all of the selves we Have ever been
Last night I watched part of a Dateline program
about the murder of a young soldier in Kentucky. According to its usual format, the Dateline investigator interviewed members of the victim’s family. No natural or adoptive parents were questioned for this segment. Instead, the mother of the victim’s boyhood friend was interviewed as a surrogate parent. This woman spoke of how she met the victim when he was a boy spending time in her home as a friend to her son. Tearfully, this proxy-mom explained how she had grown to love the young soldier as much as any child born or raised by her.
Spending lots of hours in the homes of our friends can lead us to close relationships and family-like ties. In all of those hours together a comfort-level emerges along with a shared history. Sometimes these other families get to know us better than our legal families. Away from our own family dynamics, we can be more our real selves as opposed to the roles into which we are cast in the family drama. This can be especially helpful for children during times of family upheaval or the natural challenges of adolescence. That was certainly so for me.
One of my first other-mothers was my Aunt Lillie. She had been a World War II Army nurse serving in Great Britain. She returned home from the war and settled into the family homestead, working in the family businesses and caring for my grandmother who had diabetes. I spent as much of my summer vacation time as possible with my Aunt Lillie in that family home. Even after I was grown and working, I used my vacation days to return to spend time with her.
Aunt Lillie was multi-talented. In addition to being a nurse who had seen war, she worked in the family grocery store, helped out at the office of my uncles’ coal business, cooked like a three-star Michelin chef, and crocheted beautiful afghans that covered the backs of the sofa and chairs. One of her daisy afghans still graces my bed. Aunt Lillie also ran a tight ship. She once told me that she kept her home in a certain manner so that if she ever went blind, she could continue to live in the family home without assistance.
Lil was also very wise about the family dynamics. One summer day when I was chasing a fly around the backdoor of the kitchen slapping away with a plastic fly swatter, Aunt Lillie, said, “Now don’t get that in the soup, or everyone will want one.” Lil was wise about other things too. The old Army nurse in her would not rest when Lillie required medical treatment herself. During the years she treated for Hodgkin’s Disease and would sometimes be hospitalized for days, Lillie would place a fifty dollar bill underneath her hospital bed to test how well and how often the room was being cleaned. Aunt Lillie once complained about the hospital room rates saying to the staff, “Do you know what kind of room I could get in Las Vegas for these prices?”
Aunt Lillie is the one who taught me to keep house and how to make a bed with tight corners. I learned that housekeeping decisions are moral ones. Also, Lillie introduced me to Pepsi-Cola, Johnny Carson, and late-night Gidget and Tammy movies. During the final days of her life, I brought watermelon to her hospital bed. She liked only the “filet,” that smooth, crunchy center with no seeds or pits.
Aunt Lillie never married, and she had no children of her own, but she was another mother to the 20 plus nieces and nephews that ran in and out of her doors. I would be only half of who I am were it not for the other-mother for whom I was named.
It has been a rich life. I have had other other-mothers. But more about that tomorrow, I have some beds to make.