Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Sisters and Aunts

There are a lot of sisters and aunts on my mom’s side of the family. Many daughters... not many sons. There’s me, and my sister Amber (well, there ARE a lot of sons in my generation). My mom, Kathi, and her sister Pat. Their mom, Elaine, and her sister Elnora. And before that pair of sisters, there was another. Dorothy and Christine, Dot and Teenie for short. They weren’t the only sisters in their generation- there was my great grandmother, Louise, and two more sisters that I never met, Bette and Tilly. Dot was the baby.

Aunt Dot and Aunt Teenie are an institution in our family, always spoken of together, in exactly that way. Never one without the other. Never without the “Aunt” in front. I even had to go back through this whole blog to correct when I left the “Aunt”s off... my mom said she couldn’t read it that way, it was just too weird. They're borderline revered by us all... The last of their generation, the aunts of my grandmother. Great, great aunts. That’s quite a few greats. The most recent count of all their nieces and nephews is over 70.

In her 20’s, as a student nurse, Aunt Teenie contracted polio from a child she was caring for. Aunt Dot, who was about 19 at the time, dropped out of nursing school to take care of her. They stayed together from then on. The first letters I ever wrote had “Aunt Dot and Aunt Teenie” scrawled across them. Aunt Dot loved to paint, so I would send her pictures I drew. Every birthday brought a card with an ironed flat ten dollar bill. When I had kids, I sent them pictures every few months. Aunt Dot always wrote back in a long, thin, spidery cursive. She has beautiful penmanship.

I haven’t seen my aunts since I was a teenager, maybe even a preteen. As the years passed, it just became too hard for them to travel down from Connecticut. Another regret I have... another part of my history and legacy that I never really got to know. The memories I have of them are sweet: hunting Easter eggs in my grandmother’s yard while the aunts sat on the porch swing calling out hints. Tightly spiraled gray curls on heads with soft, wrinkly, pink cheeks. Lots of laughing. And letters, always letters. Boxes of them. They were the most faithful pen pals you could find. A few years ago, I got a padded envelope in the mail from Aunt Dot... when I opened it, I found two paintings, one of a little boy leaning over a dock to play in the water, the other of a little girl playing on the beach. I burst into tears. To have an original “Dot”, when she hadn’t painted in years... the honor I felt can’t be expressed. And the sorrow. It stirred some sort of homesickness in me. I wanted to be with them. I wanted to know them as an adult.

This past Sunday, my Aunt Teenie passed away. She’d been failing for a long time. Every letter I got from Aunt Dot mentioned that her sister was sliding slowly downhill. One thing I loved the most about her letters: she was always honest, but never negative. She would end the reports on Aunt Teenie with, “She still maintains a clear mind, which we are grateful for.” She would tell me how she showed Aunt Teenie the pictures of my kids through a magnifying glass, so she could see them better. She told me how she would take her outside for fresh air. How she sat and read to her. For 70 years, it has been the two of them, always.

I can’t imagine Aunt Dot without Aunt Teenie. The hardest part of my week so far was addressing the card I sent to her. Leaving off the “and Christine” was heartbreaking.

I’ve been sitting here for a few minutes. Rereading the last letter from them. Trying to think of a snappy closing. I’m just... sad. Bereft. But when I think back on their lives, on the lives of all the sisters and aunts in my family, I’m proud to be a part of that thread. And my daughters- they’re part of that long line of sisters, too. They’ll learn their legacy the best that my sister and I can teach them, along with my mother and her sister, and my grandmother and her sister.

Aunt Teenie, sitting on the ground on the right. My grandmother
is the one on the left with the babies on her lap. The naked, tan,
pouty baby is my mom.

We’ll do our best to make the Aunts proud.

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