Minnie Zeileen Stathis

I’ve just learned that my “Aunt” died last Thanksgiving. I knew she was ill, simply because I hadn’t heard from her. When a card came back with no forwarding address…I knew. I had to learn about her death from an obituary, simply because her adopted son never saw me as family apparently. Or maybe he was jealous — as if her love could have ever had a limit.
Aunt Zee was an amazing woman. When my own mother had struggles, it was Aunt Zee who would wrap her arms around me and tell me she loved me. Growing up, she never came over without a gift for me in a paper sack. Someone once asked me if I wanted a baby brother or sister. I doubt I knew what that was at the time, but my response was, “Aunt Zee will bring me one in a paper bag.” The toys, the candy, whatever it was…never mattered. What mattered was that here was someone who loved me. Even as a child, I knew how precious that was.
She inspired me with her love of life and her sheer strength of will. Let me tell you about Aunt Zee.
At 17 she  joined the army.
Now think about that for a moment. This was World War II. Men were running away and joining the army, but women were Rosie-the-riveter. Not Aunt Zee. When she went to enlist, she was told she was too fat and that she’d have to come back in a few weeks. I forget the details now, but she told me of the crash diet she went on. I think she lost 50 lbs.
In the army, she did some form of paperwork and she was assigned to Greece. That was when she did the next amazing thing. Aunt Zee returned from the war with a husband — a Greek man named Kostos who would become my beloved Uncle Chris.
She told me early on: don’t let anything stop you when you want something. Don’t let anyone tell you, “You can’t.”
I do not know how my Aunt and Uncle came to be in California. I suspect it was her desire to be near my mother…or possibly Uncle Alfred. But they lived near us for as long as I can remember. Even when we lived “way up on the hill…” I know they’d bought a lot near us. I spent very little time with other people growing up, but Aunt Zee and Uncle Chris were the exception.
They took me to Greek festivals and made sure I attended Greek school — at least for a little while. Aunt Zee made sure I knew how to cook a few of the Greek dishes I loved. I remember their home being dark and cool on hot summer days. Full of Aunt Zee’s musical laughter and the scent of her perfume.
Aunt Zee and Uncle Chris were school teachers. They loved children with a passion, but could not have any of their own. They taught school for over 30 years — but not ordinary school. Aunt Zee taught children with special needs. In a strange and often harsh world, I know she brought her special zany brand of love into those children’s lives.
I remember their son. He was a hard presence in my life, because far from being the cousin I’d hoped for, he hated me. It was from Aunt Zee that I learned how to love a teenage boy through the rough stages of life. I was in his wedding…and saw him grow from the wild teen to the respected father he would become. Yes, Aunt Zee knew how to mother.
After she retired, she didn’t qualify for Medicare because the school had never paid into the system. She worked as a receptionist for a motel until she qualified. Sometimes we’d talk on the phone.
When my mother died, Aunt Zee was the first person I called. It was only later that I would receive an angry phone call from her daughter-in-law blaming me for Uncle Chris’ death. He said on the day that my mother died that life was no longer worth living…and he died a week later. I’d cared for my mother during her long illness and been unable to visit for so long…and then he was gone.
True to her vivacious nature, Aunt Zee did not wait for me to come visit, but came to visit me. She was still a powerhouse of energy, despite failing health. She neglected to mention that she was wheelchair bound, and didn’t bring the chair…so we had an adventure finding a chair and getting her the equipment she needed to be comfortable and enjoy the trip. We had such an adventure.
At the time, I knew she had dimentia. During that lovely visit, she would alternately address me as myself, my mother or my grandmother. I learned more about those women during that visit than I had ever known. She sat with my grandmother’s trunk and told me about all of the pictures in it. She filled my life with a sense of story and joy.
And of course, she brought me a paper bag. I know now that she’d come to say goodbye. She knew her daughter-in-law planned to have her put into a facility. What was in that bag? Nothing fancy, but something precious. It was a necklace for holding a cotton ball soaked in perfume. She told me how she had always loved the way I’d climb into her lap and play with her necklaces, so she wanted me to have one for kids to play with.
She always smelled beautiful.
When I talked on the phone with her daughter-in-law, she told me to leave Aunt Zee alone. They were going to send her on a cruise and then put her in a home. I didn’t oppose the decision…her mind had slipped far away. I continued to send cards, hoping that somehow she’d get them and know that I still loved her.
So now the three of them are together: Aunt Zee, Uncle Chris and my mother. I suspect Heaven is a rowdier place.

