My four siblings and I grew up with a ‘second mother.’ She was my Aunt Audrea, my mother’s older and only sibling, who was divorced with no biological children of her own. When we were children, my parents, maternal grandparents, and aunt lived in a six-flat apartment building on Chicago’s South Side, owned by my grandparents. My parents occupied a first-floor apartment, my grandparents lived on the second floor, and my aunt lived on the third floor. The five grandchildren roamed freely throughout the three apartments and backyard, and eventually, my sister and I shared a bedroom in my aunt’s unit.
This close family arrangement seemed normal to my siblings and me. As young children, we were accustomed to having morning ‘coffee’ with my grandparents and breakfast with my parents. There were four cars among the five adults so any of them would drive and pick us up from school on rainy or snowy days. Aunt Audrea also often drove us to other places such as the library or to piano lessons. As Aunt Audrea was the only woman in the family who had a job outside of the home, she seldom cooked, most evenings eating dinner with either my parents or grandparents.
My aunt was always like a ‘second mother’ – a role she played in the lives of my siblings and me all of her life. In fact, her standing in the parent hierarchy was so embedded that early on my siblings and I learned that if my mother responded ‘no’ to a request, Aunt Audrea might say ‘yes’ and get my mother to change her mind. We could almost always count on my aunt for having an opposing view to that of my mother’s. If the two sisters agreed on something though, there was no getting around either of them.
Aunt Audrea loved taking road trips to visit family members in Minnesota and frequently one or more of us would accompany her. I remember going with her to Canada when I was nine years old and hearing her explanation when upon returning through northern Minnesota our interracial family group experienced a very racist incident.
Aunt Audrea was accustomed to dealing with prejudice. While she was very fair-skinned, my mother was typically seen as a white woman. When out in public, few strangers discerned that the two women were sisters. This resulted in some very interesting encounters. For example, when both were young women, they applied for holiday sales jobs at the same time at Sak’s Fifth Avenue. The interviewer took one look at my mother, winked at her, and then told my aunt that the job had already been filled. Without noticing that the two women had the same last names and addresses, my mother was hired and my aunt was not. Similar stories were often recounted by the two of them.
When my mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness, Aunt Audrea was the first to tell me. She became my mother’s caretaker, spending most days with her whether she was at home or in the hospital. Her devotion to my mother was noticed by the nursing staff who often remarked that with my aunt around, they had little to do. Prior to her death, my mother reminded us to take care of Aunt Audrea, words she need not have spoken since what else really would we have done for our second mother? Aunt Audrea was with my mother until the end. In the space of a five-minute break she took to walk one of my cousins to the hospital elevator, my mother died.
Aunt Audrea took my mother’s place, in part, at my wedding. She agreed to be escorted down the church aisle during the ceremony as a stand-in for my mother, but would not appear in the traditional photos of the bride and groom with their parents. Her biggest role in my life, however, took place when my children were born. She happily became their caregiver while I worked, living with my family during the week. She would even take the older two home with her on weekend overnight visits. I was the envy of friends who had to hire non-family caregivers or put their children in daycare. When my older son was learning to talk, he called her, Ary, and the name stuck. From then on, family members, my children’s friends, and several of my friends called her by this name.
In the beginning of a role reversal, my husband and I took Aunt Audrea on numerous family trips. She loved traveling to Disney World and Universal Studios. Always in good shape, she gamely walked for miles through the parks. As she got older, I drove her to Minnesota for family events. These car trips were great for learning about the challenges she had experienced in her earlier life.
Aunt Audrea’s health began to fail in her early nineties. She remained involved in my children’s lives through the end. When I became a grandmother, she told my son that she was sorry she would not be around to help raise his daughter. We celebrated Aunt Audrea’s ninety-sixth birthday in February 2014. She died in the early morning on May 7th of that year. At the time of her passing, Aunt Audrea had been in my life twice as long as my mother. I am happy that five years later I can still feel her love for me.