We've been boxing up the house these past few weeks in anticipation of putting ourselves in storage. Ironically, this involves – in the case of the boxes in the barn that were never opened after the last move – a certain amount of unpacking. If we are to downsize effectively, we have to know what's in there to determine what's worth keeping. Most of these boxes are full of our daughter, Zinzi's books and school work and, whereas I have only just finished purging my own books, I found a number of things I couldn't part with. Zinzi will forgive me, I hope, for getting lost in her American Girl diary, partially filled in when she was around eight, which is poignant and enlightening despite the fact that, if I am referred to at all, it is not with the bold brush of adoration I might have wished for, but simply to point out how grouchy I was.
Among Zinzi's work is a Fifth Grade essay titled, “ History Hero Paper ” in which she defines the term, lists various examples of classical Heroes and then proffers three of her own: Claire Danes, Marilyn Monroe and my mother, her new grandmother, Mimi. Clair Danes because she was successful at eighteen, an age and stature that must have seemed within reach; Marilyn, apparently, because she'd become successful despite not having had Danes' advantage of being a child star, and my mother – they'd only known each other for about five years before Mom died – because “...She led a really great life. She went to school in Paris, and lived there for many years. She was an artist, who painted on a regular basis and she made constant trips to all the world, especially Europe.”
Word came through the blizzard and blackout last night - news made somehow more poignant by candlelight – that yet another of our ladies had recently passed away. Our little community here on the coast of Maine has always been a matriarchy, ruled by strong, capable women, steeped in the lore and traditions of this place, who have often outlived their husbands by decades. Whether born to it or married in, they achieve through dignity, generosity and sheer longevity the status of royalty, and the good ones bear this responsibility with grace and charity that's sometimes hard for the rest of us to appreciate until we, too, have grown older. Many of these ladies are aunts or cousins or grandmothers; as many more are known to us as aunts even though they're no relation at all. This was the custom in our tiny world back in the day, and, as a kid, you would no more dream of addressing an Aunt as a Mrs. than you would of calling a Mrs. by her first name.
These women have always known virtually everything there is to know about us. In my grandmother's time, when there were only a handful, they dished the dirt over endless nights of gin and cut-throat rummy, shopped in town together, buying the same plates, linens and trinkets that have been passed down through the many branches of a few families, all the while keeping a running tally of whose child or grandchild had been up to what. One Aunt Nancy, who I had the pleasure of working for a few years back, responded to my partner's introduction, “You remember William ...”, with the ominous retort, “Of course. How could I forget!” without further elaboration. I'm still obsessing over this, running through a lengthy catalog of failings and indiscretions, without, of course, considering that she may have meant it as a compliment.
If you were to meet such a lady on one of our narrow, dirt roads, she might smile sweetly or glare with irritation through the windshield of her Crown Vic or Town Car, but she would never, ever back up. There are spots on these roads where one might have to reverse a hundred yards, up hills and around curves, to make way for Aunty. No amount of gesturing or waiting or waving would ever compel a lady to back into the driveway six feet to the rear of her left flank. They did not play tennis or lounge around on the beach; they coiffed, they dressed, they lunched on deviled-eggs and aspic. As kids we went to great lengths to avoid them, as twenty and thirty-somethings we began to get to know them and appreciate the richness of their lives, their memories and stories. As grown-ups, we miss them. And with each loss, as our wives and sisters and cousins ascend, comes the ever increasing realization that we have met the ladies, and they are us.
Suzanne has already drawn a line in the sand and refuses to back up.....