When I think about my aunts—and how much of an impact they had on my life—I realize how lucky I am to have grown up in the world of my childhood, where my southern mother’s sisters—all 4 of them—loomed large. They weren’t always physically present—as we sometimes went for years without seeing them (we were, after all, an Army family), but it didn’t matter. My aunts had presence, no matter where they were, and, in one way or another, they each shaped my thinking about what kind of person I wanted to be.
My mother, Jane, grew up as the youngest in her family, and her four remarkable sisters, Isabel (called “Sister” by my mother), Mary Shepard (“Mamie”), Elizabeth (“Yittie”), and Margaret (“Peggy”) had very strong and distinct personalities. Here they all are, in order of age, from left to right: Sister, Mamie, Yittie, Peggy and Jane.
Sister, who was actually my mother’s half-sister (her mother was my grandfather’s first wife, who died when Sister was very young) was someone both fascinating and intimidating to me. She was a straight-talking, funny woman who often took delight in shocking her audience. I loved to listen to her dry sense of humor just as much as I dreaded having that humor directed at me. I remember once when we were visiting her in Newport News, Va, and I had a bad pain in my stomach, Sister, the former Johns Hopkins nurse, looked right at me and said, “It’s probably your appendix, which could rupture at any minute and kill you.” Then she half-smiled, enough for me to at least hope that she was teasing me. To the great delight of my three sisters and me, Sister and her husband, “Brother” (yes, this is a southern family we’re talking about), had dozens of cats and kittens always running around the yard of their house on the waterfront —with names (given by Sister) like “Cat” and “Kitten” and “Mama Cat.” Sister didn’t spend a lot of time talking to me back then–I was too young–but somehow I always felt that she liked having all of us around—and that’s saying a lot, since there were six of us in my family. What Sister gave me, along with an early exposure to intelligent wit and humor, was the important knowledge that I should never take myself too seriously. Continue reading On my Remarkable Aunts