Carry with you the teachings of those you admire. St. James
Be yourself; everyone else is already taken. Oscar Wilde
Accept no one’s definition of your life; define yourself. Harvey Feinstein
It was Aunt Florence I was thinking about as we traced the shoreline of Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin on our drive four days ago. She was Grandma Helen’s younger sister, and my mother’s favorite aunt. And when I was little, my mother told “Aunt Florence stories” and I loved these stories my mother told. Aunt Florence was in love once, maybe engaged, to the twin of a family friend, and when he died during the First World War, her heart was broken and she never married. And my mother became like a daughter or a younger sister to her aunt — together, they traipsed the woods and shorelines of New England, Aunt Florence teaching my mother the names of things, showing her how to see the world with an artist’s eye. I loved hearing how Aunt Florence brought watercolors along on their woodland adventures, how they sat, my great aunt and my mother, side by side, painting the landscape, and how, on one occasion, they took the train into the heart of Boston, watched Gone with the Wind, as it premiered across the country, walked out of the theater four hours later, stunned, unable to say a word.
I loved these stories and I loved Aunt Florence, the older version of Aunt Florence, the one I knew from church camp in Fryburg, Maine, and from Thanksgivings at my cousins’ house in Massachusetts. She was the peppy great aunt with graying strawberry-blonde hair, the one who didn’t wear old lady dresses and clunky orthopedic shoes, instead choosing colorful silks, and sandals and sneakers and fashionable pumps, the one who made all eleven of us cousins silver twisted rings for our birthdays and bracelets with our names etched across the band. Aunt Florence, not only painted with watercolors the beaches of coastal Massachusetts and the blooming hillsides of New Hampshire’s White Mountains; she worked her magic with gold and silver. She was a jeweler, a master jeweler, creating ornate pendants and rings and necklaces. She lived in an apartment at Harvard Square, and she loved the Red Sox. I know this because I, too, loved the Red Sox. And, during my preteen years, the years of Carl Yastrzemski and Rico Petricelli, my great aunt and I wrote letters back and forth singing the praises of the amazing men of Fenway Park.
I wasn’t thinking about all of this the other day as my husband Cam and I drove across Wisconsin, heading toward Duluth on our way to Rochester, Minnesota, wasn’t thinking about Aunt Florence’s artistic talent which found its way into all that she did. I was thinking about my own cruelty. I wasn’t cruel at first, that came later when Aunt Florence moved in with us after her stroke the fall that I entered ninth grade. It’s not that I didn’t notice Aunt Florence’s cheek when I was a little girl, the way the spot oozed sometimes and was red and often was covered with a bandaid or a bandage. Something had happened years earlier, before I was born, some kind of radiation burn — that I’m sure became a skin cancer –and eventually ate through her cheek. When I was little this was just a part of Aunt Florence, the red spot, the oozing, the bandage, but, when she moved in with us after the stroke and the skin graft that left a flap-like gobble hanging down from face, after her words became gobbled up in this floppy graft, I found myself embarrassed of her. And, when my friends laughed behind her back, I joined in. I laughed too. Many times that year I laughed.
That’s what I was saying, as Cam and I drove along, that I made fun of my Great Aunt Florence, that it is something I have regretted ever since. But regret pulls us down and I wasn’t feeling like crawling in the muck on this particular car ride. What followed flowed from me naturally. “She was awesome!” I told Cam. “She made me a gold seahorse ring with a tourmaline stone for my birthday that year.” I continued. “And a good luck clover silver pin. And she never stopped creating. There she was in her eighties, plucked from her familiar studio and home at Harvard Square, crafting jewelry and copper-enameled dishes in our basement.” I was filled with appreciation for my aunt, not just because she was still creating up until the day she died peacefully on her bed in our house while we were at school. I also was filled with appreciation because she didn’t hide herself, even when the wound on her face became a gobble, even when the kids in Junior High laughed behind her back. Even when people pitied her. She wore kilts and knee socks and loafers like the rest of us and danced with Uncle Wally at my parent’s New Year’s Eve party and laughed heartily and lived fully.
It was no coincidence that five eagles, five of them, flew across the road as I was sharing this appreciation of Aunt Florence with Cam, as my voice was cracking, as I was saying to him that Aunt Florence is my role model now. Right now — as I embark on this project of mine. I am three days into a six week adventure at Rochester, Minnesota, an adventure that I am calling my gardening project — because it is a gardening project — literally — a process of gathering the seeds from my deepest marrow core, and purifying this marrow soil and transplanting these seed-cells back in. And it is a rebirth, an upgrade, a strengthening at my deepest level. I am strong and healthy going into this process and it is just the next step. Probably the skin graft felt like that to Aunt Florence. And like Aunt Florence, I plan to keep at my artistic practices as I garden, writing each day for ten minutes on a different topic selected by my writing friends who will be joining me in this practice. And when I return home without my usual bleached-blonde hair, with a garden still fresh and new and not fully in bloom, I will remember how Aunt Florence didn’t let self-consciousness or concern about what she might seem like to anybody else stop her from blooming. And her garden did bloom, magnificently.