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Finding (the Other) Donald

Finding (the Other) Donald

October 6, 2016

I took some days off work to spend time with visiting family members. I hoped the time away would ignite a writing spark and allow a few hours to fan it. My brother Will was in from Los Angeles, and our oldest daughter Lindy had come from Maui for the week. My sister Gwen joined the three of us, and we headed–literally–for the hills. That is, we piled into my Subaru with the family dog and hit the road for Mom’s small house in rural West Virginia.

Oh, we had fun, all right. All the glorious, obnoxious, jostling sibling interplay you might expect, served with some serious and dear conversation on the side. Lindy more than held her own. It is not for me to judge whether my husband and our other daughters felt more blessed than deprived in having been unavailable to join us.

Lee family gaiety is of the raucous variety, you see. My family is intense and somewhat chaotic. We are more firecracker than briquette. Our words and personalities tumble over one another with an energy which makes the air crackle. After two or three days, we have each either been smothered in the ample family bosom or we are waving sticks of dynamite in one others’ faces and daring each other to light a match.

Even so, we are a loyal clan. Our family dysfunction is such that we can bait one another well beyond the limits of civility but woe, woe, to the unwary outsider who gives offense to one in our ranks.

Theatrics and egos aside, I can count on my sibs to defend and care for me. This certainty among us has been hard won, and it is precious to me. It is from this maddening and glorious cocoon of family togetherness, this place of teeth gnashing and warm embraces, which I will tell you about finding Donald, a man who was not so lucky.

You could say I stumbled over him.

I discovered him last Saturday. He was sitting on the floor just inside the locked double doors of the church where I see my counseling clients. A spectre of the man he had once been, he was peeking at me from beneath an information table. I’d guess his weight at no more than five pounds.

DIW sits in hallway near door.jpg

Donald’s appearance spoke of haste, neglect, and a lack of dignity. Dead over six years, he still inhabited the cheapest of temporary urns–a black plastic cube. An edge of the clear plastic bag holding his charred remains poked out from under the lid. Shrouded in a gray plastic Dollar Tree bag, Donald sat on the cold linoleum and waited.

I waited too. Surely some reasonable explanation existed for my finding him thus.

I popped my head outside the door of my office between clients, hoping to discover he had been claimed.

Once, the church secretary came upstairs to rearrange the letters on the board above the information table. I said nothing and waited to see what would happen. Yolanda slid Donald further under the table. I confess, I cannot testify with certainty that she looked into the open bag at her feet before pushing him out of her way and against the wall. I confess, I cannot testify with certainty that she used her foot.

On Sunday, worshipers came and went, each passing within a few feet of Donald. Did they not wonder about the unexpected deposit in the empty hallway?

Days passed and nobody came for him. On the fourth day, Donald and I headed down to the church office to sort things out. Disaster was narrowly averted when Donald’s heft caused the sharp corners of his box to pierce the flimsy gray bag. I caught him before he fell and exploded in the stairwell.

The pastor and the secretary looked surprised to see Donald. Operating on the assumption that he or a family member had once attended the church, they conducted a little research. This is what they learned: Nothing. Donald had no discernible connection to the church at all. The staff scratched their heads and began researching the proper disposal of human remains.

I had had a cancellation, so I decided to do a little sleuthing of my own.

I was curious about Donald–Donald I. W., to be exact. From the label attached to his little box, I knew when he had come into the world and when he had left it. I even knew the date and location he had been placed in the furnace. I felt somehow embarrassed to know these intimate facts.

D.I.W. Urn Photo

This is what I concluded: Donald had lived with family 1.7 miles from the church. He has surviving family members in the area, including an older brother, now 70, still living in said family home. Either his relations are terribly poor or they don’t give a rat’s ass what becomes of him. Someone had sneaked into the building and abandoned Donald just as one would an unwanted infant.

When I consider Donald’s humiliation, I am overcome with gratitude for the generosity and only slightly deformed goodness which is growing up within and between me and my kin.

Maybe I should not be quite so hard on Donald’s family. They probably deserve some credit for choosing a church over a dumpster.

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This is a Biscuit

Schulranzen

My red leather bookbag, shown with one of my Latin text books and one of the books assigned in my German class: Kleider machen Leute by Gottfried Keller.

January 24, 2016

This collection of words is a biscuit.