Kitty

Hidden in previous blog posts you’ll find a series of articles about women who have influenced me. This one is long over-due to be published. I tried to see this lovely woman during my recent trip through California, but we didn’t connect. I’m missing her deeply.

Kitty is married to my extra father, Bill. During my 20s, she had more patience with me than anyone should have. My illness and personal stress situation made me a terrible employee, and yet Kitty gave me a job.

She taught me to love all things Victorian, and taught me how to style my hair up. From Kitty, I learned to love being a woman. She turned her hobby into a business and built doll-houses that people came from all over the world to see. She and Bill worked together every day. He would design elaborate train layouts, building the cars and tracks from tiny bits of wood and metal, while she would make the scenery come to life. Mountains, clouds, streams…even fish in ponds were her specialty. To this day, I can make a tiny, life-like tree out of wire…one of my more obscure skills.

I watched those two people work together and I learned about marriage and business. I learned that in both, you have to tolerate your partner’s uniqueness…but beyond tolerating those differences, you have to find a way to rejoice and revel in them.

Kitty also taught me something that would forever change my life. She taught me that work should be something I love. Working at something I enjoy is more important than the quantity of money it brings home at the end of the day. I chuckle about this now, because I’ve seen that Kitty and Bill turned their passions into very successful businesses…hand-in-hand.

It was their love that made me seek out a husband that I could be a partner to, and their example that has helped me survive working together with my own husband.

Maxine

Maxine was Belle’s friend as well as a friend to my parents. She kept a lovely, immaculate home full of antiques, fresh flowers and birds. I’d never met anyone who had birds, and would often wander off into the room where they sat in their cages and listen to their singing. Being a firm cat-person by nature, I can’t say I ever got used to those birds.

 

In my early 20s, I had a physical breakdown that left me hospitalized and unable to stand up without passing out. I had been tested for a mysterious illness for several years, and would continue to fight the unknown until diagnosed in my 30s with severe sleep apnea. Stress of caring for my mother after her divorce combined with working and going to college had taken its toll on my system. I overheard a doctor explaining to Maxine and my mother that they did not know how long it would be before I could walk again. School was out of the question. I was to withdraw from my classes immediately.

 

Of course, I did not. Thankfully, I had taken a relatively light load among which was a Science Fiction as Literature class. My mother’s lack of understanding of what was schoolwork and what was not worked to my advantage and I managed to get her to bring all of my reading books to the hospital. Maxine caught on fairly quickly, but kept my secret. In the end, she had seen too much of my interaction with Mom, and decided a coup was in order. "You’re coming home with me," she announced.

 

"Oh, I don’t think Mom would like that."

 

"Your mother doesn’t have a choice in the matter. You’re sick because she doesn’t know how to take care of you. I do. You’re coming home with me and that is all there is to it."

 

My mother did try to protest, but no one argued with Maxine once her mind was made up. I was taken to her home and placed in a room fit for a princess, the sort of room I’d daydreamed of ever since I was a little girl. Maxine had never been able to have children. She had adopted a daughter, but they’d become estranged over some argument in which neither of them would budge. Upstairs in her home, Maxine kept a small room all made up for her grand-children to come and visit, but the daughter refused to allow them to come. That room was sad, but the room she placed me in was full of sunshine. Every morning, she would get up and pick fresh flowers and put them in a vase where I could see them.The walls were a light lavendar, and I still have an impression of billowing sheer white curtains on windows that opened to her garden.

 

Maxine broke every rule the doctors set for me. She allowed my friends to come visit, and she allowed me to study. She set a mean pace on my recovery and had me walking to the garden before the week was out. You see, Maxine had severe health issues. Diabetes combined with lupus had left her theoretically bed-ridden for many years at this point, even though she accomplished more in a day that most women would in a week. She routinely baked cookies and goodies not only for her husband, but for her church and all of her neighbors. She is the only person I have ever known who wore out an oven. The bottom fell out from use and she was forced to replace it…something that left her traumatized because she’d known the old oven so perfectly that the new oven could never hold the temperature the way she wanted it to create the ideal baked goods. None of the rest of us noticed the change, however. Her food was always rich and delicious.

