As I scooped up the last piece of quiche on my plate, I heard a knock on the door. Colby and I had brought Christmas dinner ( a la bakery quiche and fresh bread) to my Grandmother. She was going to her brother’s house for Christmas, and it was going to be the first Christmas morning in 30 years where I wasn’t going to see her. So we decided to have our Christmas visit early, even if it was a school night. I saw a familiar and much missed head pop in the door and jumped out of my chair to greet my “aunt” Kelly. Two hours and two pieces of pie later I left for my mother’s house. Another piece of pie later, Colby and I headed home. I like pie. I shivered as I drove, accepting the frigid air for the deep blue, star-laden sky it brought with it. While I talked with Colby about the merits of one bass player over another, drum solos, and influential songs; I was thinking about my good fortune/luck/general blessedness in being surrounded by women, each so different from each other, who each added a patch (or ten) to the quilt of grown-up me.
I always envied my friends who grew up in families full of women. I appreciated the toughness and quick wit that came with being surrounded by men, but something was missing. My mother came from a long line of hearty, Baptist, New England women; and while we enjoy a rich and fulfilling relationship now, that wasn’t always so. Mothers of single daughters, I’m sure you understand. At times it is hard to like your own children, as it can sometimes be hard to like yourself. I can only imagine how much harder that is when dealing with a daughter, say, anywhere between the ages of 7 and 22. I don’t have any sisters OR daughters, but from what I can see, sisters have discussions as well as arguments. They answer questions about mood swings, periods, boobs. They define their values and ideals by seeing themselves in each other, for better or worse. Parents may have to deal with multiple daughters, which can certainly be taxing, but the daughters maybe learn enough from each other to not need ALL of the knowledge of ALL things woman from one person. My mother did not come of age in a time where women were encouraged to think about what it means to be “a woman”, and that world certainly never encouraged women to embrace the physiological, emotional, and even academic aspects of themselves. As the universe would have it, I was intensely, unremittingly curious about just these things.
And where better to learn about the female world than romance novels? Really, it’s all there. Okay. Not so much. But that was where I started. My fifth grade teacher can tell you how many she had to confiscate from me. All I can say is, it’s a good thing we didn’t have the internet. Who knows what I would have thought normal then! It wasn’t just the novels and teen magazines though. I was blessed with women. Women who were all willing to add a patch or mend my edges. I’m still waiting for the trim, but I think I have to do that myself.
Some of my aunts instilled in me a love of writing. They wrote letters to me at Girl Scout Camp. Some wrote when I was having a tough time. They sent cards covered in encouraging (and sometimes admonishing) words from front to back – leaving room for the Hallmark sign, of course. I learned that it was easier to express myself with the written word. I learned that my thoughts were important, that I was worth the time it took to write a letter or a card. One in particular taught me that divorce wasn’t the end, and that a niece was a niece forever. My uncle married again. His second wife taught me that it was never too late for love, and that there is always room for another family member. From them I learned that, exhausting as it may be, you can never have too much family. I learned to have open arms and an open heart. I learned that it was okay to wait for the right love, and that it was okay to try again. From another, I learned how to bake…with children. We would go to her house to make Christmas cookies. She would listen to us tell silly stories about silly pre-adolescent life, and later on, she listened with compassion as we wrestled bigger demons. She made the best damn cookies I’ve ever had, and I will use her recipes until the day I die. From her, I learned how to make messes and how to listen. They usually go together. My aunts always made me feel special, spent time with me, and were sure to be around for any major event. And you know what? They still do. For real. How lucky am I?!
But back to that night. I was thinking especially about three women – one who I had hoped to see – and two that I was with. First of all, I was with my grandmother. I have two spunky, caring, active grandmothers who have been instrumental not only my upbringing, but my son’s as well. Again, how lucky am I? I know exactly how lucky I am. I was with my father’s mother that night.
She lives on her own, and I wanted for once to make her feel as special as she made me feel. Every year she would pick a grandchild to attend The Nutcracker ballet with her. For most of us, it was the only fine art we were exposed to. I learned to love the ballet, consequently, so did my son. She taught me how to give myself a manicure, how to love your kids when you don’t like their choices, and how to always make time for a card game. She taught me that the skills necessary to sneak out would always be punished in a very creative way – like an early, heavy breakfast and a day of shopping. Try that one after you drank a fifth of brandy with whole milk in the woods. It’s not pretty. Late one night, very early in my very unexpected pregnancy, I showed up, pajama’d and tear-stained on her front porch. She probably had to work the next day, but she put on water for tea anyway. When I told her I didn’t know if I could do this, she told me I had to, simple as that. She told me stories of her pregnancies, her children, her marriage. She started telling me narrative of her life, and I get a new piece of it every time I see her. From her, I learn every day.
My ‘aunt’ is not technically an aunt, but the mother of my cousin, if you can follow that. During those horrible, tumultuous teenaged years when my mother was probably torn between hugging me and throwing me off a very high bridge, she and another aunt came to the rescue. They were social workers, nurses, women’s health professionals, teachers, disciplinarians, and psychologists. They listened without judgement, gave advice sparingly, and never failed to let me know when I was making a bad choice. I could do the stupidist shit imaginable, but they would love me anyway. Then they would tell me to go fix it. Immediately.
I thought about them that night, at dinner, when my ‘aunt’ told me that her daughter, my cousin, was the first in her immediate family to go to college. She had just graduated. I thought about all my aunts had done with the limited resources they had. I wish we had a million women in the world just.like.them. so I could dispatch them to all the other young women who needed them just as much as I did. From them I learned to love and respect myself, to advocate for my own needs, to take responsibility for my actions, and not to judge. I learned to encourage others regardless of my own resources and accomplishments, and to never think less of others because they had more (or less) than me. I hope my child will find similar people in his life when he needs to step away from me. I will be sad, as I’m sure my own mother was, but he will need someone. That day will come sooner than I care to admit.
I hugged my aunt and grandmother when I left, squeezing a little tighter than usual. My aunt commented earlier in the evening how her daughter, a young mother herself, reminded her of me when Colby was younger. What I didn’t tell her was how I mirrored so much of my parenting on how she raised my cousin. It really hit me then, how most of us are pieces, provided and patched together by the various people in our lives. It really doesn’t matter how often we see them, because they are part of us every day. They keep us warm on cold nights, and when the world is just too much, we can rub our fingers against the patches to remind ourselves of whatever we need to remember.