Aunts and Cousins: Great Memories and an Uncertain Future

Nonny & 3 sisters

Sunday night both boys, their wives and kids came for dinner.  We won’t all be together for Thanksgiving; one son and his two kids will be with his wife and her family; we’ll be with our other daughter-in-law’s family.  So Sunday was special, and it was a lovely evening.

Afterward, for some reason, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Thanksgivings when we were kids.  It was always at our house: my parents, my mom’s sisters and their husbands, my grandmother and “the cousins.”  There were 9 of us, six girls (I was the oldest) and three boys.  My Aunt Bettie, her husband, two sons and a daughter lived in Cleveland; the rest of us were all local, so when the Cleveland Cousins showed up, it was a big deal.

There was a kids table of course.  Nobody, not even bossy me, was in a hurry to move to the old folks’ territory.  We were having too much fun.  In addition to everything else (including games of “Murder” and “Sardines” and lots of running around outside) we planned and performed little dramas every year.  I doubt they were very good, but everyone clapped and we had fun.

I wonder about so much now, though: the covert sisterly conversations in my parents’ bedroom, my grandmother (that’s her in the picture), whom I thought had gotten mean but was apparently losing her sight and trying to hide it, the lovely uncle and the wild one, and the impact of the Depression on the sisters and their men.  There’s so much of that time that I’d love to see with my grown up eyes: about raising kids and being a grandparent of course, but even more, about what WWII and the Depression had done to them.   After all, as I watch events unfold, it’s scary to think how close we are to leaving our kids and theirs to face similar harshness.

I wrote this about them back in 2007, when the last sister died:

In some ways, they were the lucky ones; all three sisters and my father and uncles — were able, on scholarships, to go to college. All three marriages, despite tensions and tough times, survived with a real friendship between spouses for most of their lives. Each had three children who were smart, interesting, and self-sufficient. Even so, the bounty of choices they gave to us was so much more than they had had themselves. The young women in this photograph, and their husbands, never had the luxury of dropping out of school to campaign for Eugene McCarthy or majoring in music or theater or spending years doing trauma medicine a couple of months a year to pay for a life of mountain climbing and exploration. There was no give, no leeway, in the lives of those whom the Depression and the war that ended it – had stamped forever.

I’d give anything to hear it all now.  All of it.

I hope we, and our kids, have the guts to be as courageous — and tenacious, as they were.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sisters and Aunts and Daughters and Nieces and Holidays

Rockwell Thanksgiving Thanksgiving always makes me think of the people who are missing.
 By now that's almost an entire generation: my parents, aunts, uncles
and grandparents.  We all came together at our house.  As the oldest
cousin, I got to help in the kitchen and set the table. Sounds lame but
it felt very grownup.  Not that that lasted for long.  Over the years
we went from three to six to nine cousins, producing plays to perform
after dinner, playing Sardines and Murder, telling secrets and wreaking
civilized havoc.

My favorite memory, though, was time with the sisters: my mom and my aunts.
 One lived nearby but the other came with her family from Cleveland so
when they were all together they wanted to talk.  They'd sit in my
parents' room for ages; they let me hang around too.  In a way, all of
us gathered on the bed those afternoons, and later in the kitchen after
dinner, washing dishes, is women passing along stories and traditions, preserving the wisdom of
the tribe.

I had no idea then of the value of those times.  It
wasn't just being treated like "one of the girls," it was the sisterly
warmth, the laughter and sudden emotion, eye welling up, when one aunt
spoke of living so far from "home."    Now, probably 50 years later, I
can see her leaning against the wall, her sisters looking toward her
with understanding sympathy.  I can hear them talking about their
parents, my grandparents, one difficult, both disappointed with their
lives.  For a little while, the burden of worry lifted a bit as they
shared it.

They were part of what is literally another world;
hats and gloves, scars from the Depression, government service during
World War II, an abiding sense of appropriateness.   Like Betty Draper,
they left careers to stay "home with the kids."  Their lives were so
different from ours, constrained and regulated — lives that many
daughters went to work to insure against.  

What we forget is
that, even then, there was sisterhood.  Maybe it wasn't as powerful and
certainly it wasn't as organized, but for me it still modeled a
solidarity, loyalty and love of the company of women that I still
cherish.  And it's so exciting to see us all now, taking that example
along with the many farther afield, to enhance our larger community –
still a family of sisters – from one end of the Internet to – well – to
the whole wide world.

Cross-posted at BlogHer