 

Maxine taught me to love roses and gardening. Even when she was very ill, Maxine would lay down and crawl along her carefully tended garden paths, making sure each plant was healthy. I have planted an abundance of roses in my own garden, and I find I can not walk a garden path without hearing her voice.

 

"It doesn’t matter whether you feel like it or not," she’d say. "You just have to find a way to do it…and yet, you have to be reasonable." She’d pull a stool into the kitchen so she could sit and chop vegetables. As soon as I was up and about, she’d bring me in to sit with her and learn how to function without passing out. "Fine. If you can’t stand, you sit. You still work."

 

Over the next few years, whenever I needed a place to stay, I’d live with Maxine. We fought terribly, because she always knew what was best for me and wanted that best…but I was young and wanted to make my own mistakes. There have been many times I wish I’d listened to her.

 

From Maxine, I learned that you can love someone even if you disagree with them. I know that had her daughter ever come home, she would have been welcomed with the same love she lavished on me in her stead. She taught me that strength comes in different forms and that there is a very feminine strength that can show up in weakness.

 

One day, we were talking about Belle. She told me that Belle had been concerned that there would be some issues regarding her death, her will, and her heirs. Belle had always been a wise woman. She said that Belle had left me something that I was to be given when I had a home of my own. On that day, Maxine gave me a beautiful set of china — the same china that Belle had served me sandwiches on during my visits to her house.

 

As I tried to find my way as a young bride, Maxine would often come over and cluck at my attempts at decorating. "Oh, that will never do," she’d mutter. Before long, I’d be given a knick-knack or trinket to decorate a mantle, or some other bit of bric-brac to complete a room. She taught me to decorate, emphasiaing warmth and grace. "The most important thing is that people feel welcome in your home!"

 

I’m sure I didn’t learn all she had to teach me before we were separated by a niece who was very protective of Maxine. I’m sure she thought I was after her inheritance, but all I wanted was that woman’s love and wisdom.

 

My boys learned to read from the same old books that Maxine had learned to read from as a child. When she heard that we were homeschooling, she initially was as concerned as so many others, but when I mentioned I was starting with the McGuffy Readers, she decided it was acceptible on one condition. I must bring the boys over and let them read to her from their readers. The end result was that my children learned to read sitting on a shaded porch swing in a rose scented garden filled with bird song. They’d sit next to "Auntie Max" and read so carefully…and she doted on them.

 

When I find myself confused and overwhelmed with life, when my health becomes unstable, I try to think about Maxine and figure out what she would have done. I can still hear her self-deprecating laugh, and know she’d find the thought of me wanting to be like her absolutely hilarious.

Belle

Another entry in my ongoing notes about the women who have influenced my life.

Belle became my stand-in grandmother in my junior high years. She would take me into her home on Saturdays and we would craft beautiful things. My parents had accepted my insane love of hand-crafts by that point in life and felt it best to let me learn from someone who knew what they were doing.

I do think that Belle must have insisted on the meetings at some point, perhaps because she was lonely. I know she had a daughter of her own, but they were estranged. Perhaps like my own mother, this daughter felt that sitting for hours transforming thread into tapestry was a waste of time. Whatever the cause, I was the richer for that daughter’s loss.

Belle was a girl during the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. She remembered the fear in a distant, child-like way, telling me that she had thought at the time her father was playing a prank on her and shaking her bed. She taught me that disasters happen, and that you live through them…turning them into stories to pass on to future generations while knitting or crocheting.

There was a peacefulness to her days. Her husband had died young, after investing in some stock or other. She had been told not to worry about money, and so after his death she continued to live in the same method to which she had become accustomed — very frugally. After her death, I learned that those stocks had been railroad stocks and her daughter was left a wealthy woman.

Perhaps my allergy to money comes from Belle. I know it was never important to her if she had it or didn’t have it. She made beautiful things with her hands and never would have considered something store-bought as an improvement. She made her own beaded jewelry as well as hand-fashioned clay beads.

