I was raised by my two great ants, Claudia Jean and Beth Sadie. I heard other people call them ‘the old biddies’, but they weren’t old biddies to me; they were my family. I never knew what happened to my mother or heard who my father was. Any time I’d ask Aunt Beth would say, “I’ll tell you when you’re old enough.” Aunt Claudia Jean would say, “I’ll tell you when I’m old enough.” Eventually I quit asking. I decided it didn’t matter so much; I knew who loved me.
Aunt CJ and Aunt Beth were born in 1906 and 1913, respectively. That made growing up in the ‘60’s a little different for me. They were full of advice that should have been embroidered on pillows or wall hangings. That didn’t make them less true, just easier to ignore. Their old fashioned ways and out of date antics were just a part of my growing up.
In the 1st grade I decided to call Aunt Claudia Jean ‘CJ’ when a classmate made fun of her name. Aunt Beth Sadie declared that if I ever called her ‘Aunt BS’ she’d tie my feet together, hang me out the second floor window and use me as a bird feeder. Aunt CJ and I made her a bird feeder out of a Barbie doll that Mother’s Day. Aunt Beth hung out every spring for the rest of her life.
Halloween eve just before I turned eight Sheri Barnes told me that Santa wasn’t real, which disturbed me because the Christmas before I’d seen him, red suit and all, stuffing my stocking. He’d looked a little like Aunt CJ, but, I reasoned, my aunt didn’t have a beard. I went home, tears fresh on my cheeks.
Aunt Beth hugged me. “Well, you have to decide who you listen to; all kinds of people will to tell you all kinds of things. You have to use your heart and head to decide who you hear.”
Aunt CJ swore she’d “get that Sheri Barnes on Halloween!” I watched Sheri for 2 solid weeks into November but evidently Aunt CJ meant some other Halloween.
In the 5th grade I was chosen for the lead in our choir program.
Aunt Beth told me how proud she was, adding, “I’m proud enough for both of us—don’t go bragging. Remember this is just a part in a play; plays come and go.”
Aunt CJ put announcements up at church, the library and the Safeway near our house.
In the 7th grade a boy broke my heart for the first time.
Aunt Beth advised me on the multitude of very fine gentlemen available in our small town and recommended I begin, that very night, t pray for my future husband. “You don’t know him yet, but God does. You never know the scrapes you can keep him out of now that’ll be a blessing to you both later.”
Aunt CJ threw a water balloon out the car window as we drove past his yard and caught him in the back of the head.
At sixteen I ran for class office. I don’t remember which one anymore, but I do remember Aunt Beth telling me, “This is just something you do, baby; it is not who you are.”
Aunt CJ, true to form, drove around our school with the CB radio turned to the ‘blast the neighbors’ setting, singing a campaign song she’d written for me. I thought it was sweet, and probably the reason I lost the election.
They both stood and applauded at my high school graduation, Aunt Beth clicking away with her camera, taking pictures of miniscule people on a distant stage. Aunt CJ threw confetti as I walked across the stage, dousing the people two rows ahead of her, yelling at the top of her seventy year old lungs, “That’s my girl!”
My early life is full of them; the smell of their perfumes and make-up, their hats and long dresses. I can still feel Aunt Beth’s hugs and hear Aunt CJ’s laughter.
One thing they taught me I actually did embroidered on a pillow: “Prosperity comes not from the pocket but from the heart.” They taught me that through Christmases where gifts were light, but love was not, through nights spent watching tem read and discuss the Bible and their faith and through days spent acting on it. They taught me that with every smile and giggle and hug.
They taught me that with their lives.
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