These paragraphs are here to sop up some of the leftovers now that my story about Hanna has run its course.  Hanna’s influence and tangible reminders of our friendship are grafted into my daily life and therefore unavoidable—which is not to say they are unwelcome. But they do remind me that the story can never truly be done.

And so, if you have the stomach for it, you can read this postscript. This is my second postscript, and I am certain there will be others here and there. If you are unfamiliar with the story–if you are sick of the story–stop here. I’ll be none the wiser.

Lindy, our oldest, is out of our nest and lives in a tropical climate. She still has a couple of boxes here, and some of her things hang on a rod in the basement. Among her belongings is an incredible leather jacket she scored several years ago on Black Friday. She doesn’t need it, and she can’t part with it. Both are true.

Lindy has been after me to treat it with leather conditioner. I hope mink oil is the right treatment because I just spent the better part of an hour massaging it with love. This seemed a good occupation for a snow day with nary a plow in sight. When would I get to it otherwise?

I like to touch. I like to dig in the dirt, and I don’t care what happens to my nails. I hate wearing gloves when I wash the dishes. Once I got my hands coated with mink oil, I figured I’d better make the most of it. Out came all the leather goods I could find.

As I worked, I had plenty of time for reflection…

…which was helpful, since I found, in the back of my closet, amongst my scuffed shoes, my old red Schulranzen still stuffed with artifacts from Hanna’s and my youth.

I had to beg for this bag. I wore it strapped to my back, as was the custom. I packed it so full it took all my wiry strength to grab the tree limb, swing myself over the high fence, and bolt through the neighboring apartment complex to avoid getting caught taking the illicit shortcut on my way to and from school each day. You would have done it too! I promise.

I removed the articles crammed into the bag and cleaned it with care. I worked the fragrant fat into its parched skin as I thought about the Hanna and all that had gone before.

And here is the biscuit:

In the year following Hanna’s departure, we worked hard to understand its finality. It seemed impossible that we were really done.

One evening, when all five of us were under the same roof–Henry, Lindy, Bec, Claire, and I–the girls confessed their sadness and hurt.  Aunt Hanna had stopped loving them, they quavered. They knew she had been fed up with me but they had never dreamed their aunt would cease to be their aunt. But Hanna, for the first time since their births, had declined to acknowledge them at all. Birthdays were the hardest. The girls were heartbroken and confused.

One daughter was quieter than the others.

Unbeknownst to us, she had received gifts and overtures of friendship from Hanna and her husband. The message, in short: You are the one who understands us. You are like our very own child.

Our daughter made her choice and told me later, offering little detail. Her kind but superficial responses had been calculated to skirt their need, and communication ceased.

I hadn’t figured on this spillage when calculating the possibility that time would, indeed, heal all wounds.

This is a biscuit.

For the Story of Hanna, please click here.

Mad Hatter

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

Sept 26, 2015

Mad Hatter

I am anxious. I am irritable. I have too much time between clients and too much time to think.

Isn’t this what I wanted? To think? To think about writing? To contemplate my enjoyment, which has become tinged with fear, and may be tipping into dread? I love writing for you. Yes, YOU. I also feel frightened and exposed. My perfectionism is a stitch in my side. And the demands of blogging etiquette stretch my introversion to desperation even while I enjoy your writing, and I lap up the comments you send my way.

I have a few moments, and so I continue the waiting I began earlier this week. I talk to God some. Mostly, I listen. I need to learn what comes next. I am both wonderfully strong and entirely dependent.

I purposed—and I think I still do–to finish my blog threads Family Rules and The Story of Hanna. I had written most of my material before the idea of a blog had even crossed my mind, and I have spent the months since February polishing and supplementing the pieces through which I have experienced freedom from suffering and greater self knowledge. During this therapeutic process, I became aware of a desire to try my voice in the hearing of others. I started this blog. All of this felt God-led.

Now the realization of my goal is within sight. What lies ahead?

I am known for fleeting passion. I gardened with fervor for a few seasons and then dropped it cold. My husband Henry and I worry about the appearance of the flower beds I started but do not maintain. Are the neighbors pissed? I crocheted my fingers to the bone last year, and now I can hardly stand the sight of yarn. Early in our marriage, I cooked everything but pasta from scratch. Then it was couponing for a few years. Before I started blogging, I was addicted to Bones reruns and Bejeweled Blitz. You see my pattern?

