There were so many but I guess I’ll start with my Aunt Gloria, my dad’s older sister who will be 80 this year.
She is my godmother. Goddess mother. My oldest living female relative. Funny and smart, she seems almost always filled with a deep sadness that never really dissipates. She had 10 children in 11 1/2 years and her oldest died at 28. You’re not supposed to outlive your children, but she outlived Patty, now for nearly 30 years.
Aunt Gloria found out she has breast cancer about a week ago. Because they caught it very early and and she is very old (she’s been known to sign her emails, “Love, Methusulah”), her prognosis is excellent. Still, I wish she didn’t have cancer.
Aunt Gloria went to graduate school in psychology in her 50s and 60s, and became a certified Jungian psychotherapist in her 70’s. She recently told me she’s thinking of retiring this year but doesn’t want to retire just because she has cancer, so she might work for a while longer.
When I came to Chicago for a visit in December 1978, my dad hoped I would leave having changed my mind about staying in Crested Butte no matter what. He wanted me to move in with him on the Front Range . I stubbornly held on to my Crested Butte dreams, even though I was living on my own in a trailer behind Takeaway, a small grocery store in town. I’d been living alone for months and I was just a freshman in high school. My mom had long since moved to a tiny, 1-bedroom, eight-sided log cabin outside of town, owned by her new boyfriend John Newberry. There was no room for me and although I never let it show, my feelings were deeply hurt. I didn’t want to move and I didn’t know where I fit anymore. Kate lived with dad already and Mike left the state earlier in the year. I was the one holdout, clinging to Crested Butte like it was the last piece of floating debris in the sinking wreckage of my family. Plus I knew people in Crested Butte who loved me. People who had known me longer than anywhere else. And I felt glimpses of something like spirituality there, especially if I was hiking above town in my beloved mountains.
But at 14 I’d already been drinking in the bars for about 2 years. I had a job dishwashing 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., but I still ran out of money all the time, didn’t have enough warm clothes and monthly rent on the trailer came due too often for my wages to keep up. I slept in my down sleeping bag because I didn’t own any sheets. I was stubborn and tough on the outside, but I was still just a kid, trying to act older than 14, but really scared shitless and eating a lot of ramen noodles when I didn’t have a restaurant shift.
So with hairline cracks spreading through my tough facade I agreed to fly to Chicago to see the shrink my dad and his family kept saying I should see.
He turned out to be a defrocked Jesuit priest-turned psychologist with, luckily for me, a predatory penchant for young men. He also had a deep hatred of all things female and it wasn’t hard to peg him as a mysogynistic asshole. Still, everyone in Chicago seemed to hold him in high regard and there I was. What he told me after an hour was that I would end up a junkie and a whore, just like my mother. But since my mother was neither, I didn’t find him particularly credible. I was coming around though to the idea that I was going to have to leave Crested Butte.
When I met with Gloria’s kids, the Weiss cousins, I was quiet, overwhelmed by the noisy mob of them. Aunt Gloria told me her kids thought I was a snob but she explained to them after I left that I wasn’t aloof, just shy. I was glad she stuck up for me.
At Grandma Marie’s, Aunt Gloria came into the guest room while I had my suitcase opened. I don’t know why but she noticed I didn’t have any bras and I only had 1 pair of raggedy underwear that was too big for me. It sounds pitiful now, but I just wore that one pair right side one day and inside out the next and then every other day I washed them and hung them up to dry overnight.
Aunt Gloria took me shopping at JC Penney’s then and there. She bought me a few training bras and enough underwear to last a few weeks along with some regular clothes. I offered to pay her back and she looked at me hard and just said she’d talk to my father. She tried not to say anything bad about my mother but I could tell she was mad at her that I had just 1 pair of underwear. She was mad at her for a lot of things.
I remember looking at all the new, white underwear on Grandma Marie’s lumpy twin bed with the nubby cotton coverlet and it felt better than Christmas. By Aunt Gloria’s simple, protective, motherly gesture, I knew, even with her 10 children, full-time job and graduate school, that she had my back. And now, even with cancer, it feels like she still does.