Back when I was playing violin in my school's orchestra, one of the pieces we performed was ``Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.'' I can remember sitting there in the orchestra and thinking that being a motherless child was a very sad state in which to find one's self.
And then my beloved grandmother died, when I was a junior in high school. Several months later we moved from Seattle to Cocoa Beach, Florida, because of my dad's work in the space program and I had to leave behind everything that was familiar.
My mom was somewhat distant to begin with, but after we got to Florida, and Dad's drinking got so extremely out of hand, I mainly knew her only as an absence. Dealing with an out-of-control and violent husband took all her energy. He became increasingly demanding about how she was to cater to him. I think in the name of emotional survival she was unable to do much else but dance attendance upon him, running all his errands, buying all the toys he demanded, pressing his pants every single morning, and trying to have dinner ready for him no matter what time or in what condition he came home at night. I started to know what this motherless-child stuff was all about.
I left home for good two weeks after my high school graduation, lived in a college dormitory for four years, and then married two weeks after graduation. After the family moved back to Seattle Dad couldn't or wouldn't let me come over to the house for what was an ever-changing set of reasons. So in the next few years, what contact I did have with my mother was mainly over the telephone, and not all that frequent.
She was diagnosed with cancer before I got pregnant with my 4th child, and died not long after that child's first birthday. She spent the last two years of her life mainly in the hospital and because her immune system was severely suppressed from the chemotherapy and radiation treatment, and I was living in the petri dish that is a home with four little kids, I could rarely come to the hospital and see her. My father actually forbade me to come to the hospital because, he said, I looked so terrible that he was ashamed for fear someone from the family would see me. (As I think I've said before, he was pretty unclear on the concept that his children were his family).
Mom died just before Christmas in 1972, and I remember standing in the snow in the mountain cemetery in the Washington Cascades where she's buried. A very dry snow was falling and the individual snowflakes spangled the dark fabric with which her coffin was covered.
Dad married again, one year to the day after Mom died. He didn't invite any of us to the wedding, or for that matter even tell us he was getting married. Instead he presented us with our new stepmother as a fait accompli. I'd met her only once before, when she was introduced as someone he'd met just recently. We all knew otherwise.
This is a long prologue before I start writing about the person who has been like a mother to me for my entire life. She's been there for me and the rest of the family through all our ups and downs. She's never given me -- or anyone else in the family, for that matter -- anything but unconditional love and acceptance. I've never had to seek her approval because she's always been the head cheerleader for me and for everyone else in my generation in our large extended family.
She's my mom's sister, my favorite aunt, the matriarch of our family, the one who describes herself as ``your crazy old Aunt Doris.'' Here she is with my mom's other surviving siblings at our one and only family reunion a few summers ago on Whidbey Island. The t-shirts they're all wearing have my grandparents' wedding photo on the front. She's the one with the beautiful silver hair.
I don't recall meeting her because she's been here as long as I can remember. My first memory may well be a vague recollection of having been downtown in a San Francisco department store with her some time when I was really young, probably not more than three or so.
There's a film of her December 1945 wedding to my Uncle Toby and I show up briefly as a toddler in white high-top shoes. I can't remember the wedding, but I do recall years later cutting a huge piece out of the back of my mom's cerise velvet bridesmaid dress from that wedding and making it into a doll dress. I know from looking at her wedding photos that she was glamorous, and my Uncle Toby as handsome in his Army Air Corps uniform.
The Christmas right before I was five years old, we stayed my grandparents' ranch in Ellensburg while my mom was awaiting my sister's birth in January. I remember looking out the widow one night and seeing that the granary was on fire. No one would believe me because I was just a little kid until Aunt Doris stopped to listen, looked out the window and saw that it indeed was in flames. She believed me when no one else did.
I used to love to stay at her house in Seattle. It was full of odd interesting things like a pump organ down in the basement; a large square grand piano; two pile-upholstered sofas, one cherry-colored and the other pale lime green; old fancy liquor bottles she'd fill with colored water and place on the windowsills; and an decommissioned monstrance in which she kept her spare car keys.
It was always an adventure to come and see her. I was always welcome as any grownup to sit at the breakfast bar with her and talk and talk. Even when I was a child, she treated me as if I might have something to say that was worth listening to.
She and Uncle Toby were sometimes the providers of forbidden treats, like the time they brought us a whole array of fireworks, including a cardboard merry-go-round that spun round and round with a whistling noise when you lit the fuse. And sometimes the two of them would take us out for what was then called ``a ride in the car'' on Sundays, back when that was still a somewhat exotic thing to do. She took us to our first drive-in-restaurant, a place called the Burgermaster, where there really were car hops on roller skates.
During my first three years of college, while my family still lived in Florida, I spent school vacations at my aunt and uncle's house. I sewed my going-off-to-college outfits on her Singer featherweight, and it was in her kitchen sink that I bleached my hair platinum (huge mistake, by the way). I remember the time she let me streak her hair, using a crochet hook to pull the strands to be bleached through holes we punched in a shower cap.
She drove a Volkswagen Beetle that she'd had painted brilliant lime green, and was often seen chugging around Capitol Hill in her usual and accustomed routes between home, the supermarket, St. Joe's. and any garage sale she could find.
I was always welcome to bring my college -- and my old high school -- friends to her house and unlike at home, I never had to worry about a drunk or abusive adult present. She knew about the terrible crush I had on the boy across the street who spurned my advances to go become a priest, and never once teased me or made me feel foolish.
