Saturday, October 3, 2009

Let Us Now Praise Famous Women: My Aunt Turns 81

“Let us now praise famous women, and our mothers that begat us” (Sirach 44:1) (with a apologies for taking a bit of gender liberty with the original text).

This is a weekend on which I feel obliged to praise one famous woman, in my particular. My aunt, my mother’s youngest sister, turned 81 yesterday. She’s the sole living sibling of both my parents. And she richly deserves praise and the little party my brother, cousin, and I are planning for her this evening.

I have the carrot ginger soup cooling in the pot, the topping for the flammkuchen made and the dough rising. I have only the salad to throw together, the table to set, some pink zinnias and blue wild ageratum to pick from the garden, and the margaritas to mix, and the party will be on its way. My brother Philip and his wife Penny are making the cake and some potato-leek soup, and my aunt’s son is flying in from Dallas as I type this to celebrate with us.

I’ve come to cherish my aunt even more in recent years than I did growing up. As I grew up, I had a selection of aunts to choose from, a different flavor for each occasion—the sweet, sensitive one; the simple and always loving one; the plump funny one; the courageous, intelligent one who watched over me and mothered me through many crises my parents did not seem to understand. And the youngest, the feisty one, the tell-the-truth-and-shame-the-devil one who was the baby of the family even when she was an adult.

She’s the remaining one, the one left for me to cherish. We don’t have birth order in common, since I’m the oldest child of my family and she was the sixth of six children, with a step-brother in addition to her own sisters and brother. Our perspectives on many matters seemed, as I was growing up, determined by the difference in our birth order in our respective families, so we often clashed.

As we’ve both grown older, though, I’ve come to treasure traits I probably took for granted as a child. You could no more convince my aunt to fudge the truth about anything in the world than you could leash a fly and have it pull you to the moon. She is scrupulously honest, honest to a fault, determined to tell the truth even when it causes her pain to do so.

She also has one of the most highly developed senses of right and wrong and of fair play that I’ve ever encountered. Do an injustice to someone she loves, or to anyone she perceives as an underdog, and she will be all over you in an instant, and you’ll dearly regret your folly. She spends part of each week working with friends in her church’s food kitchen to prepare boxes of food for families whose welfare really matters to her. She wants to know who they are and what they need above and beyond the food her church offers to them.

She gives knowing what it is to need. She has never once told me anything about what she endured in her many years of marriage to a man who routinely beat her. I know about this only because my cousin has told me what life was like for him and his mother, now that we’re adults and able to share such stories without fear of parental censure. My aunt has had empty vodka bottles broken over her head, her eyes punched black. She has been thrown into baths of scalding water. She is a tiny woman, someone who does not have the physical wherewithal to fight back against a strong man.

Because she lived for many years in fear of the next act of violence, she routinely hid money at the backs of drawers,hoping to save enough to make an escape and support herself and her son. Her husband never failed to find these hiding places and spend the money on more liquor. There were times, my cousin tells me, when he and his mother had only a few scraps of food in the house to eat for days on end—some soda crackers and the ends of a chunk of cheese. Like her sisters and their mother before them, my aunt was defiantly proud and would not have dreamed of letting anyone in her family know of her need, though we all suspected something was seriously wrong.

We knew because several times when I was growing up, she appeared on my family’s doorstep with her son and we took them in to live with us for however long they wanted to stay. I have to give my father credit here. He had some glaring faults, including the same tendency to drink that my aunt’s husband had—though he was never violent to my mother when he drank.

But when my aunt and her son lived with us for months on end, I never once heard my father utter a word of complaint to my mother about this. To the contrary, he seemed to enjoy their company. He welcomed them and helped them in every way he could think to offer help. He resented in particular the treatment dished out to my cousin, and wanted to see him as taken care of as my brothers and I were taken care of while we grew up.

My aunt gives now knowing what it is like to be in need. She cares about those on the margins because she has been there. She sees—she goes out of her way to see—the needs of others, because she knows what it is like to be invisible, as a battered wife and mother, when her need was intense.

And so I cherish and celebrate my one remaining aunt this weekend, who shares my name. We’re both named for her father, I as the oldest son for his grandfather in time-honored Southern fashion, she for her father because—another time-honored Southern custom—her father was dying at the time of her birth, and she was given his name. (My father’s mother had an aunt infelicitously named Simeon Lawrence Harris for a father of the same name, who died right as she was born.)

My aunt's father died before she reached the age of two. And knowing that this was coming, my grandmother insisted that her last child be a Billie, though her own son and my grandfather’s son by his first marriage, whose mother died as he was born, were also both Williams. The name goes back to at least the 1730s on that side of my family, to a William Brazelton known as both William the Quaker and William the Great Hunter in family stories.

My aunt Billie’s life does honor to the succession of Williams for whom she’s named, including her father, who, from all I have ever been told, shared her feisty concern for the underdog, as well as her uncomfortable penchant for telling the truth no matter how much it cost him. And as you read this, I’ll be grateful if you’ll lift a glass with us today in recognition of one of the many famous women who deserve praise in our world, whose names never reach the pages of newspapers and top-end magazines, but without whom the world would soon stop spinning on its axis.