After my weekend at Great Aunt Emma and Helen’s, I was shyly enamored of them (emphasis on the ‘shyly’). How that worked for me as a kid was pretty self-defeating. Basically, I tended to avoid people that I was drawn to. (I know, I know…)
But the opportunities to actually avoid Aunt Emma were few and far between, since we saw the two of them so seldom. So the bigger change for me was that Aunt Emma’s opinion mattered in ways that it hadn’t before. I’d find myself wondering what she thought about things. She was there in the back of my mind.
Years passed by — picture the wind blowing the open pages in a book. I went from happily playing football in our yard with my friend Beth to being invited to birthday parties that involved going to torturous Junior High School dances. For sweaty hours I’d lean against the bleachers trying to look nonchalant while counting the minutes til I could leave. I was madly out of sync with what most of my cohort seemed to think was ‘fun’ and worked hard to avoid as much of the ‘fun’ as I could, without seeming too weird.
Alone time was still good. I remember spending one rainy Saturday in March eating an entire, huge Hershey Bar while reading “Descent Into the Maelstrom” and other short stories by Poe. No social pressure whatsoever. (And come to think of it, that title was an apt descriptor for life in the Cornblog family, those days.)
Anyway, for me there was the added bonus of feeling that Aunt Emma would probably think that was a good way to spend an afternoon. That wasn’t a conscious thought — it’s just happens when you’ve got someone in the back of your mind.
Junior High became Senior High. Life at home was increasingly tumultuous. And in some ways I think the intensity of THAT dysfunction allowed me to avoid some of the painful awkwardness of navigating adolescence. I was trying to make sense of what was going on in my immediate vicinity, and that gave me a built-in excuse for pretty much any behavior I chose to indulge.
I drew inward and read and wrote and thought a lot, when it was quiet enough at home to do that. Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” was a lifeline whose ‘barbaric yawp’ filled me with wonder and hope. Bronson Alcott and the rest of the Transcendentalists were mesmerizing and I imagined living in Concord, Massachusetts and running into Thoreau on the road. I was drawn to older times and quieter ways of living. Aunt Emma’s times and before. And questions of meaning — call them spiritual or philosophical or religious — were actually things I was interested in and grappled with. It was the ‘60’s — a lot of people were doing that. (I think it may have been the one aspect of the ‘60’s that didn’t scare me.)
And so, slipshod memory brings me to a scene that I’ve carried with me ever after. I was in our living room, maybe in 11th or 12th grade. Aunt Emma and Aunt Helen were visiting. Maybe they were back from one of their trips. I was sitting on the floor in front of our fireplace and Aunt Emma came over and sat down next to me. That alone felt momentous and intimate — I can feel it even as I write this. It thrilled and terrified me.
And as we chatted, she asked me a question. I can’t remember the specifics, but it had something to do with meaning and spirituality. It felt like a question one would ask a peer. I so wish I could recall, but I can’t recount what she said, or what I said.
All I know, and what I have carried with me since, is that this person whom I revered sat down on the floor with me. And she looked at me and was interested to hear what I thought about something. That simple moment — even though I can’t recall the content — was nourishing in ways that were incredibly sustaining for me. And I am sure she had no idea about the impact her words, her honest interest, had on my life.
It’s something I think about still. When I am not being a PIA, I try to be aware of the tender import of the many small moments that we humans exchange with one another every single day.