I have had to review, at many junctures, which parts of me are ME and which are merely hats which have caught my fancy. I have a list of ME parts. I keep it to remind me of who I am when I am in danger of becoming confused. Without it, I don’t think I would like myself very much, and I think I would have a hard time looking God in the eye. God’s pleasure in me is my guiding principle, or at least I want it to be. Not because of fear. No. Because I have experienced the goodness of God and can’t unknow it.

Here are some ME parts:

My relationship with my husband.

My relationship with my children.

My relationship with God.

My counseling career.

There are others as well, but these suffice for now. I am committed to the maintenance of these parts even on days when Henry and I argue, my daughters spill nail polish on the rug, God seems remote, and work straight up sucks. I will attend, fight for, defend, and nurture these parts even during times when my love is a discipline scant on warm feelings.

Writing might be a hat. I can’t tell. If so, it is one which I have worn with enjoyment. I might wear it for a while longer. Or I might put it in my closet and wait to see if it comes back into fashion. Then again, maybe writing is meant to become a part of ME. If this is the case, I will need to learn how to make a more permanent place for it within this anxious and chaotic woman. God can show me how to do this—and I will submit to this molding–but I don’t believe I can do it on my own. Perhaps writing will occupy some role which I haven’t even considered. I will have to wait and see.

And so I have entered a process of discernment.

Which, at times, requires me to lie in my bed with the covers over my head.

So that when I have become fully divested, I will do whatever God asks or permits.

Because following God is not a hat.

The No-No

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

September, 2012

While access to a computer had been a nicety in 2006; by 2011, it had become a necessity.

Not only was the computer the best way to research and plan travel, but it had become Niko’s main source of companionship apart from Hanna. Unable to work and frequently apartment bound, Niko had come to rely on their laptop for entertainment and as a portal to the outside world.

You know by now that Henry and I had thought about our computer situation in advance. We had agreed that it would be very difficult to deny Niko use of my laptop, especially after having previously given him carte blanche. We had also agreed that it would be best to do so.

For some reason—and I suspect some fuzzy-minded state of denial and avoidance—I had not connected the dots. If I had, it would have been evident that a month-long visit sans computer would pose problems for anyone visiting a major metropolitan area. For Niko especially, computer access had become crucial to his sense of wellbeing and mastery in a sometimes hostile and often overwhelming world.

Maybe you have had this feeling too…when one half of your brain, red faced and breathless, brandishes a red flag in your face; and the other half of your brain responds: “Strange weather we’re having. I feel all melty and mushy,” and then proceeds to the freezer for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s followed by a food coma and a dreamless sleep. Lather, rinse, repeat…with any number of diversions.

I knew, but did not want to let myself know, that confronting the matter of the computer with Niko head on would, at some point, necessitate my confessing that I had concerns beyond those related to the condition of my laptop.

To be blunt without being gratuitous: In 2006, Niko had had trouble sharing the computer with the 5 other people who wanted time. And he had used the family computer it in ways I believe most hosts would not condone.

Shortly after Hanna and Niko departed that year, our new desktop had (terminally) failed. I wondered if his habits had played a role. Realizing his activities had occurred during prodromal and illness states, it didn’t seem right to classify them as Bad Behavior. How much true choice had been involved? And thinking it unfair to blame him for the demise of the desktop without clear evidence, I hesitated to speak. I wasn’t mad at him, and I certainly did not want to shame him. He had been so worried that his psychosis had damaged our friendship. Yet, I feared the same things could happen again in 2011.

Niko is a highly-verbal, detail-oriented, analytical, intelligent, and intuitive man. And he is persistent. He is good at debating, and he never misses an angle. To engage him on these issues at all would have been to open the whole can of worms, and I was afraid he would catch me out.

Why did it matter if he did?

I’m not sure.

I harbored no ill intent. But I was young and unsure in my attempts to prioritize my family. I knew I was making a healthy change but Hanna and Niko were unaware. In some fashion, I felt disloyal. Maybe even sneaky. For the first time, I was putting the needs of Henry and the girls over those of my best friend–and by association, her husband.

This is all hindsight, of course. In the moment, one half of my brain was sending up frantic smoke signals while the other half was smothering them with plans. Layers of plans, which were to provide insurance against ever having to have this conversation.

