And every preteen.
And every teenager.
And every young adult.
And every older adult.
I was so fortunate to have mine.
We called her "Senior." My oldest sister was also a Margaret so Aunt Margaret simply became Senior to my three sisters and me. Later it was shortened to Seen or often Doll. Nicknames are quite dominant in our family. If you didn't have at least three, something was terribly wrong.
At the outbreak of World War II, Senior took the train from Clinton, Iowa to Washington, D.C. to work for the Department of the Navy as a civilian. She never looked back.
A modern, single, career woman was unheard of at the time. All the rules were broken, bent and ripped to pieces.
Senior lived alone in Washington, Philadelphia and Silver Spring, Maryland. Never married, she traveled the world, invested in the stock market, learned to drive in her 60's, played a mean hand of bridge and made the best damn meatloaf east of the Mississippi River.
By today's standards this is all so blasé.
Back then, she was a trailblazer.
Taking the train from the east coast to our suburban Chicago home for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Holy Communions, graduations and milestone birthdays, we would anticipate her visits for days. Fights over who got to sleep with her in the hide-a-bed on the back porch would end in a strict schedule prepared by our mom (Senior's only sibling).
Upon her arrival, we would carry her brown, leather suitcase, plop it down on our parents' double bed, close the door and eagerly wait for her to open the lock with the tiny key. What magic would be unveiled before our dilated pupils on this particular visit?
Shoes wrapped individually in soft, cloth bags. Jewelry carefully stored in round, satin, zippered cases. Delicate lingerie hiding in secret pouches. Dresses rolled in dry cleaning bags.
I can still remember her smell.
Oh, the mysteries that suitcase carried from an exotic, train journey to our simple, quiet existence in a small town with cornfields surrounding our home.
Marg Jr. might receive a small cosmetic bag out of that treasure trunk. Karen, perhaps a pair of earrings. Nina a bottle of cologne and me, a bangle bracelet. All of these items were her personal belongings, never new, and nothing made us happier than to own something of hers.
Depending on the season, an appropriate field trip was number one on the agenda during her visits. Just Senior and her nieces. No one else could be a member of this private club.
A walk into town to jump on trampolines was a favorite. A trip to the local Ben Franklin for a My Mary kit, lunch at a Hot Shoppe or an ice cream cone at Dairy Queen created memories of an idyllic childhood in the fifties and sixties.
My dad made a wicked Manhattan. When Senior would come for Christmas she would partake in one, often two before dinner. We loved seeing her Irish eyes crinkle with laughter and her cheeks flush from the booze since she wasn't much of a drinker. My sisters and I would gather around her chair and encourage her to belt out funny stories that were repeated verbatim, every single Christmas.
I want to be, as glamorous as possible, under the circumstances.
It wouldn't be Thanksgiving dinner without her famous Waldorf Salad. Senior and her nieces would prepare this delicacy early in the afternoon. She delighted in telling us, when we were older, how we had cut the apples into giant chunks complete with seeds, and how she discreetly covered up our kitchen mishaps.
Once we had children of our own, our daughters continued this tradition with their beloved Great Aunt, complete with apples, marshmallows and cherries. Never once did she correct or criticize.
We roared with laughter when she would "Slice the Cheese," (fart) in public places and repeatedly begged her to read us the story of the horrible "Aunt Sarah."
A coffee pot at a resort in the Poconos, Coke and Sprite ordered together by Donald at a dinner theater in Maryland and a hot, smelly Trailways bus ride to Ocean City made us laugh for years.
Small stuff. But with her it became the big stuff.
I loved my parents, of course. But sometimes you just can't confide or talk to them about what's really on your mind. It may be too personal or embarrassing. Your parents are your parents, you can't talk to them about "important stuff" when you are a kid. Your friends or siblings may not understand. Or laugh at you, brush you off or worse, betray your confidence.
A trusted adult is the hero of any childhood.
Aunt Margaret was that person for me my entire life.
My best friend is the one
who brings out the best
We were extremely close, shared stories I've never told anyone else and I was showered with unconditional love. Being with her made me feel like I was someone worthwhile. Someone special. Life was going to be okay.
Do you have any idea how important that is to a child? Please, be that person to someone in your life if you haven't already.
In my younger days, we would write letters back and forth to each other. Long distance phone calls were rare and expensive back then because the Bell Telephone Company charged by the minute.
As an adult, we would preface each phone call with a simple, "Can you talk?" That meant we needed to talk for a good hour or two. When the phone was finally placed on the receiver, you knew you would sleep soundly that night.
A bit on the shy side, sensitive and set in her ways from living alone, we were very much alike. And very different.
Always there for me, she lifted me up during my lowest moments of sadness and feeling like I belonged nowhere in this complicated world.
My biggest cheerleader when I got my braces off, was hired for my first real job, got engaged to be married, delivered my first baby and moved halfway across the country, was Senior.
A lifelong baseball fan, she attended Class A minor league games in Clinton, Iowa whenever they were in town. In her final days in a nursing home, she watched every Cubs game on WGN in the lounge that sadly reeked of the sweat of elderly skin and urine. I love this photo of her in Harry Caray glasses holding a baseball. We laughed so hard she almost wet her pants when I gave these to her. So did I. You little Doll, you.
Upon her retirement, she moved back to Clinton and cared for her beloved dad, our grandfather, until he died at age 102. I doubt he would have lived that long without her loving care delivered with dignity, humor, cigars, highballs, grace and home cooked meals.
Senior would often visit my family in Atlanta and Trout Valley and my husband and children adored her. Just like when I was a child, she would deliver personal gifts from her suitcase. A candy dish for Matt, a coin purse for Lena.
She loved how Matt would offer his arm to guide her when she was unsteady on her feet. Lena polishing her fingernails, with a variety of garish colors, would make her beam for weeks. Even our cat Tino became a source of unimaginable laughter, hiding in a donut box at the breakfast table, attempting to be smuggled into the R.C. Smith car service on her drive back to Iowa.
Never having a family of her own, she graciously helped send them both to college. Oh, kid, how proud she would be to see how they turned out as adults, now thriving and happily married.
In my 40's, I wrote her a letter about how much she meant to me while growing up and how I wouldn't be the person I am today without her constant support, guidance and love. Upon receiving it in the mail, she called me crying, which then caused me to cry. We just got each other.
This letter was carried in her purse to the beauty shop, duplicate bridge, retired Navy employee meetings and mass at St. Mary's Church. I doubt it made it to confession or the Boat Club. Well, maybe the Boat Club.
She felt validated. She validated me.
Putting my thoughts down, in writing that letter, gave me the peace that she knew what an important presence she had all through my life. A terribly shy, anxious, seven-year old that threw up almost every night and was somewhat of an ugly duckling, grew up to become a pretty remarkable adult. All because of an "Aunt Margaret."
She died after a brief illness on Valentine's Day, 2005, just a few weeks after her 85th birthday.
How fitting for her big Irish heart.
A big hand and a round of applause of love to you, always, dear Senior. God, how I miss you and our long talks.
Who is your "Aunt Margaret?"
If you are lucky enough to have one, let that person know how much they mean to you.
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