As our second Savvy Auntie Day nears, I keep thinking about the Savvy Aunties in my own life. Unlike my single self, our aunts were married with kids of their own although my siblings and I did get in some quality Auntie and Uncle time.
I can’t think about Savvy Aunties without thinking about our Great Aunts. They were great by title, and two in particular were great in spirit.
Each summer, Mom and we three kids trekked to her home state of Kansas to spend a week romping with our cousins. Dad usually had to stay behind to work since construction workers back then didn’t get vacation time.
During each visit, Mom would take us into Wichita for The Great Aunt Tour. After Mom lost her own mother at age 12, she turned to her aunts to provide that maternal support she needed growing up, and she always wanted to see them when she was in Kansas. These were the days when people had to write letters or make long-distance phone calls to keep in touch. Mom often lamented the fact that we never got to know her mother and told us that we really missed out on having a good grandmother who would love us unconditionally. Our other grandmother, Dad’s mom, was brittle, demanding and placed boundaries on her love.
The Great-Aunts were ancient by our childlike standards. Their houses were perfectly tidy since no children lived there anymore, and they all had gray hair, glasses, and flowing housecoats or simple dresses. I don’t ever remember seeing my Great Aunts wear pants.
For us kids, the visits could be boring. Great Aunts didn’t have toys or crayons, and for the most part, most kept hard candy in the house – something most children don’t like. Mom showed us off and gave a rundown of our latest accomplishments as we sat on each hard sofa, trying to be quiet.
Aunt Lena, a tall, quiet and simple woman, always sat in her favorite chair. We liked it when her son Vincent would come over. As the baby of the family, Vincent was close to seven foot tall. As kids, we thought of him as a giant.
Aunt Josephine was short and round with curly hair. She lived in a small house, and her daughter was a nun, quite a coup for a Catholic family.
Two Great Aunts stood out for me because they enriched our lives in many ways. These were the ones we couldn’t wait to see. They were Great Aunts and were great aunts.
Great Aunt Tracy and Uncle Nick, who were actually my dad’s relatives, lived on Tracy Street in Wichita. Aunt Tracy and Uncle Nick reminded me of that old nursery rhyme about Jack Sprat and his wife who could eat no lean. Nick was tall and skinny and always sported a reddish-gray buzz cut, and Tracy was soft, round, and sturdy. She gave warm, tight hugs that made you melt into her softness following by sloppy kisses and cookies from her kitchen. She and Nick actually asked us questions and talked to us like we were really there, not just pint-size lumps on the couch.
Tracy often reminded me of the time when I was much smaller and asked her if she and Uncle Nick could be my other grandparents. I only had the one set of grandparents from my Dad, and most of the kids at school, I explained, had two sets of grandparents. Aunt Tracy was tickled pink with the request and said she would be happy to be my surrogate grandmother.
The other aunt we loved to see was Sister Regis. She was born Martha and was my late grandmother’s twin sister Marie, the ghostly mother my mother still mourned. Martha became a nun back in high school and took the name Sister Regis. She was a teacher and sometimes worked in Catholic hospitals.
When she worked at one of the hospitals, she would take us to the cafeteria and give us tiny chocolate ice creams in paper cups we ate with wooden spoons. She often let us have two. Now that’s a Savvy Auntie.
Although I never asked her, I think Sister Regis felt an obligation to be a surrogate grandmother of sorts to not only my siblings and I but to all of my cousins. We were cheated of a grandmother, the kind who would bake cookies, give long warm hugs, and become the biggest cheerleader. Sister Regis always liked to hear how we were doing in school, what our favorite subjects were, and what we were up to in general. She remarked how she enjoyed our letters that we wrote her on a fairly regular basis.
Sister Regis was a quiet, feisty woman. When the Church moved her to a nursing home for nuns, she was not happy. She was adamant about busting out and returning to her teaching, but unfortunately it didn’t happen. The first time we visited her there, we passed her room up because we saw an elderly woman sitting there with short gray hair and not wearing a habit. Since we had never seen her without her trademark black habit, we didn’t recognize her. It was the first time we saw her hair and her vulnerability.
As my brother, sister and I grew up and began to take on the world, our Great Aunts became more frail and began to leave us one by one. The passing of Great Aunt Tracy and Sister Regis, the last to leave us, were particularly difficult for us kids. In addition to losing two fabulous Great Aunts and two women who were Savvy Aunties before the time and enriched our lives so deeply, we also lost our grandmothers. Again.