This is the eleventh installment of The Story of Hanna, a story of friendship, loss, and aging. Please click here for installment ten. Installment twelve is here.

Infidelity

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

Summer, 2013

“Are you getting enough?”

“Well…”

“I know we haven’t made much time for each other lately.”

“I’ve been getting by.”

“Because if you aren’t getting your needs met here, I want to know where you are getting them met.”

No, no no, this is not a conversation about sex! This conversation occurred in my women’s group. We were discussing our friendship needs.

My Ladies and I have been fast friends since chance (read: God) threw us together in the Spring of 1999 when we attended the same church retreat.

When we first started getting together, we met weekly. Each time we told new stories, learned more about one another, and laughed so hard it’s a wonder nobody ever threw up. Once each summer we went to great lengths to escape our children so that we could go off somewhere and behave like children. Please don’t ask me about specifics. If I told you, I’d have to kill you.

We had established the perfect blend of personalities, interests, and abilities. We did serious; we did spiritual; we did raucous; we did clueless. This was the life! We would go on like this forever! Nothing could ever come between us. We all but took vows and exchanged rings.

Slowly the passion cooled. We were on our way to becoming an old married couple. Getting together was enjoyable, but it wasn’t always the peak experience we had come to expect. As our children’s lives became more complicated and our work demands changed, making time for one another dropped further and further down our list of priorities. To be fair, perhaps I should also add that it dropped further and further down our list of possibilities. We were exhausted! Sometimes making the effort to coordinate four schedules became just one more thing—one more box to check on an already long list. And let’s face it. Who needs that?

As we began to coast, each of us began to explore other friendships. This felt good! We were getting our friendship needs met! But the enjoyment was also tinged with the guilty pleasure of “the affair.” Shouldn’t we be trying harder to make our schedules work? Shouldn’t we be pushing harder to create excitement in the perfectly good relationships we had? Could we be authentically happy that our intimate friends had found ways to get what we could not provide? Occasionally things between us became awkward as we wondered where we stood. Were we headed for divorce, however amicable? We had gone through infatuation and a lengthy honeymoon before the glow wore off and we found ourselves in the power struggle trying to assert our own agendas. Are you familiar with Imago Therapy? The theory behind it holds that if you make it successfully through this rough patch, you enter into a more mature and stable love.

Well….

We all agreed that the group needed an injection of something to keep things fresh. Without acknowledging it to one another, we more or less ended up in two camps.

Camp Edify wanted our times together to focus more on the study of Scripture in order to produce spiritual growth and maturity. This was a worthy aim. Camp Bite Me shrewdly figured that Bible Study = homework = one more thing. Seeing how frazzled we had all become, the Bite Mes didn’t want our times to have any agenda other than relaxation and fun. This aim was worthy as well.

When Edify touched on spiritual themes, Bite Me listened with patient smiles while it silently screamed, “Squish the damned camel through the needle already so we can get to the fun part! Can’t we just keep it light?!” Edify listened to Bite Me with Christian tolerance, plotting all the while how to manipulate the talk back to loftier fare. As the power struggle intensified, so did the tactics. Since neither camp had actually declared itself or its agenda, each volley had to take the form of a finely crafted segue lest the other camp come to suspect its motives. Fortunately, we are all very subtle and refined individuals.

I recall one van ride last summer in which the volleys sailed flew back and forth for the better part of two hours. As the Edifys became more earnest, the Bite Mes became more, uh, entertaining. In the end, it was Pollyanna versus Jersey Shore in an epic smackdown. I bet you can’t guess who ended up crying “Uncle.”

I’m willing to share the conversation with you in its condensed form but only if you promise not to tell anyone. I think it appropriate, in this day of Twitter and speed dating, to collapse it to its bare essentials. This may also help to insure that I will still have friends and a job in the event that someone I know actually reads this.

“Ten Commandments.”

“Ten inches.”

“Seek ye first.”

“Knockwurst.”

End times.”

“Ten times.”

“Grace.”

“Mercy!”

“Forgive us our debts.”

“Cigarette.”

For several months after this wrestling match, I wasn’t sure where we’d end up. For a while we went our own ways and almost seemed to forget about one another. A sort of continental drift or benign neglect had become the norm. Certainly nobody was going out of their way to organize anything.

