-awareness than a child should possess, and a sense that I was no different from the older people around me. But Judy was one of the few who approached me as a child and not only played my games but who, childlike, also made me play hers. When I finally began calling her “Big Brat,” having conjured the obvious retort to the nickname she had given me, she seemed both shocked at my self-assuredness and pleased that we were both participants in what ultimately became a decades-long bout of light-hearted repartee.

As I grew older, we retained our nicknames, even when, in adolescence, I surpassed her in height. I joked as I hugged her, my arms then wrapping around her shoulders rather than her waist, that she should be “Little Brat” now. But with one of her characteristic quick retorts, she said that she would always be “Big Brat” because she would always be the oldest, and plus, she was bigger this way, she added, and held her hands at her waist, pulling them outward in an expanding motion. The names necessarily became less literal, more ironic, but they also became an homage to who we were as aunt and niece at the moment that relationship became a friendship. And throughout her life, the names remained as they were at that point of origin. In every Christmas card, birthday card, and later every Facebook post, she would sign as “Big Brat.” When I became old enough to fall in love, to marry, she accepted Matt with open arms as both a nephew and new member of the family, drew him into our game of repartee, and cleverly christened him “Matt Brat.” He, too, loves her dearly.

Judy was too cool for cool; endured far too much; maintained an intense strength, despite all odds; and she continued to love—fiercely—against which the odds were even greater. Mostly Judy was taken from us far too soon. But I have always thought about her less as “Judy” and more as “my really awesome aunt who always let me call her ‘Big Brat.'” Because I love her, and despite already missing her, or perhaps especially so, “Big Brat” she shall remain.

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