Belle found my perfectionist tendancies annoying. "You’ll never see it from a galloping horse" was her comment to every complaint I made about my amateur attempts at new crafts. It took me years to understand that cryptic phrase, and even now when I find myself fussing over some tiny detail, I can hear her words.

Somewhere in my early teens, she found out that my parents officially opposed dancing. I say officially because years later my mother would tell me a story about how she almost married her dance instructor…and so I know that at one time, she must have danced. Belle was horrified that my parents had never taught me to dance. "Young lady like you…can’t have you not knowing how to dance!" And so, while my parents thought we were crocheting, she would put on old records and teach me to waltz.

She filled my head with stories of romance, and the love she held for her husband even after he’d been dead many years touched my heart. I knew that I could never settle for anything less than a once-in-a-lifetime romance…something unheard of in my own family for several generations.

Driving with Belle was an adventure. She was well past the point were this was not a good idea, but she managed to stay on the roads and hit only curbs. We’d drive down to the bead store to pick up whatever we needed for our latest project, and then return home where she’d make me a warm lunch while I recovered from the terror of our escapade. Those simple lunches of soup or sandwich were the most delightful of my childhood.

My parents divorced when I was 17. For some reason, Dad got Belle and Mom got me. I was kept away from her as she aged and was put into assisted living. At some point, she realized that she was unlikely to see me again and gave a friend of hers a few things to pass on to me once she had died. To her friend, Maxine, she also left one very important charge: to protect me from my mother. Maxine took over my care when Belle died.

Grandma Gladys

After Mona’s death, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a woman, and in particular how I came to feel the way I do about femininity. This has led me to thinking about the odd circumstances of my childhood and formative years that have led me to seek role models from outside my family. I’ve decided to intersperse my random blog entries with a few articles on these very special women who were willing to take in someone else’s daughter and share their wisdom with me.

Grandma Gladys is the first woman that I remember having an impact on my life. My own maternal grandmother died before I was born. My paternal grandmother might as well have been dead for all of the interest she took in me. I only remember her paying specific attention to me on one occasion. We’d gone back for my grandfather’s funeral. She’d died her hair red and took me aside to tell me about her new boyfriend. I do know that she loved cats and had a shed full of wild cats behind her house. As a cat lover, I spent one lovely evening out there before discovering chiggers…and learning that I am most definitely allergic to chiggers. But, I digress…

My parents did volunteer work at the New Hope Home in the town where I grew up, and during that time, they invited Grandma Gladys to live with us and help take care of me. I don’t remember what my own mother was doing during those days, but I know that Grandma Gladys loved our whole family as if they were her own.

She did have a real family. Her daughter’s name was the same as my mother’s, and I know there was an intense dislike between the two of them, both jealous of every moment of Glady’s time. It was that jealousy that would eventually take Grandma Gladys out of my life.

As a little girl, I remember Grandma Gladys teaching me to plant delicious fruits and vegetables in the garden. We lived in a remote, sunny location and things grew beautifully. I had strawberries and rubarb plants to spare, despite frequent deer attacks. (We also had venison from the same garden, but that’s another story.)

Gladys taught me to harvest my little plot and let me watch as she transformed those growing things into the most delicious strawberry rubarb pies and jams. To this day, I love rubarb, associating it with warm summer days and a sense of being loved completely.

Her daughter eventually insisted that she go to live with them, and so she bade goodbye to me and moved into the desert. From there, she would send me cactus candy each year — teaching me that good can come even from the prickliest situations.

We visited her in that desert on a couple of occasions. It was during one of those visits that I officially became a woman (women know what I mean, men should just skip to the next paragraph). That was the only time I remember Grandma being angry with my mother. I was terrified…there was blood everywhere and I was certain I was at death’s door. At first, my mother did not explain the situation to me. Grandma found me crying in the bathroom. I remember she left me there, and there was a loud argument in the other room about whose job it was to teach me about this mystery of womanhood, and how cruel it had been to allow me to find out this way. After a few moments of that, my mother sulked into the bathroom and explained the basics to me.

I’m not sure I learned much from my mother’s sullen explanations that day, but I did learn a lot from Grandma’s anger.