I prepared myself for disappointment by trying to imagine I was ok with these developments: These women were nice but a lot of people are nice. And I was very busy. And both camps were starting to get on my last nerve. To gird myself against possible hurt, I practiced my Steel Magnolia Hug (lean in, brittle embrace, pat, pat, pat, I-don’t-need-you, release) and my International Air kisses (Mwa! I-am-above-zees. Mwa!) in the mirror, and said, “Screw it. I am just fine.”

Except that I wasn’t. I wasn’t fine at all. Hanna had dumped me, and I was high and dry. I didn’t realize how depressed I had become until I ran into one Lady unexpectedly and felt the tears spring into my eyes. I lurched into in a hug and didn’t want to let go. I needed my Ladies! I sent out an SOS, oblivious to the snot which threatened to short out my phone. Hell froze over, pigs flew, and before too long, we were seated cozily together enjoying a meal. We had a wonderful time.

We are older. We are wiser. We are still intact. Some things have shifted and some have stayed the same but we are still faithful to one another. Furthermore, I believe we are entering a good place in our odd little union.

This is the fourth installment in The Story of Hanna. Click here to read installment three. Click here for installment five.

A House Divided

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

I could have Mom or I could have Dad. I couldn’t have them both. At least not at the same time. But it never stopped me from trying.

I was kind of a double agent–except I wasn’t a spy. I tried thinking of myself as a mediator but that didn’t fit either. A mediator is a neutral party. No, I was a confused sort of ambassador. An ambassador is an emissary loyal to and invested in the well being of a specific country. Guess what? I was a dual citizen! Anxiety around matters of loyalty has tormented me throughout my life. After you read this piece, you will understand why.

You’ll need to understand a bit about my parents.

My father William was an odd fellow. He was a tall, bent, reed of a man who enjoyed oil painting, classical music, cooking, foreign language, and mystery novels. He loved to learn and experiment. He taught me how to plant a garden, check my oil, play chess, and knit. My Dad loved to travel, and he kept up with individuals all over the world using his ham radio. My father was respected at work, and he mentored many young men in their careers.

Lest you think him too cultured, it is important to note that he was also “Billy Boy,” the barefoot son of a quiet, uneducated carpenter and his domineering wife. My father relished his sweet iced tea and his corn bread with pinto beans. A times, he brewed alcoholic beverages in the laundry room and bathrooms. He thought it funny to sneak up behind my mother when she was washing dishes and her hands were occupied. He would nuzzle her neck, squeeze her love handles, and call her “Flabber,” a nickname which never failed to humiliate and incense her. I can still see him shaking with silent laughter at her impotent rage. I suppose you could say my father was a study in contrasts.

My mother Carol, being a more conventional soul and wishing for conventional happiness, found herself frustrated with the gulf between her husband’s prowess at work and his slovenliness and inconsideration at home. In some ways my mother was very much the archetypal warm, wholesome, cozy Mom. She was outgoing and social. She kept an orderly home, and she made gingerbread houses and chocolate chip cookies. Mom was the kindest and most wonderful nurse imaginable when we were ill. Unlike my father, she was an excellent athlete.

My father possessed little physical vigor, and he avoided joining us in any play but his own. His “play” involved the creation of prodigious messes which he left where they lay. He dirtied every dish in the kitchen to produce one batch of bread. He used our basement to build television sets for friends (for free!) while completely ignoring all chores. When invitations for neighborhood social functions arrived, my father was entirely uninterested. My mother responded by staying home to sulk or else attending alone and fabricating an excuse intended to protect them both from shame. She thought it an enormous and delicious act of rebellion when, many years later, she began to tell the truth: “William didn’t want to come.”

I suspect my mother might have been better able to tolerate my father’s eccentricities if he had left her alone to rule the household as she saw fit. Instead, he acted as overseer. He believed her somewhat lacking in brainpower and in need of supervision. My mother responded by using her “stupidity” to manage regular bank overdrafts and other ploys to make sure that we had tasty food and clothing which was not embarrassing.

I could think of no other way to affect conciliation than to hold the confidences of both Mom and Dad while trying to help each understand the other’s point of view. I have intentionally avoided the word reconciliation because they didn’t learn to enjoy and cooperate with one another until I was grown and out of the house.