When I was married for the first time, as was the tradition in our family, she ``poured'' at the wedding reciption, and hosted the wedding shower. I learned to make spaghetti sauce from her, and beef stroganoff, from a recipe that was far from canonical, and so loaded with cholestrol as to be a cardiologist's nightmare. Every Christmas I make her almond roca bars, using a recipe card in her handwriting that is now splotched with spills from my nearly 50 years as a cookie baker.
Here she is at my wedding in 1965.
When my kids were little, I lived in the suburbs, but drove them to preschool in Seattle's Central Area each day so they would have a chance to go to school with kids of different races and economic levels, rather than in lily-white middle-class Bellevue. At least one day a week I'd go to Aunt Doris' house while the older kids were in preschool, and in time she had the typical grandma plastic clothes basket filled with toys to delight those of my children who were still too young to go to school.
She sewed the dress I wore to my youngest sister's wedding, and also whipped me up a frock to wear when I was invited to a Shinto wedding in Japan.
On my 30th birthday, she said she'd take a trip with me to San Francisco only if I'd get my ears pierced. I finally caved in and had them pierced and, of course received the special earrings she'd bought for me. We had a great time in San Francisco, climbing up and down all the hills, hitting every museum and vista point, and spending a wild day up in the Napa Valley tasting wine alongside a motorcycle gang.
When second-wave feminism came along, and I began to question the patriarchy and the political and economic order that said I was an automatic second-class citizen, she jumped right into the fray at my side. After many years of faithfully cleaning the sacristy and mending Jesuit's clothing, she suddenly got really mad when she wasn't allowed to be a lector and was told to sit down and be quiet. She never sat down and she wouldn't be quiet either.
After my mother died, my aunt-- who had been her primary caregiver -- realized she wanted to help people who were less fortunate. She started her career as a volunteer at Country Doc, which began as a free clinic serving the underserved on Seattle's Capitol Hill. She was a faithful volunteer for what had to have been more than 30 years. And she also began to demand that her family's charitable donations that were made to the Catholic Church be matched with equal donations to Country Doc.
She and Uncle Toby raised two great kids who are now among my very favorite cousins, good men who are great fathers to their own kids, and loving, respectful and supportive to their parents.
When I left my first marriage, I instantly became the family's pariah. Except to Aunt Doris and Uncle Toby, that is. They never closed their door to me, and Aunt Doris filled my mailbox with letters and newspaper clippings during the years when no one else would even speak to me. Over the past few years I've developed the habit of sticking her letters into various books so that when I open a book, I often come across several sheets of yellow legal tablet paper on which she's brought me up to speed on the family, politics, the Church, and anything else she thinks might interest me.
Here's a photo of her and my Uncle Toby I shot at the Inn at the Market above the Pike Place Public Market in Seattle. I think it dates from around 1993.
Of course she showed up for my second wedding here in California, and she came back down to the Bay Area for my husband's memorial up in Tilden Park. I think she even put some of the stitches in his panel for the AIDS Quilt. And she brought down some of those little champagne-bottle poppers we shot off in Tilden at the end of the memorial.
She's a liberal's liberal, and hasn't had much use for a few of our recent presidents. And she's not at all thrilled with that guy in Rome who speaks with a German accent. She told me the last time we talked that ``Oprah's my pope,'' probably because she loves Oprah's humanity and compassion.
She finds my Pagan life interesting and understands that it has its roots in my feminism. I'd love some time for her to meet my coven, for I know they'd all fall in love with her as the crone of all crones. And she'd love them back in equal measure.
She does have one tiny Achilles heel: her love of garage sales. That's where she can really be dangerous. She even wanted to stop at a garage sale on the way to my husband's memorial. What's really hard to accept is that we should probably have paid attention to her and stopped because she wanted to buy the big beach umbrella she saw at the sale. It was truly hotter than the hinges of hell that day, with all of us persons of pink getting extreme sunburns in the meadow where we held the memorial.
She and Uncle Toby have just undergone a very hard seven-month period. A water pipe broke at their condo at the beginning of October, and they've been stashed in a motel ever since while the insurance companies endlessly debated who would pay for the repairs and which repairs would be done. It looks like this coming week they'll finally be able to go back home again after all this time of being trapped in one single room together 24/7. I'm sure it will take time to get settled, and, given that she's in her late 80s and Uncle Toby is deep into his 90s, it won't be easy or automatic.
After years of resisting, she's finally joined the plugged-in crowd, and sends email and even has her own Facebook page. My cousins bought her an i-Pad, and enticed her to learn to use it by pointing out that the ads for garage sales were now on Craigs List instead of in the newspaper.
Her hearing's not what it used to be, and she has some moments of forgetfulness. Her thick blond hair is now a beautiful silky silver, and she reads through a pair of heavy black-rimmed glasses. I suppose she'll have to get back into the habit of cooking in a real kitchen after so many months of making do with a microwave in a motel room and she may find that doing a big grocery shopping or hitting a number of garage sales in one day might be challenging.
I am looking forward to seeing her and Uncle Toby next weekend, after I go to my class reunion. Given their age, I am always afraid that each time I see them might well be the last . So I always tell them the same thing, that they are the best thing in the world that ever happened to me and my sibs, that without them we would not have survived to adulthood. I've never been that much of a hugger or kisser -- comes with the Nordic psychic DNA I guess -- but it would be unthinkable for me to leave without planting a kiss on Uncle Toby's whiskery cheek or to have a nice squishy bosomy hug from Aunt Doris. Here's a photo I shot of the two of them in Seattle's Volunteer Park a few years ago.