Published July 7, 2005
I never knew the joy of going to grandma and grandpa’s house as a child, because my grandparents all died when I was a baby.
Still, I always felt God had blessed me generously in the aunt department—and all these years later, I cherish the lessons these ladies taught me.
Aunt Lillian was an aunt by marriage, not blood, but such distinctions didn’t matter to me. All I knew was she hosted splendid family feasts in her tiny Bronx apartment, dishing out huge platters of homemade manicotti while she puffed on a Camel and sipped a martini.
The cousins, all seven of us, loved visiting her because she had a fur jacket with tiny fox heads adorning the collar, and, when her back was turned, we would chase each other around, brandishing the heads to scare the younger cousins.
One day I learned something shocking about my aunt that changed me forever. Although she cooked macaroni al dente, as any Italian knows you must, Aunt Lillian was, my mother explained gently to me, German.
Now this may seem like a small thing in today’s world, but, growing up, I assumed everyone, like my parents, had roots in Sicily or Naples.
Aunt Lillian’s surprising heritage bothered me for about two seconds, until I devoured one of her fine biscotti, and returned to loving her just as before. I didn’t realize it, but I’d just had my first lesson in tolerance.
My mom’s best friend, Madeline, was my sister’s godmother, and we called her “Aunt.” She and Uncle August had no children, unless you count the orchids she raised, but from watching her over the years, I discovered that even women without children can enjoy life immensely.
From her, I learned the connection between small, everyday things like buds on plants and gorgeous skies, and the loving Father behind the scenes who orchestrates everything.
Aunt Madeline saw each orchid as coming from God, and knew just what to do when a particularly splendid one made its debut in her greenhouse. She carried the plant to church and placed it on the altar, as her offering back to Him.
My mom had two sisters: There was the beautiful, dark-eyed Rita, a widow with two small children, who struggled all her life to make ends meet, while the other sister, Doris, had a husband and home with all the trimmings.
The aunt who seemed to have everything always wanted more, I noted, and was rather aloof toward children, while the humble aunt who drove a beat-up car endeared herself to me forever.
Rita was the one I ran to one Halloween when my parents refused to buy me a store-bought costume, and she invited me into her closet to select just the right accessories to turn me into a gypsy.
She also was the one who distracted me from the agony of falling knee first from my roller skates onto the concrete sidewalk by painting bright Iodine flowers on my wounds.
On my dad’s side, my favorite aunt was his sister, Mary. The mother of five children, she was a heavy-set lady with hennaed hair, and the only grown-up who ever got down on the floor with me to color in my coloring books.
And even though she had a tough time getting back onto her feet, that never discouraged her from repeating the performance the next time she visited.
Aunt Mary and I shared a common passion, something other adults just didn’t understand: We both idolized Elvis. And because of this, she taught me that it is sometimes fine to go overboard when it comes to people you love.
My parents were Mr. and Mrs. Moderation, who never served multiple starches at any meal or had two scoops of ice cream on their cones. Aunt Mary, however, laughed at such restrictions.
After she and I emerged from our first Elvis feature of the day, blinking rapidly at the harsh afternoon light, she would light a cigarette and study the newspaper. Then we’d get back on the bus and head across town to do something my parents wouldn’t have dreamed of: We would see two movies in one day.
Now that I am an aunt myself, 11 times over, I realize there is a big secret about adults and children, which many adults may not know.
When grown-ups build sand castles or bake cookies with kids, they are doing something invisible but infinitely important: They are creating memories, which will return over and over for as long as the child lives.
To this day, if I close my eyes, I see Aunt Lily dishing out lasagna, Aunt Madeline placing her orchids on the altar and Aunt Rita bending down to treat my skinned knees. I see Aunt Mary boarding the bus, with a little girl trailing behind her.
Today all the aunts but Rita are gone, but I will cherish these snapshots forever. And for the rest of my life, I will be so grateful for the lessons about love these ladies taught me.
Lorraine Murray’s latest book “How Shall We Celebrate?”(Resurrection Press) is available at www.catholicbookpublishing.com. She is also the author of “Grace Notes” and “Why Me? Why Now? Finding Hope When You Have Breast Cancer.” Readers may e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.