My father frequently asked me to accompany him on weekend errands. During our times in the car, he entrusted me with adult concerns: “I love your mother but you have to understand that she is like a child.” He implied that she wasn’t very bright. His manner communicated that we had a special bond and that I was able to understand things my mother couldn’t. I listened quietly or else I tried to help him understand my Mom. I felt special. Surely I must be a very mature and smart girl! At the same time my father’s confidences were tainted. I was ushered into a realm of emotional intimacy which should have been reserved for my mother.

My father’s attentions were never sexual but they had a quality of intimacy which confused me and which I still find difficult to describe. Perhaps an example will clarify: Several times, immediately after flying into a rage and administering corporal punishment for minor misdeeds, my father came to me as I cried on my bed and calmly rubbed my back. He sought comfort and empathy. He wanted my reassurance that I understood him: He had been compelled to punish me this way because of his love for me. It had been done for my own good. Now that his rage had achieved release, I probably should have offered him a cigarette.

My mother found in me a convenient outlet for expressions of frustration involving my father. Having been influenced by my father’s assessment of her defects, I found Mom’s confidences less satisfying. I was torn between my desire to be her friend and ally and the guilt I felt when I failed to remain loyal to Dad’s agendas. I explained my father to my mother as best I could, hoping to win her compliance and bring about harmony. I was drawn to her by a child’s need for closeness, yet I was repelled by the contempt I felt. Her loyalty was two-sided as well. On occasions when we children misbehaved a bit more than she could manage, my mother appealed to my father to discipline us the moment he arrived home from work. When he was stressed, he lost his temper and raised welts on our thighs while my mom, once again in the role of good guy and advocate, begged him to stop.

My parents were either unaware of their nauseous dance or else too deeply entrenched in their power struggle to resist childish misbehavior. I tried to stand between them and connect them. I recall one very painful incident in which my father gleefully offered to take us kids out for ice cream. The offer followed directly on the heels of a heated argument between the two of them.

Going out for ice cream was a rare and valued treat. We excitedly hopped in the car, relieved that safety had been restored. We waited for my father to pull out of the driveway but he did not. After a moment, he declared that he wouldn’t take us unless my mother came too. I ran into the house and asked her to come. Still furious and hurt from the confrontation, she refused. My father innocently responded that my mother was the one with the power to decide whether or not we would get the ice cream. I reasoned (and pleaded) back and forth with my father and my mother while my siblings looked on, begging and sobbing loudly. Finally my mother changed her clothes and slipped into the car. She looked straight ahead and didn’t utter a word. My father was positively giddy. I had somehow chosen my father and betrayed my mother for an ice cream cone.

Keeping the peace was a task far beyond my reach as my family culture made it difficult to befriend more than one member at a time. To be close to Dad, I had to snub Mom. If I allied myself with Mom, I had to defy Dad. If Dad’s mercurial anger threatened to alight upon me, I had more complicated choices to make. I became an expert at reading the family tea leaves so that I would know just how to respond. Should I turn off my emotions and try the cool, logical appeal he favored? Should I feign submission and ask for mercy? Should I play dumb and implicate my mother or siblings? Should I inconspicuously ease my way out of the room? Should I run like hell? When push came to shove, I looked out for myself.

My writing is replete with dichotomies, and that is as it should be. I felt divided then, and I feel divided still. This is the kind of confusion wrought by emotional incest and manipulation. Loyalty and betrayal continue to be fraught concepts. Sometimes the line between being a good “ambassador” and being a flagrant codependent or a weasel is finer than one might think. I’ve developed a good professional understanding of how this works. (Would it surprise you to know that I have a specialty in couples therapy?) The summer of 2011 drove the lesson home in a personal way.

I’ve been sitting on this piece for two days. Clicking “publish” is hard sometimes. One betrayal per click. Family Rules breaking left and right. I can feel my stomach churning. But this is my story, and I’m going to tell it. I’m going to sell out my parents for the possibility of a “like.” Think carefully. Do you really want to be complicit?

This is where Family Rules and The Story of Hanna Intersect. For the prior installment of Family Rules, click here. For the next installment of Family Rules, click here. For the prior installment of the story of Hanna, click here. For the next installment of The Story of Hanna, click here.

Aunt Mimi

Image courtesy of Cath

Image courtesy of Cath

I had to tell you more about Aunt MiMi because I’ve been thinking about her so much.

