I have been gifted with a life full of fascinating women. Many are gone now and some were gone long before I was born. I still feel their echoes in my soul and my dreams. If I’m going to tell their stories, I will have to include myself; but this story isn’t really about me. This story is about the women who made me. Each woman I write about has shaped my life and I will try my hardest to do them justice and to bring their histories to life with my words. These women are my family tree – they are me.
Although many of us have lived ordinary lives, we are all creative and special in our own ways and we are filled with an inner strength. We are cooks, pioneers, beauticians, travelers, athletes, volunteers, mothers, artists, dreamers, seamstresses, healers, musicians, farmers, and small business owners.
My grandmother, my mother, my sister, my daughter are just the beginning of the stories. I will take you further in and further back in our history. The stories mirror my recollections and dreams and are in bits and pieces.
I have purchased a bottle of witch hazel because scents bring her back to me faster than anything else. Her fried chicken, her fruit cake, the smell of spray starch. My Nana Lally. My mother’s mother. After she passed away, she continued to come to me in dreams. Instructing and guiding me and loving me just as when she was still living. I was so grateful to realize that the end of her physical life wasn’t the end of my time with her. It has been many years since I received a dream-time visit but I know in my heart that if I should ever need her, she will find me.
Nana was home, soft voices, delicious food, old songs of ancestors, wonderful bedtime fairy tales, bible verses and psalms. Nana’s father was a preacher and I understand that his was a very strict religion. Actually, several different denominations. I guess he would swap out one kind for another depending on his audience. In spite of her father’s beliefs, Nana’s God was good and kind and tolerant and merciful. Bedtime was when she would teach me the psalms and I loved memorizing them. Bible stories and psalms and fairy tales and old songs all became jumbled into a big, wonderful bedtime ritual for me. Oh, how I wish church had been even a fraction as intriguing and loving as my Nana.
My grandmother was a very patient woman. When I was in kindergarten I begged her to teach me how to use her sewing machine. This was a big deal – there was so much that could go wrong. Our first project was a little doll’s pillow, eight – two inch squares. Yellow and white gingham checks alternating with brown and white gingham checks. We measured and cut the squares, pinned them, and she marked exactly where the stitches needed to follow. Deep breath, I was ready to sew…on the machine. And I did. She guided me the entire time until two squares were attached, then four squares had been sewn, then six and finally eight. With right sides together we sewed three of the edges, stuffed it and then I hand-stitched the fourth edge. Pillow project, complete. I was a willing pupil and I caught on quickly; so she showed me how to clean the machine and re-thread the needle and the bobbin. There were a lot of rules about sewing over pins, not getting your thumbs too close to the needles, not going too fast, learning how to stitch in reverse, and carefully ripping out mistakes. These rules I didn’t mind. It all made sense and I understood what was required in order for me to be able to use the machine.
Nana faithfully kept a journal – each book a new year. I clearly remember sitting at the breakfast room table with her and watching her make her daily entries. Sometimes it would be in the evening and sometimes after breakfast for the day before. On rare occasions, I would be allowed to read the entries for a particular day. When I was old enough to keep a diary of my own, I never had ANYTHING to say and I always thought it was amazing that she had so much to say every day in her journals. I don’t know how far back her daily writing went but I always liked to imagine that she had written her entire life and someday I would be given these precious books. Shortly after she passed away the journals all disappeared and I was heartsick. I’ve come to believe this was fated to happen. Her journals had always been her private space and they will remain this way forever.
My Aunt Peg was my Grandfather’s first cousin. She was so little and English. Elfin features, quick smile, flashing blue eyes, and considerable wit. She was stylish and always had her hair done and her make-up on. She must have been in her late 70’s and I couldn’t get enough of her even when I was a teenager.
As soon as I was old enough, I bought a plane ticket and flew down to San Diego for a long weekend visit with Aunt Peg. For several days we sat at her kitchen table and drank and smoked and talked about family. We each kept the secret of the cigarettes since she’d told her son that she’d quit and I shouldn’t have been smoking anyway. It was all very sophisticated and hush-hush. Until we would start to giggle. All these years gone and I can still hear her laughter.
The wonderful gift about Aunt Peg was that she treated me like a friend and our friendship was a worthwhile pursuit. I believed she was secretly telling the world, “Oh, don’t worry, she’s with me.” And in exchange, I got a lot of slightly alcohol infused stories about my dad’s father when he was a little boy. My grandfather didn’t ever say much about his childhood so any glimpse into Papa as a little boy was fascinating. Aunt Peg told me about her and her brothers wanting to play with my Papa and Aunt Polly (Papa’s mother) always ruining their fun and calling Papa inside to practice his violin or do his homework. It was thrilling to have this secret information about my very sweet but serious grandfather.
Sometimes Aunt Peg worked for her brother Will at the holidays. My Uncle Will had a fancy stationery store in Oakland and it was always a treat to go to the store and see my dear Aunt Peg working behind the counter. Whenever I’d visit, Uncle Will would become very busy because he didn’t really know how to entertain a child; but Aunt Peg always made me feel special. My time with her was always such a sweet experience of stories and friendship and I feel so lucky that she gave me these gifts.
I was delighted when my daughter got to meet and play with Aunt Peg. Although she was from the very stiff-upper-lip side of my family, she was one of those wonderful adults who would actually play with a child and talk to them as though they counted for something. My daughter called her “Aunt Pig” because that’s what she thought we were saying – Pig for Peg.
To be continued…