My Uncle Stanly’s position as a bigwig in the MVA of major city had afforded my aunt plenty of opportunities to indulge in her favorite pastimes: shopping, going to parties, and making friends! Aunt MiMi was both flashy peacock and hardworking pragmatist. She had worked a full-time secretarial job downtown and earned every inch of her big, fat Cadillac and every ounce of flounce in her ample closets. She could easily have become pretentious and jaded. She never did. Aunt MiMi maintained a girlish enthusiasm for life until her last day on this earth.

Aunt MiMi was as vivacious as Uncle Stanly was stern. We kids were instructed to keep our voices low and tiptoe around him. He never really talked to or acknowledged children; in fact, he rarely spoke at all. I don’t think I ever heard him laugh. He usually sat like a statue, his pipe clamped between thin lips. I do have one warm memory of him, however. One Thanksgiving he sat to my right. As he passed me the next dish, his lips curled five degrees heavenward, and he spoke: “I bet you don’t love lima beans as much as I do.” That was it.

Unburdened by angst, Aunt MiMi kept things simple. She didn’t introspect or ruminate. Her world was populated by Good People and Bad People. She had it on good authority that Bad People existed, but she had never actually met one herself. She was the kind of woman I could imagine disarming a burglar with a frying pan and then serving him a side of ice cream and cookies to go with his ice pack. He’d end up thanking her and swearing off a life of crime. She probably had such faith in people because of her childlike faith in God. She was childlike but not childish. She attended Mass weekly, prayed faithfully, cast her burdens upon the Lord and didn’t look back. She believed. She had God to do the heavy lifting, so why should she?

Aunt MiMi was fiercely loyal. Loyal to friends, family, brands, traditions, and institutions. Make no mistake about it: those cookies would have been Chips Ahoy; the ice cream, Breyers Natural Vanilla. And both would have been purchased at the same family-run grocery store she had been patronizing since it opened its doors in 1946. Aunt MiMi couldn’t help but make fast friends everywhere she went.

Incredibly, she genuinely doted on dour old Uncle Stanly. Aunt MiMi even doted on her mother, the formidable Odessa A. Tilghman. Once known as “The Belle of Georgia Avenue” (said she), and pursued by the entire male sex (of course), she had become a jowly tyrant in a flower-print house dress.

Though it may seem at odds with her mischievous nature, Aunt MiMi was not a fan of change. She managed to make it work for her without ever seeming stuffy. The style and color of Aunt Mimi’s teased hair never changed throughout my lifetime, and I never saw her without coral-painted nails. She never seemed to change size, either. As far as I could tell, she stopped buying clothes at some point and just rotated through her two-million-and-fourteen outfits and their matching accessories.

Aunt MiMi’s house got the same treatment she did. I don’t recall Aunt MiMi’s ever changing a stick of furniture or a stitch of upholstery. She and Uncle Stanly had never been able to have children, so I guess nothing ever wore out. Her blue velvet armchairs fascinated us kids during our more formal Sunday visits. If we rubbed the fabric in one direction, the color lightened. If we rubbed it the other, it darkened. The chair cushions were another matter. Sitting for decades with scarcely a warm bottom for comfort, they had petrified disconcertingly.

My aunt often said that if you could just hang on to things long enough, they’d come back into fashion. And she walked her talk. Her house was a magical museum of exotic tchotchkes, fine china, and 1940’s Americana. Her kitchen never changed. Not one iota. It was a delicious study in strawberries, one of her favorite foods. Her downstairs bathroom was amazing too. My sister Gwen and I could scarcely stay out of it. It had sparkly butterfly wallpaper and a crystal dish of scented soaps shaped like tiny roses and other lovelies! Her attic and basement were chock full of treasures, and I lived for the day she’d invite me to rummage through them. I sneaked into her basement for a quick peek whenever I could. The attic sang to me like a siren and promised Ali Baba’s Cave of Wonders but I didn’t dare chance it. I would have had to sneak upstairs, through the master bedroom and then up another flight to reach it.

Sadly, I never made it to Aunt MiMi’s attic until after her death when my mother and I helped our cousin sort some of her belongings. It did not disappoint.

On January 27, 2005, at one hundred years of age, the fabulous Aunt MiMi slipped peacefully out of this world and into the next. She fell asleep while waiting for her bowl of strawberries and woke up in the arms of Jesus.

Does He tango? Because I’m pretty sure there’s a party in the house.

This post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post in the series, click here. For the next post, click here.

Photo credit here

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